"It's all nonsense," said Jack Barnes. "Of course people have died in the house; people die in every house. As for the noises—wind in the chimney and rats in the wainscot are very convincing to a nervous man. Give me another cup of tea, Meagle."
"Lester and White are first," said Meagle, who was presiding at the tea-table of the Three Feathers Inn. "You've had two."
Lester and White finished their cups with irritating slowness, pausing between sips to sniff the aroma, and to discover the sex and dates of arrival of the "strangers" which floated in some numbers in the beverage. Mr. Meagle served them to the brim, and then, turning to the grimly expectant Mr. Barnes, blandly requested him to ring for hot water.
"We'll try and keep your nerves in their present healthy condition," he remarked. "For my part I have a sort of half-and-half belief in the super-natural."
"All sensible people have," said Lester. "An aunt of mine saw a ghost once."
"I had an uncle that saw one," he said.
"It always is somebody else that sees them," said Barnes.
"Well, there is a house," said Meagle, "a large house at an absurdly low rent, and nobody will take it. It has taken toll of at least one life of every family that has lived there—however short the time—and since it has stood empty caretaker after care-taker has died there. The last caretaker died fifteen years ago."
"Exactly," said Barnes. "Long enough ago for legends to accumulate."
"I'll bet you a sovereign you won't spend the night there alone, for all your talk," said White, suddenly.
"And I," said Lester.
"No," said Barnes slowly. "I don't believe in ghosts nor in any supernatural things whatever; all the same I admit that I should not care to pass a night there alone."
"But why not?" inquired White.
"Wind in the chimney," said Meagle with a grin.
"Rats in the wainscot," chimed in Lester. "As you like," said Barnes coloring.
"Suppose we all go," said Meagle. "Start after supper, and get there about eleven. We have been walking for ten days now without an adventure—except Barnes's discovery that ditchwater smells longest. It will be a novelty, at any rate, and, if we break the spell by all surviving, the grateful owner ought to come down handsome."
"Let's see what the landlord has to say about it first," said Lester. "There is no fun in passing a night in an ordinary empty house. Let us make sure that it is haunted."
He rang the bell, and, sending for the landlord, appealed to him in the name of our common humanity not to let them waste a night watching in a house in which spectres and hobgoblins had no part. The reply was more than reassuring, and the landlord, after describing with considerable art the exact appearance of a head which had been seen hanging out of a window in the moonlight, wound up with a polite but urgent request that they would settle his bill before they went.
"It's all very well for you young gentlemen to have your fun," he said indulgently; "but supposing as how you are all found dead in the morning, what about me? It ain't called the Toll-House for nothing, you know."
"Who died there last?" inquired Barnes, with an air of polite derision.
"A tramp," was the reply. "He went there for the sake of half a crown, and they found him next morning hanging from the balusters, dead."
"Suicide," said Barnes. "Unsound mind."
The landlord nodded. "That's what the jury brought it in," he said slowly; "but his mind was sound enough when he went in there. I'd known him, off and on, for years. I'm a poor man, but I wouldn't spend the night in that house for a hundred pounds."
He repeated this remark as they started on their expedition a few hours later. They left as the inn was closing for the night; bolts shot noisily behind them, and, as the regular customers trudged slowly homewards, they set off at a brisk pace in the direction of the house. Most of the cottages were already in darkness, and lights in others went out as they passed.
"It seems rather hard that we have got to lose a night's rest in order to convince Barnes of the existence of ghosts," said White.
"It's in a good cause," said Meagle. "A most worthy object; and something seems to tell me that we shall succeed. You didn't forget the candles, Lester?"
"I have brought two," was the reply; "all the old man could spare."
There was but little moon, and the night was cloudy. The road between high hedges was dark, and in one place, where it ran through a wood, so black that they twice stumbled in the uneven ground at the side of it.
"Fancy leaving our comfortable beds for this!" said White again. "Let me see; this desirable residential sepulchre lies to the right, doesn't it?"
"Farther on," said Meagle.
They walked on for some time in silence, broken only by White's tribute to the softness, the cleanliness, and the comfort of the bed which was receding farther and farther into the distance. Under Meagle's guidance they turned oft at last to the right, and, after a walk of a quarter of a mile, saw the gates of the house before them.
The lodge was almost hidden by overgrown shrubs and the drive was choked with rank growths. Meagle leading, they pushed through it until the dark pile of the house loomed above them.
"There is a window at the back where we can get in, so the landlord says," said Lester, as they stood before the hall door.
"Window?" said Meagle. "Nonsense. Let's do the thing properly. Where's the knocker?"
He felt for it in the darkness and gave a thundering rat-tat-tat at the door.
"Don't play the fool," said Barnes crossly.
"Ghostly servants are all asleep," said Meagle gravely, "but I'll wake them up before I've done with them. It's scandalous keeping us out here in the dark."
He plied the knocker again, and the noise volleyed in the emptiness beyond. Then with a sudden exclamation he put out his hands and stumbled forward.
"Why, it was open all the time," he said, with an odd catch in his voice. "Come on."
"I don't believe it was open," said Lester, hanging back. "Somebody is playing us a trick."
"Nonsense," said Meagle sharply. "Give me a candle. Thanks. Who's got a match?"
Barnes produced a box and struck one, and Meagle, shielding the candle with his hand, led the way forward to the foot of the stairs. "Shut the door, somebody," he said, "there's too much draught."
"It is shut," said White, glancing behind him.
Meagle fingered his chin. "Who shut it?" he inquired, looking from one to the other. "Who came in last?"
"I did," said Lester, "but I don't remember shutting it—perhaps I did, though."
Meagle, about to speak, thought better of it, and, still carefully guarding the flame, began to explore the house, with the others close behind. Shadows danced on the walls and lurked in the corners as they proceeded. At the end of the passage they found a second staircase, and ascending it slowly gained the first floor.
"Careful!" said Meagle, as they gained the landing.
He held the candle forward and showed where the balusters had broken away. Then he peered curiously into the void beneath.
"This is where the tramp hanged himself, I suppose," he said thoughtfully.
"You've got an unwholesome mind," said White, as they walked on. "This place is qutie creepy enough without your remembering that. Now let's find a comfortable room and have a little nip of whiskey apiece and a pipe. How will this do?"
He opened a door at the end of the passage and revealed a small square room. Meagle led the way with the candle, and, first melting a drop or two of tallow, stuck it on the mantelpiece. The others seated themselves on the floor and watched pleasantly as White drew from his pocket a small bottle of whiskey and a tin cup.
"H'm! I've forgotten the water," he exclaimed. "I'll soon get some," said Meagle.
He tugged violently at the bell-handle, and the rusty jangling of a bell sounded from a distant kitchen. He rang again.
"Don't play the fool," said Barnes roughly.
Meagle laughed. "I only wanted to convince you," he said kindly. "There ought to be, at any rate, one ghost in the servants' hall."
Barnes held up his hand for silence.
"Yes?" said Meagle with a grin at the other two. "Is anybody coming?"
"Suppose we drop this game and go back," said Barnes suddenly. "I don't believe in spirits, but nerves are outside anybody's command. You may laugh as you like, but it really seemed to me that I heard a door open below and steps on the stairs."
His voice was drowned in a roar of laughter.
"He is coming round," said Meagle with a smirk. "By the time I have done with him he will be a confirmed believer. Well, who will go and get some water? Will you, Barnes?"
"No," was the reply.
"If there is any it might not be safe to drink after all these years," said Lester. "We must do without it."
Meagle nodded, and taking a seat on the floor held out his hand for the cup. Pipes were lit and the clean, wholesome smell of tobacco filled the room. White produced a pack of cards; talk and laughter rang through the room and died away reluctantly in distant corridors.
"Empty rooms always delude me into the belief that I possess a deep voice," said Meagle. "To-morrow——"
He started up with a smothered exclamation as the light went out suddenly and something struck him on the head. The others sprang to their feet. Then Meagle laughed.
"It's the candle," he exclaimed. "I didn't stick it enough."
Barnes struck a match and relighting the candle stuck it on the mantelpiece, and sitting down took up his cards again.
"What was I going to say?" said Meagle. "Oh, I know; to-morrow I——"
"Listen!" said White, laying his hand on the other's sleeve. "Upon my word I really thought I heard a laugh."
"Look here!" said Barnes. "What do you say to going back? I've had enough of this. I keep fancying that I hear things too; sounds of something moving about in the passage outside. I know it's only fancy, but it's uncomfortable."
"You go if you want to," said Meagle, "and we will play dummy. Or you might ask the tramp to take your hand for you, as you go downstairs."
Barnes shivered and exclaimed angrily. He got up and, walking to the half-closed door, listened.
"Go outside," said Meagle, winking at the other two. "I'll dare you to go down to the hall door and back by yourself."
Barnes came back and, bending forward, lit his pipe at the candle.
"I am nervous but rational," he said, blowing out a thin cloud of smoke. "My nerves tell me that there is something prowling up and down the long passage outside; my reason tells me that it is all nonsense. Where are my cards?"
He sat down again, and taking up his hand, looked through it carefully and led.
"Your play, White," he said after a pause. White made no sign.
"Why, he is asleep," said Meagle. "Wake up, old man. Wake up and play."
Lester, who was sitting next to him, took the sleeping man by the arm and shook him, gently at first and then with some roughness; but White, with his back against the wall and his head bowed, made no sign. Meagle bawled in his ear and then turned a puzzled face to the others.
"He sleeps like the dead," he said, grimacing. "Well, there are still three of us to keep each other company."
"Yes," said Lester, nodding. "Unless—Good Lord! suppose——"
He broke off and eyed them trembling.
"Suppose what?" inquired Meagle.
"Nothing," stammered Lester. "Let's wake him. Try him again. White! White!"
"It's no good," said Meagle seriously; "there's something wrong about that sleep."
"That's what I meant," said Lester; "and if he goes to sleep like that, why shouldn't——"
Meagle sprang to his feet. "Nonsense," he said roughly. "He's tired out; that's all. Still, let's take him up and clear out. You take his legs and Barnes will lead the way with the candle. Yes? Who's that?"
He looked up quickly towards the door. "Thought I heard somebody tap," he said with a shamefaced laugh. "Now, Lester, up with him. One, two— Lester! Lester!"
He sprang forward too late; Lester, with his face buried in his arms, had rolled over on the floor fast asleep, and his utmost efforts failed to awaken him.
"He—is—asleep," he stammered. "'Asleep!"
Barnes, who had taken the candle from the mantel-piece, stood peering at the sleepers in silence and dropping tallow over the floor.
"We must get out of this," said Meagle. "Quick!" Barnes hesitated. "We can't leave them here—" he began.
"We must," said Meagle in strident tones. "If you go to sleep I shall go—Quick! Come."
He seized the other by the arm and strove to drag him to the door. Barnes shook him off, and putting the candle back on the mantelpiece, tried again to arouse the sleepers.
"It's no good," he said at last, and, turning from them, watched Meagle. "Don't you go to sleep," he said anxiously.
Meagle shook his head, and they stood for some time in uneasy silence. "May as well shut the door," said Barnes at last.
He crossed over and closed it gently. Then at a scuffling noise behind him he turned and saw Meagle in a heap on the hearthstone.
With a sharp catch in his breath he stood motionless. Inside the room the candle, fluttering in the draught, showed dimly the grotesque attitudes of the sleepers. Beyond the door there seemed to his over-wrought imagination a strange and stealthy unrest. He tried to whistle, but his lips were parched, and in a mechanical fashion he stooped, and began to pick up the cards which littered the floor.
He stopped once or twice and stood with bent head listening. The unrest outside seemed to increase; a loud creaking sounded from the stairs.
"Who is there?" he cried loudly.
The creaking ceased. He crossed to the door and flinging it open, strode out into the corridor. As he walked his fears left him suddenly.
"Come on!" he cried with a low laugh. "All of you! All of you! Show your faces—your infernal ugly faces! Don't skulk!"
He laughed again and walked on; and the heap in the fireplace put out his head tortoise fashion and listened in horror to the retreating footsteps. Not until they had become inaudible in the distance did the listeners' features relax.
"Good Lord, Lester, we've driven him mad," he said in a frightened whisper. "We must go after him."
There was no reply. Meagle sprung to his feet. "Do you hear?" he cried. "Stop your fooling now; this is serious. White! Lester! Do you hear?"
He bent and surveyed them in angry bewilderment. "All right," he said in a trembling voice. "You won't frighten me, you know."
He turned away and walked with exaggerated carelessness in the direction of the door. He even went outside and peeped through the crack, but the sleepers did not stir. He glanced into the blackness behind, and then came hastily into the room again.
He stood for a few seconds regarding them. The stillness in the house was horrible; he could not even hear them breathe. With a sudden resolution he snatched the candle from the mantelpiece and held the flame to White's finger. Then as he reeled back stupefied the footsteps again became audible.
He stood with the candle in his shaking hand listening. He heard them ascending the farther staircase, but they stopped suddenly as he went to the door. He walked a little way along the passage, and they went scurrying down the stairs and then at a jog-trot along the corridor below. He went back to the main staircase, and they ceased again.
For a time he hung over the balusters, listening and trying to pierce the blackness below; then slowly, step by step, he made his way downstairs, and, holding the candle above his head, peered about him.
"Barnes!" he called. "Where are you?" Shaking with fright, he made his way along the passage, and summoning up all his courage pushed open doors and gazed fearfully into empty rooms. Then, quite suddenly, he heard the footsteps in front of him.
He followed slowly for fear of extinguishing the candle, until they led him at last into a vast bare kitchen with damp walls and a broken floor. In front of him a door leading into an inside room had just closed. He ran towards it and flung it open, and a cold air blew out the candle. He stood aghast.
"Barnes!" he cried again. "Don't be afraid! It is I—Meagle!"
There was no answer. He stood gazing into the darkness, and all the time the idea of something close at hand watching was upon him. Then suddenly the steps broke out overhead again.
He drew back hastily, and passing through the kitchen groped his way along the narrow passages. He could now see better in the darkness, and finding himself at last at the foot of the staircase began to ascend it noiselessly. He reached the landing just in time to see a figure disappear round the angle of a wall. Still careful to make no noise, he followed the sound of the steps until they led him to the top floor, and he cornered the chase at the end of a short passage.
"Barnes!" he whispered. "Barnes!"
Something stirred in the darkness. A small circular window at the end of the passage just softened the blackness and revealed the dim outlines of a motionless figure. Meagle, in place of advancing, stood almost as still as a sudden horrible doubt took possession of him. With his eyes fixed on the shape in front he fell back slowly and, as it advanced upon him, burst into a terrible cry.
"Barnes! For God's sake! Is it you?"
The echoes of his voice left the air quivering, but the figure before him paid no heed. For a moment he tried to brace his courage up to endure its approach, then with a smothered cry he turned and fled.
The passages wound like a maze, and he threaded them blindly in a vain search for the stairs. If he could get down and open the hall door——
He caught his breath in a sob; the steps had begun again. At a lumbering trot they clattered up and down the bare passages, in and out, up and down, as though in search of him. He stood appalled, and then as they drew near entered a small room and stood behind the door as they rushed by. He came out and ran swiftly and noiselessly in the other direction, and in a moment the steps were after him. He found the long corridor and raced along it at top speed. The stairs he knew were at the end, and with the steps close behind he descended them in blind haste. The steps gained on him, and he shrank to the side to let them pass, still continuing his headlong flight. Then suddenly he seemed to slip off the earth into space.
Lester awoke in the morning to find the sunshine streaming into the room, and White sitting up and regarding with some perplexity a badly blistered finger.
"Where are the others?" inquired Lester. "Gone, I suppose," said White. "We must have been asleep."
Lester arose, and stretching his stiffened limbs, dusted his clothes with his hands, and went out into the corridor. White followed. At the noise of their approach a figure which had been lying asleep at the other end sat up and revealed the face of Barnes. "Why, I've been asleep," he said in surprise. "I don't remember coming here. How did I get here?"
"Nice place to come for a nap," said Lester, severely, as he pointed to the gap in the balusters. "Look there! Another yard and where would you have been?"
He walked carelessly to the edge and looked over. In response to his startled cry the others drew near, and all three stood gazing at the dead man below.