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The storm swept down from the north-west. The rain fell in torrents, thunder roared and crashed about our ears and lightning cut long jagged darts of eye-searing brilliance in the gloom of the dying day. The road swiftly grew greasy and treacherous. On our left, and twenty feet below, an arm of the sea lashed the rocks. On our right tree-crowded hills rose almost straight up from the road. Very soon, with the water that would come streaming down from those towering hills, that narrow road snaking its way between hills and sea would be impassable.
“Darling,” said Jill.
“Yes?” I said, wrenching the car out of a prolonged skid.
“Don’t you think we should—?”
A terrifying thunderclap drowned the soft voice. I shot a quick glance at her. The grey eyes were wide and apprehensive.
“I don’t like it. We can’t go on through this, can we?”
I was thinking the same thing, but I didn’t say anything. I was too busy trying to see through the streaming windscreen.
Another wicked flash of lightning, followed almost immediately by a deafening clap of thunder. Jill put her hands over her ears.
“Isn’t there anywhere we could shelter?”
The lovely face was white—too white.
“Honey,” I said, trying to keep the concern out of my own voice, “do you believe in ghosts?”
She took her hands from her ears. She stared at me. “Ghosts? What are you talking about?”
“Well,” I said. “I think I know where we are. Somewhere round here is a house where we could shelter. It’s an old house, a big house and an empty one. At least it’s supposed to be empty. Only it’s also supposed to be haunted. In fact it’s called Ghost House. I just thought I’d ask.”
“No. I don’t believe in ghosts. How do you know about this house?”
“A fellow was telling me about it the other day at the wedding. Been empty for years, I believe. He told me—it was the same man who told me about this supposed short cut—that it used to belong to a man named Ingalls. Forty years ago or so Ingalls walked out of it one day and was never seen again. Since then it’s been haunted—so they say. But they don’t say what it is that does the haunting or what form it takes. Old man Ingalls, I suppose. The place has been left just as it was forty years ago. People avoid it I’m told. All very vague, but that’s all anybody seems to know. You’ve never heard of Ghost House?”
Jill shook her head. “Tell me more.”
“I don’t know any more. Anyway it’s all hearsay. Probably nothing in it. Only I thought I’d mention it because at the moment we seem to be between the devil of this storm and the deep sea of Ghost House. Which will you have?”
“I don’t want either!”
“Naturally. But it’s one or the other.”
She side-tracked that. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never come across any.”
The storm rocked and roared about us. The pelting rain tore at us, choking the windscreen wipers, lightning flashed, thunder reverberated. Our little car slid all over the road.
I said hopefully, “We should just make it. We can’t be far from it now. One thing’s for sure, I shan’t be able to keep the car on this road much longer.”
The unsealed road was now a mass of flowing mud through which the car slithered uneasily. Round the last few bends I was driving by guess and by God. Then the hills on our left fell away, taking a semicircular sweep round a rocky islet on which Ghost House had been built, and there was a little crazy wooden bridge that would take us across the inlet to the rain-blurred bulk of the house.
The sea was somewhere about a hundred yards wide at that point. The bridge, barely wide enough to allow the car to cross, was the only link with the mainland. A hundred yards of swaying time-worn wood. I held my breath as we went over it. Below was the churning storm-swept sea, pounding and tearing at the rocky shoreline.
We were just about over when Jill stabbed a finger against her window and cried, “Look!”
Rush of rain and wind against us, boom of thunder above us, high-pitched grumble and complaint of the old bridge under our wheels.
“Can’t look now,” I protested. “Wait till we’re over.”
“But Gerry—” She stopped abruptly. But she continued to stare through her window, down ... and then back.
Firmer ground on the other side. Vestiges of what once had been a gravel drive. Jill put a hand on my arm.
“Gerry, please stop.”
I stopped the car and looked the question. She said a little breathlessly, “There’s a man down there on a little sandy spit my side of the bridge.”
“Honey,” I asked more or less gently, “did you make me stop in this delightful weather just to tell me you saw a man? What sort of man?”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid he may be a dead one. He’s lying down there on a little bit of sand between the rocks and the sea is washing not quite over him. He looks— limp. He could be sadly hurt if he’s still—” She didn’t finish it, but I knew what the missing word was. “Do go and see. I,” she said softly, “would like someone to go down and see after you if you were in his place.”
I got out of the car and slammed the door shut against the howling wind and rain. I was soaked in a minute. I went to the edge of the tiny island and looked down.
She was quite right. There was the sand spit jutting out beside the last quivering trestle of that crazy bridge, and there was the man lying face down. He seemed to be moving feebly, but whether that was because he was still alive, or whether it was the shock of the waves washing over his legs I couldn’t say.
I climbed down. Descent was difficult, foothold precarious. I slid and scrambled down, dropping on to soggy yielding sand, a mixture of sand and small smooth shingle.
The man wasn’t dead. He wasn’t even hurt in any way that I could see. But he was unconscious, something had happened to him. He was soaked to the skin, of course. But then so was I now.
I lifted him by the shoulders and dragged him higher up under the lee of the rocky face well away from the waves. This was only an inlet from the sea proper, but because of its narrow width there it was probably just as vicious. That was all I could do for him for the moment. He wasn’t a very big man, but single-handed I could never have hoisted him to the top of even that low cliff. I doubted if Jill would have been of much help, and in any case I wasn’t going to bring her out in that weather.
I scrambled up and squelched through the mud back to the car. I took off my sodden raincoat and threw it on the back seat. Dripping water from the knees down I slid in beside Jill, who edged away from me in self-defence.
“Oh, darling, you are wet!” She has a genius for pointing out the obvious.
“Yes,” I said. “I am ... Well, he’s not dead, but he’s unconscious. He doesn’t seem to have suffered any injury. We can’t just leave him there, but I can’t get him up by myself—”
“Look!” she cried, pointing straight ahead.
Dimly through the streaming windscreen loomed the old house with its two clusters of tall slender chimneys. A barely discernible thread of smoke was wreathing lazily from one chimney. It was flattened and blown away on the instant of its emerging.
“Smoke! Smoke ...”
“Yes,” said Jill. “That means a fire. There must be someone there after all. You could get help ...”
“True—I hope. Because we need it quickly.”
I started the car and we moved on up the remnants of a drive to an open space in front of the house. Close to it looked old and neglected, yet somehow it didn’t convey that blank blind impression that empty and long-deserted houses give. Three stories high it rose with bay windows on either side of the massive front door, a row of windows above and another row of smaller ones above that. The window immediately over the door boasted a stone balcony with an ironwork railing supported by a stone pillar on either side of the four steps that led up to the door.
I don’t know why, there was no logical reason for it, but peering up at that big dark house I felt a sudden depression of the spirit. A flash of lightning split the sky and momentarily the house was bathed in a flood of violet light. It leapt at me out of the gloom and it seemed to me there was something grim and sullen about it, something vaguely menacing.
I shook off the fancy and ran up the steps. At the side of the door, set in the masonry, was an electric bell, a genuine antique with a button marked Press in the centre of a white china disc. I pressed and listened, but I could hear nothing above the rush and roar of the storm. On the door was an iron knocker in the shape of a lion’s head with protruding tongue and I grasped this and beat a solid tattoo. I waited a minute or two. I would knock once more and if that wasn’t answered—
But it was answered. The door opened and a man stood there, a bulky yellow-faced man in the black clothes of a butler. His appearance surprised me—the last thing I’d expected to see had been the traditional butler. Behind him a dim light shone in the spacious hall.
“Yeah?” he said. It was a most unbutlerlike reception and he had a most unbutlerlike manner. I reacted a little sharply.
“I want to see your master. Is he at home?”
He looked at me suspiciously. “Why?”
On top of the storm this was beginning to infuriate me. I snarled at him, “Because I do. Do you receive all your visitors like this?”
He said stolidly, “We don’t have any visitors.”
A voice behind him asked, “What’s the trouble, Carter?” and another man came out of the shadows in the hall and joined him in the doorway.
This house was supposed to be untenanted, had been for forty years and more, yet here was indisputably a butler and a man I took to be his master by his authoritative manner and the air of proprietorship on him.
“There’s a man here—sir—” He hesitated over that “sir” as if it had been an afterthought. “I don’t know what he wants.”
“There’s a gentleman here,” his master corrected him. “There is also, I see, a lady in the car.”
There was innate chivalry in the words, but none in his voice. He said that in rather an odd way. He said it carelessly, without any particular interest as if he were pointing out a minor detail to his butler.
“There is,” I said. “My wife. I’m sorry to barge in on you like this, but with this storm and the state of the road we’re really marooned. I should be very grateful if you’d allow us—”
I broke off. He didn’t seem to be listening to me. He was standing absolutely still, unnaturally so, giving the strongest impression that his mind was somewhere else. Then he stirred and he said, not, I have to admit, with any marked enthusiasm, “Of course! Impossible to go on in this. Bring your wife in out of this filthy weather.”
I wasted no time. I went down to the car and hustled Jill back up to the door.
“Come in,” he said briefly. “My name, by the way, is Ingalls.”
Ingalls! The name of the man who had vanished so mysteriously forty years before. This man couldn’t have been that Ingalls, but he could, I supposed, have been a son.
I said hurriedly, “Mine’s Martin. Gerry Martin. My wife Jill ... There’s something else, Mr. Ingalls. Down at the foot of your island, just by the bridge, there’s a man lying unconscious. I’ve been down to him. He doesn’t seem to be injured in any way, but he should be moved. He needs shelter and attention—he could die down there in this.”
“Down there?” said Ingalls. “Unconscious?” And again he stiffened, and he and his butler exchanged glances in which there was something thoughtful and calculating. Or so it seemed to me.
He relaxed. He said, again without any real concern in his voice, “We must do something about that. Carter, put something on and go along with Mr. Martin ... Do you think you and Carter could manage to carry him up here?”
“Oh yes but we may need a flashlight. It’s getting pretty dark.”
“Yes. Just about the end of daylight, such as it was. Carter will get a flashlight. And something for you to wear. I’ll take Mrs. Martin inside and have her warm and dry by the time you return.”
Hospitable words, but delivered in a tone of indifference as if the man’s thoughts were on something else, something that had nothing to do with us, yet which our intrusion had somehow affected.
Carter was back in a few moments with a sou’wester on his head and a sailor’s oilskin coat, and an old raincoat for me. We took the car to use as an ambulance and also to give us what shelter we could get. Carter didn’t like any part of operation rescue. He made that obvious. He was a taciturn individual and his conversation consisted mainly of grunts with a belated “sir” when he thought of it. The centre of the disturbance was moving away out to sea, the flashes of lightning were decreasing in number and brilliance, the pealing of thunder diminishing slightly and taking longer to follow the lightning. But the rain continued to pour down on us in a steady torrent and the wind howled and tore at us with unabated viciousness.
I drew up at the bridge and took Carter to the edge of the miniature cliff. The man was still down there below lying just as I’d left him. Carter grunted and used his flashlight. We clawed and fumbled our way down and Carter shone the light full on the face of the unknown. The man was of average height, compactly built and, except that he was still unconscious, in good physical condition.
Somehow or another, heaving and straining and slipping on the rain-greasy rocks, we hoisted him to the top and packed him like a shapeless bundle into the car. And again I drove up to the front door of Ghost House. Ingalls, on the look-out for us, opened the door, examined the man’s face intently and told Carter to carry him upstairs to a spare bedroom. Carter carried him easily and apparently without effort, and the front door closed behind us shutting out the wind and the rain, the thunder and the now far-off intermittent flashes of lightning.
And in the calm of that unexpected sanctuary, for the first time in what had seemed hours of battling with the storm outside, I began to think about the house and the people in it.
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