The Strange Adventures Of A Private Secretary In New York
It was never quite clear to me how Jim Shorthouse managed to get his
private secretaryship; but, once he got it, he kept it, and for some
years he led a steady life and put money in the savings bank.
One morning his employer sent for him into the study, and it was evident
to the secretary’s trained senses that there was something unusual in
“Mr. Shorthouse,” he began, somewhat nervously, “I have never yet had
the opportunity of observing whether or not you are possessed of
Shorthouse gasped, but he said nothing. He was growing accustomed to the
eccentricities of his chief. Shorthouse was a Kentish man; Sidebotham
was “raised” in Chicago; New York was the present place of residence.
“But,” the other continued, with a puff at his very black cigar, “I must
consider myself a poor judge of human nature in future, if it is not one
of your strongest qualities.”
The private secretary made a foolish little bow in modest appreciation
of so uncertain a compliment. Mr. Jonas B. Sidebotham watched him
narrowly, as the novelists say, before he continued his remarks.
“I have no doubt that you are a plucky fellow and–” He hesitated, and
puffed at his cigar as if his life depended upon it keeping alight.
“I don’t think I’m afraid of anything in particular, sir–except women,”
interposed the young man, feeling that it was time for him to make an
observation of some sort, but still quite in the dark as to his chief’s
“Humph!” he grunted. “Well, there are no women in this case so far as I
know. But there may be other things that–that hurt more.”
“Wants a special service of some kind, evidently,” was the secretary’s
reflection. “Personal violence?” he asked aloud.
“Possibly (puff), in fact (puff, puff) probably.”
Shorthouse smelt an increase of salary in the air. It had a stimulating
“I’ve had some experience of that article, sir,” he said shortly; “but
I’m ready to undertake anything in reason.”
“I can’t say how much reason or unreason there may prove to be in this
particular case. It all depends.”
Mr. Sidebotham got up and locked the door of his study and drew down the
blinds of both windows. Then he took a bunch of keys from his pocket and
opened a black tin box. He ferreted about among blue and white papers
for a few seconds, enveloping himself as he did so in a cloud of blue
“I feel like a detective already,” Shorthouse laughed.
“Speak low, please,” returned the other, glancing round the room. “We
must observe the utmost secrecy. Perhaps you would be kind enough to
close the registers,” he went on in a still lower voice. “Open registers
have betrayed conversations before now.”
Shorthouse began to enter into the spirit of the thing. He tiptoed
across the floor and shut the two iron gratings in the wall that in
American houses supply hot air and are termed “registers.” Mr.
Sidebotham had meanwhile found the paper he was looking for. He held it
in front of him and tapped it once or twice with the back of his right
hand as if it were a stage letter and himself the villain of the
“This is a letter from Joel Garvey, my old partner,” he said at length.
“You have heard me speak of him.”
The other bowed. He knew that many years before Garvey & Sidebotham had
been well known in the Chicago financial world. He knew that the amazing
rapidity with which they accumulated a fortune had only been surpassed
by the amazing rapidity with which they had immediately afterwards
disappeared into space. He was further aware–his position afforded
facilities–that each partner was still to some extent in the other’s
power, and that each wished most devoutly that the other would die.
The sins of his employer’s early years did not concern him, however. The
man was kind and just, if eccentric; and Shorthouse, being in New York,
did not probe to discover more particularly the sources whence his
salary was so regularly paid. Moreover, the two men had grown to like
each other and there was a genuine feeling of trust and respect between
“I hope it’s a pleasant communication, sir,” he said in a low voice.
“Quite the reverse,” returned the other, fingering the paper nervously
as he stood in front of the fire.
“Blackmail, I suppose.”
“Precisely.” Mr. Sidebotham’s cigar was not burning well; he struck a
match and applied it to the uneven edge, and presently his voice spoke
through clouds of wreathing smoke.
“There are valuable papers in my possession bearing his signature. I
cannot inform you of their nature; but they are extremely valuable _to
me_. They belong, as a matter of fact, to Garvey as much as to me. Only
I’ve got them–”
“Garvey writes that he wants to have his signature removed–wants to cut
it out with his own hand. He gives reasons which incline me to consider
“And you would like me to take him the papers and see that he does it?”
“And bring them back again with you,” he whispered, screwing up his eyes
into a shrewd grimace.
“And bring them back again with me,” repeated the secretary. “I
Shorthouse knew from unfortunate experience more than a little of the
horrors of blackmail. The pressure Garvey was bringing to bear upon his
old enemy must be exceedingly strong. That was quite clear. At the same
time, the commission that was being entrusted to him seemed somewhat
quixotic in its nature. He had already “enjoyed” more than one
experience of his employer’s eccentricity, and he now caught himself
wondering whether this same eccentricity did not sometimes go–further
“I cannot read the letter to you,” Mr. Sidebotham was explaining, “but I
shall give it into your hands. It will prove that you are my–er–my
accredited representative. I shall also ask you not to read the package
of papers. The signature in question you will find, of course, on the
last page, at the bottom.”
There was a pause of several minutes during which the end of the cigar
“Circumstances compel me,” he went on at length almost in a whisper, “or
I should never do this. But you understand, of course, the thing is a
ruse. Cutting out the signature is a mere pretence. It is nothing.
_What Garvey wants are the papers themselves._”
The confidence reposed in the private secretary was not misplaced.
Shorthouse was as faithful to Mr. Sidebotham as a man ought to be to the
wife that loves him.
The commission itself seemed very simple. Garvey lived in solitude in
the remote part of Long Island. Shorthouse was to take the papers to
him, witness the cutting out of the signature, and to be specially on
his guard against any attempt, forcible or otherwise, to gain possession
of them. It seemed to him a somewhat ludicrous adventure, but he did not
know all the facts and perhaps was not the best judge.
The two men talked in low voices for another hour, at the end of which
Mr. Sidebotham drew up the blinds, opened the registers and unlocked the
Shorthouse rose to go. His pockets were stuffed with papers and his head
with instructions; but when he reached the door he hesitated and turned.
“Well?” said his chief.
Shorthouse looked him straight in the eye and said nothing.
“The personal violence, I suppose?” said the other. Shorthouse bowed.
“I have not seen Garvey for twenty years,” he said; “all I can tell you
is that I believe him to be occasionally of unsound mind. I have heard
strange rumours. He lives alone, and in his lucid intervals studies
chemistry. It was always a hobby of his. But the chances are twenty to
one against his attempting violence. I only wished to warn you–in
case–I mean, so that you may be on the watch.”
He handed his secretary a Smith and Wesson revolver as he spoke.
Shorthouse slipped it into his hip pocket and went out of the room.
* * * * *
A drizzling cold rain was falling on fields covered with half-melted
snow when Shorthouse stood, late in the afternoon, on the platform of
the lonely little Long Island station and watched the train he had just
left vanish into the distance.
It was a bleak country that Joel Garvey, Esq., formerly of Chicago, had
chosen for his residence and on this particular afternoon it presented a
more than usually dismal appearance. An expanse of flat fields covered
with dirty snow stretched away on all sides till the sky dropped down to
meet them. Only occasional farm buildings broke the monotony, and the
road wound along muddy lanes and beneath dripping trees swathed in the
cold raw fog that swept in like a pall of the dead from the sea.
It was six miles from the station to Garvey’s house, and the driver of
the rickety buggy Shorthouse had found at the station was not
communicative. Between the dreary landscape and the drearier driver he
fell back upon his own thoughts, which, but for the spice of adventure
that was promised, would themselves have been even drearier than either.
He made up his mind that he would waste no time over the transaction.
The moment the signature was cut out he would pack up and be off. The
last train back to Brooklyn was 7.15; and he would have to walk the six
miles of mud and snow, for the driver of the buggy had refused
point-blank to wait for him.
For purposes of safety, Shorthouse had done what he flattered himself
was rather a clever thing. He had made up a second packet of papers
identical in outside appearance with the first. The inscription, the
blue envelope, the red elastic band, and even a blot in the lower
left-hand corner had been exactly reproduced. Inside, of course, were
only sheets of blank paper. It was his intention to change the packets
and to let Garvey see him put the sham one into the bag. In case of
violence the bag would be the point of attack, and he intended to lock
it and throw away the key. Before it could be forced open and the
deception discovered there would be time to increase his chances of
escape with the real packet.
It was five o’clock when the silent Jehu pulled up in front of a
half-broken gate and pointed with his whip to a house that stood in its
own grounds among trees and was just visible in the gathering gloom.
Shorthouse told him to drive up to the front door but the man refused.
“I ain’t runnin’ no risks,” he said; “I’ve got a family.”
This cryptic remark was not encouraging, but Shorthouse did not pause to
decipher it. He paid the man, and then pushed open the rickety old gate
swinging on a single hinge, and proceeded to walk up the drive that lay
dark between close-standing trees. The house soon came into full view.
It was tall and square and had once evidently been white, but now the
walls were covered with dirty patches and there were wide yellow streaks
where the plaster had fallen away. The windows stared black and
uncompromising into the night. The garden was overgrown with weeds and
long grass, standing up in ugly patches beneath their burden of wet
snow. Complete silence reigned over all. There was not a sign of life.
Not even a dog barked. Only, in the distance, the wheels of the
retreating carriage could be heard growing fainter and fainter.
As he stood in the porch, between pillars of rotting wood, listening to
the rain dripping from the roof into the puddles of slushy snow, he was
conscious of a sensation of utter desertion and loneliness such as he
had never before experienced. The forbidding aspect of the house had the
immediate effect of lowering his spirits. It might well have been the
abode of monsters or demons in a child’s wonder tale, creatures that
only dared to come out under cover of darkness. He groped for the
bell-handle, or knocker, and finding neither, he raised his stick and
beat a loud tattoo on the door. The sound echoed away in an empty space
on the other side and the wind moaned past him between the pillars as if
startled at his audacity. But there was no sound of approaching
footsteps and no one came to open the door. Again he beat a tattoo,
louder and longer than the first one; and, having done so, waited with
his back to the house and stared across the unkempt garden into the fast
Then he turned suddenly, and saw that the door was standing ajar. It had
been quietly opened and a pair of eyes were peering at him round the
edge. There was no light in the hall beyond and he could only just make
out the shape of a dim human face.
“Does Mr. Garvey live here?” he asked in a firm voice.
“Who are you?” came in a man’s tones.
“I’m Mr. Sidebotham’s private secretary. I wish to see Mr. Garvey on
“Are you expected?”
“I suppose so,” he said impatiently, thrusting a card through the
opening. “Please take my name to him at once, and say I come from Mr.
Sidebotham on the matter Mr. Garvey wrote about.”
The man took the card, and the face vanished into the darkness, leaving
Shorthouse standing in the cold porch with mingled feelings of
impatience and dismay. The door, he now noticed for the first time, was
on a chain and could not open more than a few inches. But it was the
manner of his reception that caused uneasy reflections to stir within
him–reflections that continued for some minutes before they were
interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps and the flicker of a
light in the hall.
The next instant the chain fell with a rattle, and gripping his bag
tightly, he walked into a large ill-smelling hall of which he could only
just see the ceiling. There was no light but the nickering taper held by
the man, and by its uncertain glimmer Shorthouse turned to examine him.
He saw an undersized man of middle age with brilliant, shifting eyes, a
curling black beard, and a nose that at once proclaimed him a Jew. His
shoulders were bent, and, as he watched him replacing the chain, he saw
that he wore a peculiar black gown like a priest’s cassock reaching to
the feet. It was altogether a lugubrious figure of a man, sinister and
funereal, yet it seemed in perfect harmony with the general character of
its surroundings. The hall was devoid of furniture of any kind, and
against the dingy walls stood rows of old picture frames, empty and
disordered, and odd-looking bits of wood-work that appeared doubly
fantastic as their shadows danced queerly over the floor in the shifting
“If you’ll come this way, Mr. Garvey will see you presently,” said the
Jew gruffly, crossing the floor and shielding the taper with a bony
hand. He never once raised his eyes above the level of the visitor’s
waistcoat, and, to Shorthouse, he somehow suggested a figure from the
dead rather than a man of flesh and blood. The hall smelt decidedly ill.
All the more surprising, then, was the scene that met his eyes when the
Jew opened the door at the further end and he entered a room brilliantly
lit with swinging lamps and furnished with a degree of taste and comfort
that amounted to luxury. The walls were lined with handsomely bound
books, and armchairs were arranged round a large mahogany desk in the
middle of the room. A bright fire burned in the grate and neatly framed
photographs of men and women stood on the mantelpiece on either side of
an elaborately carved clock. French windows that opened like doors were
partially concealed by warm red curtains, and on a sideboard against the
wall stood decanters and glasses, with several boxes of cigars piled on
top of one another. There was a pleasant odour of tobacco about the
room. Indeed, it was in such glowing contrast to the chilly poverty of
the hall that Shorthouse already was conscious of a distinct rise in the
thermometer of his spirits.
Then he turned and saw the Jew standing in the doorway with his eyes
fixed upon him, somewhere about the middle button of his waistcoat. He
presented a strangely repulsive appearance that somehow could not be
attributed to any particular detail, and the secretary associated him in
his mind with a monstrous black bird of prey more than anything else.
“My time is short,” he said abruptly; “I hope Mr. Garvey will not keep
A strange flicker of a smile appeared on the Jew’s ugly face and
vanished as quickly as it came. He made a sort of deprecating bow by way
of reply. Then he blew out the taper and went out, closing the door
noiselessly behind him.
Shorthouse was alone. He felt relieved. There was an air of obsequious
insolence about the old Jew that was very offensive. He began to take
note of his surroundings. He was evidently in the library of the house,
for the walls were covered with books almost up to the ceiling. There
was no room for pictures. Nothing but the shining backs of well-bound
volumes looked down upon him. Four brilliant lights hung from the
ceiling and a reading lamp with a polished reflector stood among the
disordered masses of papers on the desk.
The lamp was not lit, but when Shorthouse put his hand upon it he found
it was _warm_. The room had evidently only just been vacated.
Apart from the testimony of the lamp, however, he had already felt,
without being able to give a reason for it, that the room had been
occupied a few moments before he entered. The atmosphere over the desk
seemed to retain the disturbing influence of a human being; an
influence, moreover, so recent that he felt as if the cause of it were
still in his immediate neighbourhood. It was difficult to realise that
he was quite alone in the room and that somebody was not in hiding. The
finer counterparts of his senses warned him to act as if he were being
observed; he was dimly conscious of a desire to fidget and look round,
to keep his eyes in every part of the room at once, and to conduct
himself generally as if he were the object of careful human observation.
How far he recognised the cause of these sensations it is impossible to
say; but they were sufficiently marked to prevent his carrying out a
strong inclination to get up and make a search of the room. He sat quite
still, staring alternately at the backs of the books, and at the red
curtains; wondering all the time if he was really being watched, or if
it was only the imagination playing tricks with him.
A full quarter of an hour passed, and then twenty rows of volumes
suddenly shifted out towards him, and he saw that a door had opened in
the wall opposite. The books were only sham backs after all, and when
they moved back again with the sliding door, Shorthouse saw the figure
of Joel Garvey standing before him.
Surprise almost took his breath away. He had expected to see an
unpleasant, even a vicious apparition with the mark of the beast
unmistakably upon its face; but he was wholly unprepared for the
elderly, tall, fine-looking man who stood in front of him–well-groomed,
refined, vigorous, with a lofty forehead, clear grey eyes, and a hooked
nose dominating a clean shaven mouth and chin of considerable
character–a distinguished looking man altogether.
“I’m afraid I’ve kept you waiting, Mr. Shorthouse,” he said in a
pleasant voice, but with no trace of a smile in the mouth or eyes. “But
the fact is, you know, I’ve a mania for chemistry, and just when you
were announced I was at the most critical moment of a problem and was
really compelled to bring it to a conclusion.”
Shorthouse had risen to meet him, but the other motioned him to resume
his seat. It was borne in upon him irresistibly that Mr. Joel Garvey,
for reasons best known to himself, was deliberately lying, and he could
not help wondering at the necessity for such an elaborate
misrepresentation. He took off his overcoat and sat down.
“I’ve no doubt, too, that the door startled you,” Garvey went on,
evidently reading something of his guest’s feelings in his face. “You
probably had not suspected it. It leads into my little laboratory.
Chemistry is an absorbing study to me, and I spend most of my time
there.” Mr. Garvey moved up to the armchair on the opposite side of the
fireplace and sat down.
Shorthouse made appropriate answers to these remarks, but his mind was
really engaged in taking stock of Mr. Sidebotham’s old-time partner. So
far there was no sign of mental irregularity and there was certainly
nothing about him to suggest violent wrong-doing or coarseness of
living. On the whole, Mr. Sidebotham’s secretary was most pleasantly
surprised, and, wishing to conclude his business as speedily as
possible, he made a motion towards the bag for the purpose of opening
it, when his companion interrupted him quickly–
“You are Mr. Sidebotham’s _private_ secretary, are you not?” he asked.
Shorthouse replied that he was. “Mr. Sidebotham,” he went on to explain,
“has entrusted me with the papers in the case and I have the honour to
return to you your letter of a week ago.” He handed the letter to
Garvey, who took it without a word and deliberately placed it in the
fire. He was not aware that the secretary was ignorant of its contents,
yet his face betrayed no signs of feeling. Shorthouse noticed, however,
that his eyes never left the fire until the last morsel had been
consumed. Then he looked up and said, “You are familiar then with the
facts of this most peculiar case?”
Shorthouse saw no reason to confess his ignorance.
“I have all the papers, Mr. Garvey,” he replied, taking them out of the
bag, “and I should be very glad if we could transact our business as
speedily as possible. If you will cut out your signature I–”
“One moment, please,” interrupted the other. “I must, before we proceed
further, consult some papers in my laboratory. If you will allow me to
leave you alone a few minutes for this purpose we can conclude the whole
matter in a very short time.”
Shorthouse did not approve of this further delay, but he had no option
than to acquiesce, and when Garvey had left the room by the private door
he sat and waited with the papers in his hand. The minutes went by and
the other did not return. To pass the time he thought of taking the
false packet from his coat to see that the papers were in order, and the
move was indeed almost completed, when something–he never knew
what–warned him to desist. The feeling again came over him that he was
being watched, and he leaned back in his chair with the bag on his knees
and waited with considerable impatience for the other’s return. For more
than twenty minutes he waited, and when at length the door opened and
Garvey appeared, with profuse apologies for the delay, he saw by the
clock that only a few minutes still remained of the time he had allowed
himself to catch the last train.
“Now I am completely at your service,” he said pleasantly; “you must, of
course, know, Mr. Shorthouse, that one cannot be too careful in matters
of this kind–especially,” he went on, speaking very slowly and
impressively, “in dealing with a man like my former partner, whose mind,
as you doubtless may have discovered, is at times very sadly affected.”
Shorthouse made no reply to this. He felt that the other was watching
him as a cat watches a mouse.
“It is almost a wonder to me,” Garvey added, “that he is still at large.
Unless he has greatly improved it can hardly be safe for those who are
closely associated with him.”
The other began to feel uncomfortable. Either this was the other side of
the story, or it was the first signs of mental irresponsibility.
“All business matters of importance require the utmost care in my
opinion, Mr. Garvey,” he said at length, cautiously.
“Ah! then, as I thought, you have had a great deal to put up with from
him,” Garvey said, with his eyes fixed on his companion’s face. “And, no
doubt, he is still as bitter against me as he was years ago when the
disease first showed itself?”
Although this last remark was a deliberate question and the questioner
was waiting with fixed eyes for an answer, Shorthouse elected to take
no notice of it. Without a word he pulled the elastic band from the blue
envelope with a snap and plainly showed his desire to conclude the
business as soon as possible. The tendency on the other’s part to delay
did not suit him at all.
“But never personal violence, I trust, Mr. Shorthouse,” he added.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Garvey said in a sympathetic voice, “very glad to
hear it. And now,” he went on, “if you are ready we can transact this
little matter of business before dinner. It will only take a moment.”
He drew a chair up to the desk and sat down, taking a pair of scissors
from a drawer. His companion approached with the papers in his hand,
unfolding them as he came. Garvey at once took them from him, and after
turning over a few pages he stopped and cut out a piece of writing at
the bottom of the last sheet but one.
Holding it up to him Shorthouse read the words “Joel Garvey” in faded
“There! That’s my signature,” he said, “and I’ve cut it out. It must be
nearly twenty years since I wrote it, and now I’m going to burn it.”
He went to the fire and stooped over to burn the little slip of paper,
and while he watched it being consumed Shorthouse put the real papers in
his pocket and slipped the imitation ones into the bag. Garvey turned
just in time to see this latter movement.
“I’m putting the papers back,” Shorthouse said quietly; “you’ve done
with them, I think.”
“Certainly,” he replied as, completely deceived, he saw the blue
envelope disappear into the black bag and watched Shorthouse turn the
key. “They no longer have the slightest interest for me.” As he spoke he
moved over to the sideboard, and pouring himself out a small glass of
whisky asked his visitor if he might do the same for him. But the
visitor declined and was already putting on his overcoat when Garvey
turned with genuine surprise on his face.
“You surely are not going back to New York to-night, Mr. Shorthouse?” he
said, in a voice of astonishment.
“I’ve just time to catch the 7.15 if I’m quick.”
“But I never heard of such a thing,” Garvey said. “Of course I took it
for granted that you would stay the night.”
“It’s kind of you,” said Shorthouse, “but really I must return to-night.
I never expected to stay.”
The two men stood facing each other. Garvey pulled out his watch.
“I’m exceedingly sorry,” he said; “but, upon my word, I took it for
granted you would stay. I ought to have said so long ago. I’m such a
lonely fellow and so little accustomed to visitors that I fear I forgot
my manners altogether. But in any case, Mr. Shorthouse, you cannot catch
the 7.15, for it’s already after six o’clock, and that’s the last train
to-night.” Garvey spoke very quickly, almost eagerly, but his voice
“There’s time if I walk quickly,” said the young man with decision,
moving towards the door. He glanced at his watch as he went. Hitherto he
had gone by the clock on the mantelpiece. To his dismay he saw that it
was, as his host had said, long after six. The clock was half an hour
slow, and he realised at once that it was no longer possible to catch
Had the hands of the clock been moved back intentionally? Had he been
purposely detained? Unpleasant thoughts flashed into his brain and made
him hesitate before taking the next step. His employer’s warning rang in
his ears. The alternative was six miles along a lonely road in the
dark, or a night under Garvey’s roof. The former seemed a direct
invitation to catastrophe, if catastrophe there was planned to be. The
latter–well, the choice was certainly small. One thing, however, he
realised, was plain–he must show neither fear nor hesitancy.
“My watch must have gained,” he observed quietly, turning the hands back
without looking up. “It seems I have certainly missed that train and
shall be obliged to throw myself upon your hospitality. But, believe me,
I had no intention of putting you out to any such extent.”
“I’m delighted,” the other said. “Defer to the judgment of an older man
and make yourself comfortable for the night. There’s a bitter storm
outside, and you don’t put me out at all. On the contrary it’s a great
pleasure. I have so little contact with the outside world that it’s
really a god-send to have you.”
The man’s face changed as he spoke. His manner was cordial and sincere.
Shorthouse began to feel ashamed of his doubts and to read between the
lines of his employer’s warning. He took off his coat and the two men
moved to the armchairs beside the fire.
“You see,” Garvey went on in a lowered voice, “I understand your
hesitancy perfectly. I didn’t know Sidebotham all those years without
knowing a good deal about him–perhaps more than you do. I’ve no doubt,
now, he filled your mind with all sorts of nonsense about me–probably
told you that I was the greatest villain unhung, eh? and all that sort
of thing? Poor fellow! He was a fine sort before his mind became
unhinged. One of his fancies used to be that everybody else was insane,
or just about to become insane. Is he still as bad as that?”
“Few men,” replied Shorthouse, with the manner of making a great
confidence, but entirely refusing to be drawn, “go through his
experiences and reach his age without entertaining delusions of one kind
“Perfectly true,” said Garvey. “Your observation is evidently keen.”
“Very keen indeed,” Shorthouse replied, taking his cue neatly; “but, of
course, there are some things”–and here he looked cautiously over his
shoulder–“there are some things one cannot talk about too
“I understand perfectly and respect your reserve.”
There was a little more conversation and then Garvey got up and excused
himself on the plea of superintending the preparation of the bedroom.
“It’s quite an event to have a visitor in the house, and I want to make
you as comfortable as possible,” he said. “Marx will do better for a
little supervision. And,” he added with a laugh as he stood in the
doorway, “I want you to carry back a good account to Sidebotham.”
The tall form disappeared and the door was shut. The conversation of the
past few minutes had come somewhat as a revelation to the secretary.
Garvey seemed in full possession of normal instincts. There was no doubt
as to the sincerity of his manner and intentions. The suspicions of the
first hour began to vanish like mist before the sun. Sidebotham’s
portentous warnings and the mystery with which he surrounded the whole
episode had been allowed to unduly influence his mind. The loneliness of
the situation and the bleak nature of the surroundings had helped to
complete the illusion. He began to be ashamed of his suspicions and a
change commenced gradually to be wrought in his thoughts. Anyhow a
dinner and a bed were preferable to six miles in the dark, no dinner,
and a cold train into the bargain.
Garvey returned presently. “We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said,
dropping into the deep armchair on the other side of the fire. “Marx is
a good servant if you watch him all the time. You must always stand over
a Jew, though, if you want things done properly. They’re tricky and
uncertain unless they’re working for their own interest. But Marx might
be worse, I’ll admit. He’s been with me for nearly twenty years–cook,
valet, housemaid, and butler all in one. In the old days, you know, he
was a clerk in our office in Chicago.”
Garvey rattled on and Shorthouse listened with occasional remarks thrown
in. The former seemed pleased to have somebody to talk to and the sound
of his own voice was evidently sweet music in his ears. After a few
minutes, he crossed over to the sideboard and again took up the decanter
of whisky, holding it to the light. “You will join me this time,” he
said pleasantly, pouring out two glasses, “it will give us an appetite
for dinner,” and this time Shorthouse did not refuse. The liquor was
mellow and soft and the men took two glasses apiece.
“Excellent,” remarked the secretary.
“Glad you appreciate it,” said the host, smacking his lips. “It’s very
old whisky, and I rarely touch it when I’m alone. But this,” he added,
“is a special occasion, isn’t it?”
Shorthouse was in the act of putting his glass down when something drew
his eyes suddenly to the other’s face. A strange note in the man’s voice
caught his attention and communicated alarm to his nerves. A new light
shone in Garvey’s eyes and there flitted momentarily across his strong
features the shadow of something that set the secretary’s nerves
tingling. A mist spread before his eyes and the unaccountable belief
rose strong in him that he was staring into the visage of an untamed
animal. Close to his heart there was something that was wild, fierce,
savage. An involuntary shiver ran over him and seemed to dispel the
strange fancy as suddenly as it had come. He met the other’s eye with a
smile, the counterpart of which in his heart was vivid horror.
“It _is_ a special occasion,” he said, as naturally as possible, “and,
allow me to add, very special whisky.”
Garvey appeared delighted. He was in the middle of a devious tale
describing how the whisky came originally into his possession when the
door opened behind them and a grating voice announced that dinner was
ready. They followed the cassocked form of Marx across the dirty hall,
lit only by the shaft of light that followed them from the library door,
and entered a small room where a single lamp stood upon a table laid for
dinner. The walls were destitute of pictures, and the windows had
Venetian blinds without curtains. There was no fire in the grate, and
when the men sat down facing each other Shorthouse noticed that, while
his own cover was laid with its due proportion of glasses and cutlery,
his companion had nothing before him but a soup plate, without fork,
knife, or spoon beside it.
“I don’t know what there is to offer you,” he said; “but I’m sure Marx
has done the best he can at such short notice. I only eat one course for
dinner, but pray take your time and enjoy your food.”
Marx presently set a plate of soup before the guest, yet so loathsome
was the immediate presence of this old Hebrew servitor, that the
spoonfuls disappeared somewhat slowly. Garvey sat and watched him.
Shorthouse said the soup was delicious and bravely swallowed another
mouthful. In reality his thoughts were centred upon his companion, whose
manners were giving evidence of a gradual and curious change. There was
a decided difference in his demeanour, a difference that the secretary
_felt_ at first, rather than saw. Garvey’s quiet self-possession was
giving place to a degree of suppressed excitement that seemed so far
inexplicable. His movements became quick and nervous, his eye shifting
and strangely brilliant, and his voice, when he spoke, betrayed an
occasional deep tremor. Something unwonted was stirring within him and
evidently demanding every moment more vigorous manifestation as the meal
Intuitively Shorthouse was afraid of this growing excitement, and while
negotiating some uncommonly tough pork chops he tried to lead the
conversation on to the subject of chemistry, of which in his Oxford days
he had been an enthusiastic student. His companion, however, would none
of it. It seemed to have lost interest for him, and he would barely
condescend to respond. When Marx presently returned with a plate of
steaming eggs and bacon the subject dropped of its own accord.
“An inadequate dinner dish,” Garvey said, as soon as the man was gone;
“but better than nothing, I hope.”
Shorthouse remarked that he was exceedingly fond of bacon and eggs, and,
looking up with the last word, saw that Garvey’s face was twitching
convulsively and that he was almost wriggling in his chair. He quieted
down, however, under the secretary’s gaze and observed, though evidently
with an effort–
“Very good of you to say so. Wish I could join you, only I never eat
such stuff. I only take one course for dinner.”
Shorthouse began to feel some curiosity as to what the nature of this
one course might be, but he made no further remark and contented himself
with noting mentally that his companion’s excitement seemed to be
rapidly growing beyond his control. There was something uncanny about
it, and he began to wish he had chosen the alternative of the walk to
“I’m glad to see you never speak when Marx is in the room,” said Garvey
presently. “I’m sure it’s better not. Don’t you think so?”
He appeared to wait eagerly for the answer.
“Undoubtedly,” said the puzzled secretary.
“Yes,” the other went on quickly. “He’s an excellent man, but he has
one drawback–a really horrid one. You may–but, no, you could hardly
have noticed it yet.”
“Not drink, I trust,” said Shorthouse, who would rather have discussed
any other subject than the odious Jew.
“Worse than that a great deal,” Garvey replied, evidently expecting the
other to draw him out. But Shorthouse was in no mood to hear anything
horrible, and he declined to step into the trap.
“The best of servants have their faults,” he said coldly.
“I’ll tell you what it is if you like,” Garvey went on, still speaking
very low and leaning forward over the table so that his face came close
to the flame of the lamp, “only we must speak quietly in case he’s
listening. I’ll tell you what it is–if you think you won’t be
“Nothing frightens me,” he laughed. (Garvey must understand that at all
events.) “Nothing can frighten me,” he repeated.
“I’m glad of that; for it frightens _me_ a good deal sometimes.”
Shorthouse feigned indifference. Yet he was aware that his heart was
beating a little quicker and that there was a sensation of chilliness in
his back. He waited in silence for what was to come.
“He has a horrible predilection for vacuums,” Garvey went on presently
in a still lower voice and thrusting his face farther forward under the
“Vacuums!” exclaimed the secretary in spite of himself. “What in the
world do you mean?”
“What I say of course. He’s always tumbling into them, so that I can’t
find him or get at him. He hides there for hours at a time, and for the
life of me I can’t make out what he does there.”
Shorthouse stared his companion straight in the eyes. What in the name
of Heaven was he talking about?
“Do you suppose he goes there for a change of air, or–or to escape?” he
went on in a louder voice.
Shorthouse could have laughed outright but for the expression of the
“I should not think there was much air of any sort in a vacuum,” he said
“That’s exactly what _I_ feel,” continued Garvey with ever growing
excitement. “That’s the horrid part of it. How the devil does he live
there? You see–”
“Have you ever followed him there?” interrupted the secretary. The
other leaned back in his chair and drew a deep sigh.
“Never! It’s impossible. You see I can’t follow him. There’s not room
for two. A vacuum only holds one comfortably. Marx knows that. He’s out
of my reach altogether once he’s fairly inside. He knows the best side
of a bargain. He’s a regular Jew.”
“That is a drawback to a servant, of course–” Shorthouse spoke slowly,
with his eyes on his plate.
“A drawback,” interrupted the other with an ugly chuckle, “I call it a
draw-in, that’s what I call it.”
“A draw-in does seem a more accurate term,” assented Shorthouse. “But,”
he went on, “I thought that nature abhorred a vacuum. She used to, when
I was at school–though perhaps–it’s so long ago–”
He hesitated and looked up. Something in Garvey’s face–something he had
_felt_ before he looked up–stopped his tongue and froze the words in
his throat. His lips refused to move and became suddenly dry. Again the
mist rose before his eyes and the appalling shadow dropped its veil over
the face before him. Garvey’s features began to burn and glow. Then they
seemed to coarsen and somehow slip confusedly together. He stared for a
second–it seemed only for a second–into the visage of a ferocious and
abominable animal; and then, as suddenly as it had come, the filthy
shadow of the beast passed off, the mist melted out, and with a mighty
effort over his nerves he forced himself to finish his sentence.
“You see it’s so long since I’ve given attention to such things,” he
stammered. His heart was beating rapidly, and a feeling of oppression
was gathering over it.
“It’s my peculiar and special study on the other hand,” Garvey resumed.
“I’ve not spent all these years in my laboratory to no purpose, I can
assure you. Nature, I know for a fact,” he added with unnatural warmth,
“does _not_ abhor a vacuum. On the contrary, she’s uncommonly fond of
’em, much too fond, it seems, for the comfort of my little household. If
there were fewer vacuums and more abhorrence we should get on better–a
damned sight better in my opinion.”
“Your special knowledge, no doubt, enables you to speak with authority,”
Shorthouse said, curiosity and alarm warring with other mixed feelings
in his mind; “but how _can_ a man tumble into a vacuum?”
“You may well ask. That’s just it. How can he? It’s preposterous and I
can’t make it out at all. Marx knows, but he won’t tell me. Jews know
more than we do. For my part I have reason to believe–” He stopped and
listened. “Hush! here he comes,” he added, rubbing his hands together as
if in glee and fidgeting in his chair.
Steps were heard coming down the passage, and as they approached the
door Garvey seemed to give himself completely over to an excitement he
could not control. His eyes were fixed on the door and he began
clutching the tablecloth with both hands. Again his face was screened by
the loathsome shadow. It grew wild, wolfish. As through a mask, that
concealed, and yet was thin enough to let through a suggestion of, the
beast crouching behind, there leaped into his countenance the strange
look of the animal in the human–the expression of the were-wolf, the
monster. The change in all its loathsomeness came rapidly over his
features, which began to lose their outline. The nose flattened,
dropping with broad nostrils over thick lips. The face rounded, filled,
and became squat. The eyes, which, luckily for Shorthouse, no longer
sought his own, glowed with the light of untamed appetite and bestial
greed. The hands left the cloth and grasped the edges of the plate, and
then clutched the cloth again.
“This is _my_ course coming now,” said Garvey, in a deep guttural voice.
He was shivering. His upper lip was partly lifted and showed the teeth,
white and gleaming.
A moment later the door opened and Marx hurried into the room and set a
dish in front of his master. Garvey half rose to meet him, stretching
out his hands and grinning horribly. With his mouth he made a sound like
the snarl of an animal. The dish before him was steaming, but the slight
vapour rising from it betrayed by its odour that it was not born of a
fire of coals. It was the natural heat of flesh warmed by the fires of
life only just expelled. The moment the dish rested on the table Garvey
pushed away his own plate and drew the other up close under his mouth.
Then he seized the food in both hands and commenced to tear it with his
teeth, grunting as he did so. Shorthouse closed his eyes, with a feeling
of nausea. When he looked up again the lips and jaw of the man opposite
were stained with crimson. The whole man was transformed. A feasting
tiger, starved and ravenous, but without a tiger’s grace–this was what
he watched for several minutes, transfixed with horror and disgust.
Marx had already taken his departure, knowing evidently what was not
good for the eyes to look upon, and Shorthouse knew at last that he was
sitting face to face with a madman.
The ghastly meal was finished in an incredibly short time and nothing
was left but a tiny pool of red liquid rapidly hardening. Garvey leaned
back heavily in his chair and sighed. His smeared face, withdrawn now
from the glare of the lamp, began to resume its normal appearance.
Presently he looked up at his guest and said in his natural voice–
“I hope you’ve had enough to eat. You wouldn’t care for this, you know,”
with a downward glance.
Shorthouse met his eyes with an inward loathing, and it was impossible
not to show some of the repugnance he felt. In the other’s face,
however, he thought he saw a subdued, cowed expression. But he found
nothing to say.
“Marx will be in presently,” Garvey went on. “He’s either listening, or
in a vacuum.”
“Does he choose any particular time for his visits?” the secretary
managed to ask.
“He generally goes after dinner; just about this time, in fact. But he’s
not gone yet,” he added, shrugging his shoulders, “for I think I hear
Shorthouse wondered whether vacuum was possibly synonymous with wine
cellar, but gave no expression to his thoughts. With chills of horror
still running up and down his back, he saw Marx come in with a basin and
towel, while Garvey thrust up his face just as an animal puts up its
muzzle to be rubbed.
“Now we’ll have coffee in the library, if you’re ready,” he said, in the
tone of a gentleman addressing his guests after a dinner party.
Shorthouse picked up the bag, which had lain all this time between his
feet, and walked through the door his host held open for him. Side by
side they crossed the dark hall together, and, to his disgust, Garvey
linked an arm in his, and with his face so close to the secretary’s ear
that he felt the warm breath, said in a thick voice–
“You’re uncommonly careful with that bag, Mr. Shorthouse. It surely must
contain something more than the bundle of papers.”
“Nothing but the papers,” he answered, feeling the hand burning upon his
arm and wishing he were miles away from the house and its abominable
“Quite sure?” asked the other with an odious and suggestive chuckle. “Is
there any meat in it, fresh meat–raw meat?”
The secretary felt, somehow, that at the least sign of fear the beast on
his arm would leap upon him and tear him with his teeth.
“Nothing of the sort,” he answered vigorously. “It wouldn’t hold enough
to feed a cat.”
“True,” said Garvey with a vile sigh, while the other felt the hand upon
his arm twitch up and down as if feeling the flesh. “True, it’s too
small to be of any real use. As you say, it wouldn’t hold enough to feed
Shorthouse was unable to suppress a cry. The muscles of his fingers,
too, relaxed in spite of himself and he let the black bag drop with a
bang to the floor. Garvey instantly withdrew his arm and turned with a
quick movement. But the secretary had regained his control as suddenly
as he had lost it, and he met the maniac’s eyes with a steady and
“There, you see, it’s quite light. It makes no appreciable noise when I
drop it.” He picked it up and let it fall again, as if he had dropped it
for the first time purposely. The ruse was successful.
“Yes. You’re right,” Garvey said, still standing in the doorway and
staring at him. “At any rate it wouldn’t hold enough for two,” he
laughed. And as he closed the door the horrid laughter echoed in the
They sat down by a blazing fire and Shorthouse was glad to feel its
warmth. Marx presently brought in coffee. A glass of the old whisky and
a good cigar helped to restore equilibrium. For some minutes the men sat
in silence staring into the fire. Then, without looking up, Garvey said
in a quiet voice–
“I suppose it was a shock to you to see me eat raw meat like that. I
must apologise if it was unpleasant to you. But it’s all I can eat and
it’s the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours.”
“Best nourishment in the world, no doubt; though I should think it might
be a trifle strong for some stomachs.”
He tried to lead the conversation away from so unpleasant a subject, and
went on to talk rapidly of the values of different foods, of
vegetarianism and vegetarians, and of men who had gone for long periods
without any food at all. Garvey listened apparently without interest and
had nothing to say. At the first pause he jumped in eagerly.
“When the hunger is really great on me,” he said, still gazing into the
fire, “I simply cannot control myself. I must have raw meat–the first I
can get–” Here he raised his shining eyes and Shorthouse felt his hair
beginning to rise.
“It comes upon me so suddenly too. I never can tell when to expect it. A
year ago the passion rose in me like a whirlwind and Marx was out and I
couldn’t get meat. I had to get something or I should have bitten
myself. Just when it was getting unbearable my dog ran out from beneath
the sofa. It was a spaniel.”
Shorthouse responded with an effort. He hardly knew what he was saying
and his skin crawled as if a million ants were moving over it.
There was a pause of several minutes.
“I’ve bitten Marx all over,” Garvey went on presently in his strange
quiet voice, and as if he were speaking of apples; “but he’s bitter. I
doubt if the hunger could ever make me do it again. Probably that’s what
first drove him to take shelter in a vacuum.” He chuckled hideously as
he thought of this solution of his attendant’s disappearances.
Shorthouse seized the poker and poked the fire as if his life depended
on it. But when the banging and clattering was over Garvey continued his
remarks with the same calmness. The next sentence, however, was never
finished. The secretary had got upon his feet suddenly.
“I shall ask your permission to retire,” he said in a determined voice;
“I’m tired to-night; will you be good enough to show me to my room?”
Garvey looked up at him with a curious cringing expression behind which
there shone the gleam of cunning passion.
“Certainly,” he said, rising from his chair. “You’ve had a tiring
journey. I ought to have thought of that before.”
He took the candle from the table and lit it, and the fingers that held
the match trembled.
“We needn’t trouble Marx,” he explained. “That beast’s in his vacuum by
They crossed the hall and began to ascend the carpetless wooden stairs.
They were in the well of the house and the air cut like ice. Garvey,
the flickering candle in his hand throwing his face into strong outline,
led the way across the first landing and opened a door near the mouth of
a dark passage. A pleasant room greeted the visitor’s eyes, and he
rapidly took in its points while his host walked over and lit two
candles that stood on a table at the foot of the bed. A fire burned
brightly in the grate. There were two windows, opening like doors, in
the wall opposite, and a high canopied bed occupied most of the space on
the right. Panelling ran all round the room reaching nearly to the
ceiling and gave a warm and cosy appearance to the whole; while the
portraits that stood in alternate panels suggested somehow the
atmosphere of an old country house in England. Shorthouse was agreeably
“I hope you’ll find everything you need,” Garvey was saying in the
doorway. “If not, you have only to ring that bell by the fireplace. Marx
won’t hear it of course, but it rings in my laboratory, where I spend
most of the night.”
Then, with a brief good-night, he went out and shut the door after him.
The instant he was gone Mr. Sidebotham’s private secretary did a
peculiar thing. He planted himself in the middle of the room with his
back to the door, and drawing the pistol swiftly from his hip pocket
levelled it across his left arm at the window. Standing motionless in
this position for thirty seconds he then suddenly swerved right round
and faced in the other direction, pointing his pistol straight at the
keyhole of the door. There followed immediately a sound of shuffling
outside and of steps retreating across the landing.
“On his knees at the keyhole,” was the secretary’s reflection. “Just as
I thought. But he didn’t expect to look down the barrel of a pistol and
it made him jump a little.”
As soon as the steps had gone downstairs and died away across the hall,
Shorthouse went over and locked the door, stuffing a piece of crumpled
paper into the second keyhole which he saw immediately above the first.
After that, he made a thorough search of the room. It hardly repaid the
trouble, for he found nothing unusual. Yet he was glad he had made it.
It relieved him to find no one was in hiding under the bed or in the
deep oak cupboard; and he hoped sincerely it was not the cupboard in
which the unfortunate spaniel had come to its vile death. The French
windows, he discovered, opened on to a little balcony. It looked on to
the front, and there was a drop of less than twenty feet to the ground
below. The bed was high and wide, soft as feathers and covered with
snowy sheets–very inviting to a tired man; and beside the blazing fire
were a couple of deep armchairs.
Altogether it was very pleasant and comfortable; but, tired though he
was, Shorthouse had no intention of going to bed. It was impossible to
disregard the warning of his nerves. They had never failed him before,
and when that sense of distressing horror lodged in his bones he knew
there was something in the wind and that a red flag was flying over the
immediate future. Some delicate instrument in his being, more subtle
than the senses, more accurate than mere presentiment, had seen the red
flag and interpreted its meaning.
Again it seemed to him, as he sat in an armchair over the fire, that his
movements were being carefully watched from somewhere; and, not knowing
what weapons might be used against him, he felt that his real safety lay
in a rigid control of his mind and feelings and a stout refusal to admit
that he was in the least alarmed.
The house was very still. As the night wore on the wind dropped. Only
occasional bursts of sleet against the windows reminded him that the
elements were awake and uneasy. Once or twice the windows rattled and
the rain hissed in the fire, but the roar of the wind in the chimney
grew less and less and the lonely building was at last lapped in a great
stillness. The coals clicked, settling themselves deeper in the grate,
and the noise of the cinders dropping with a tiny report into the soft
heap of accumulated ashes was the only sound that punctuated the
In proportion as the power of sleep grew upon him the dread of the
situation lessened; but so imperceptibly, so gradually, and so
insinuatingly that he scarcely realised the change. He thought he was as
wide awake to his danger as ever. The successful exclusion of horrible
mental pictures of what he had seen he attributed to his rigorous
control, instead of to their true cause, the creeping over him of the
soft influences of sleep. The faces in the coals were so soothing; the
armchair was so comfortable; so sweet the breath that gently pressed
upon his eyelids; so subtle the growth of the sensation of safety. He
settled down deeper into the chair and in another moment would have been
asleep when the red flag began to shake violently to and fro and he sat
bolt upright as if he had been stabbed in the back.
Someone was coming up the stairs. The boards creaked beneath a stealthy
Shorthouse sprang from the chair and crossed the room swiftly, taking up
his position beside the door, but out of range of the keyhole. The two
candles flared unevenly on the table at the foot of the bed. The steps
were slow and cautious–it seemed thirty seconds between each one–but
the person who was taking them was very close to the door. Already he
had topped the stairs and was shuffling almost silently across the bit
The secretary slipped his hand into his pistol pocket and drew back
further against the wall, and hardly had he completed the movement when
the sounds abruptly ceased and he knew that somebody was standing just
outside the door and preparing for a careful observation through the
He was in no sense a coward. In action he was never afraid. It was the
waiting and wondering and the uncertainty that might have loosened his
nerves a little. But, somehow, a wave of intense horror swept over him
for a second as he thought of the bestial maniac and his attendant Jew;
and he would rather have faced a pack of wolves than have to do with
either of these men.
Something brushing gently against the door set his nerves tingling
afresh and made him tighten his grasp on the pistol. The steel was cold
and slippery in his moist fingers. What an awful noise it would make
when he pulled the trigger! If the door were to open how close he would
be to the figure that came in! Yet he knew it was locked on the inside
and could not possibly open. Again something brushed against the panel
beside him and a second later the piece of crumpled paper fell from the
keyhole to the floor, while the piece of thin wire that had accomplished
this result showed its point for a moment in the room and was then
Somebody was evidently peering now through the keyhole, and realising
this fact the spirit of attack entered into the heart of the beleaguered
man. Raising aloft his right hand he brought it suddenly down with a
resounding crash upon the panel of the door next the keyhole–a crash
that, to the crouching eavesdropper, must have seemed like a clap of
thunder out of a clear sky. There was a gasp and a slight lurching
against the door and the midnight listener rose startled and alarmed,
for Shorthouse plainly heard the tread of feet across the landing and
down the stairs till they were lost in the silences of the hall. Only,
this time, it seemed to him there were four feet instead of two.
Quickly stuffing the paper back into the keyhole, he was in the act of
walking back to the fireplace when, over his shoulder, he caught sight
of a white face pressed in outline against the outside of the window. It
was blurred in the streams of sleet, but the white of the moving eyes
was unmistakable. He turned instantly to meet it, but the face was
withdrawn like a flash, and darkness rushed in to fill the gap where it
“Watched on both sides,” he reflected.
But he was not to be surprised into any sudden action, and quietly
walking over to the fireplace as if he had seen nothing unusual he
stirred the coals a moment and then strolled leisurely over to the
window. Steeling his nerves, which quivered a moment in spite of his
will, he opened the window and stepped out on to the balcony. The wind,
which he thought had dropped, rushed past him into the room and
extinguished one of the candles, while a volley of fine cold rain burst
all over his face. At first he could see nothing, and the darkness came
close up to his eyes like a wall. He went a little farther on to the
balcony and drew the window after him till it clashed. Then he stood and
But nothing touched him. No one seemed to be there. His eyes got
accustomed to the blackness and he was able to make out the iron
railing, the dark shapes of the trees beyond, and the faint light coming
from the other window. Through this he peered into the room, walking the
length of the balcony to do so. Of course he was standing in a shaft of
light and whoever was crouching in the darkness below could plainly see
him. _Below?_–That there should be anyone _above_ did not occur to him
until, just as he was preparing to go in again, he became aware that
something was moving in the darkness over his head. He looked up,
instinctively raising a protecting arm, and saw a long black line
swinging against the dim wall of the house. The shutters of the window
on the next floor, whence it depended, were thrown open and moving
backwards and forwards in the wind. The line was evidently a thickish
cord, for as he looked it was pulled in and the end disappeared in the
Shorthouse, trying to whistle to himself, peered over the edge of the
balcony as if calculating the distance he might have to drop, and then
calmly walked into the room again and closed the window behind him,
leaving the latch so that the lightest touch would cause it to fly open.
He relit the candle and drew a straight-backed chair up to the table.
Then he put coal on the fire and stirred it up into a royal blaze. He
would willingly have folded the shutters over those staring windows at
his back. But that was out of the question. It would have been to cut
off his way of escape.
Sleep, for the time, was at a disadvantage. His brain was full of blood
and every nerve was tingling. He felt as if countless eyes were upon him
and scores of stained hands were stretching out from the corners and
crannies of the house to seize him. Crouching figures, figures of
hideous Jews, stood everywhere about him where shelter was, creeping
forward out of the shadows when he was not looking and retreating
swiftly and silently when he turned his head. Wherever he looked, other
eyes met his own, and though they melted away under his steady,
confident gaze, he knew they would wax and draw in upon him the instant
his glances weakened and his will wavered.
Though there were no sounds, he knew that in the well of the house there
was movement going on, _and preparation_. And this knowledge, inasmuch
as it came to him irresistibly and through other and more subtle
channels than those of the senses kept the sense of horror fresh in his
blood and made him alert and awake.
But, no matter how great the dread in the heart, the power of sleep will
eventually overcome it. Exhausted nature is irresistible, and as the
minutes wore on and midnight passed, he realised that nature was
vigorously asserting herself and sleep was creeping upon him from the
To lessen the danger he took out his pencil and began to draw the
articles of furniture in the room. He worked into elaborate detail the
cupboard, the mantelpiece, and the bed, and from these he passed on to
the portraits. Being possessed of genuine skill, he found the occupation
sufficiently absorbing. It kept the blood in his brain, and that kept
him awake. The pictures, moreover, now that he considered them for the
first time, were exceedingly well painted. Owing to the dim light, he
centred his attention upon the portraits beside the fireplace. On the
right was a woman, with a sweet, gentle face and a figure of great
refinement; on the left was a full-size figure of a big handsome man
with a full beard and wearing a hunting costume of ancient date.
From time to time he turned to the windows behind him, but the vision of
the face was not repeated. More than once, too, he went to the door and
listened, but the silence was so profound in the house that he gradually
came to believe the plan of attack had been abandoned. Once he went out
on to the balcony, but the sleet stung his face and he only had time to
see that the shutters above were closed, when he was obliged to seek the
shelter of the room again.
In this way the hours passed. The fire died down and the room grew
chilly. Shorthouse had made several sketches of the two heads and was
beginning to feel overpoweringly weary. His feet and his hands were cold
and his yawns were prodigious. It seemed ages and ages since the steps
had come to listen at his door and the face had watched him from the
window. A feeling of safety had somehow come to him. In reality he was
exhausted. His one desire was to drop upon the soft white bed and yield
himself up to sleep without any further struggle.
He rose from his chair with a series of yawns that refused to be stifled
and looked at his watch. It was close upon three in the morning. He made
up his mind that he would lie down with his clothes on and get some
sleep. It was safe enough, the door was locked on the inside and the
window was fastened. Putting the bag on the table near his pillow he
blew out the candles and dropped with a sense of careless and delicious
exhaustion upon the soft mattress. In five minutes he was sound asleep.
There had scarcely been time for the dreams to come when he found
himself lying side-ways across the bed with wide open eyes staring into
the darkness. Someone had touched him, and he had writhed away in his
sleep as from something unholy. The movement had awakened him.
The room was simply black. No light came from the windows and the fire
had gone out as completely as if water had been poured upon it. He gazed
into a sheet of impenetrable darkness that came close up to his face
like a wall.
His first thought was for the papers in his coat and his hand flew to
the pocket. They were safe; and the relief caused by this discovery left
his mind instantly free for other reflections.
And the realisation that at once came to him with a touch of dismay was,
that during his sleep some definite _change_ had been effected in the
room. He felt this with that intuitive certainty which amounts to
positive knowledge. The room was utterly still, but the corroboration
that was speedily brought to him seemed at once to fill the darkness
with a whispering, secret life that chilled his blood and made the
sheet feel like ice against his cheek.
Hark! This was it; there reached his ears, in which the blood was
already buzzing with warning clamour, a dull murmur of something that
rose indistinctly from the well of the house and became audible to him
without passing through walls or doors. There seemed no solid surface
between him, lying on the bed, and the landing; between the landing and
the stairs, and between the stairs and the hall beyond.
He knew that the door of the room _was standing open_! Therefore it had
been opened from the _inside_. Yet the window was fastened, also on the
Hardly was this realised when the conspiring silence of the hour was
broken by another and a more definite sound. A step was coming along the
passage. A certain bruise on the hip told Shorthouse that the pistol in
his pocket was ready for use and