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MAKE WAY FOR THE MOURNERS
A MIck Cardby Mystery
by David Hume
NEXT DOOR TO TERROR
The girl’s hand quivered as she reached for the electric light switch. Her throat was clutched by fear; contracted until it became painful. No moisture lingered in her mouth. Even her tongue felt dry and cracked. She gulped to fight away the suffocating sensation that stole her breath away. Seconds passed as she fumbled for the switch. They were terror-ladened seconds that spread into fearful time. At last her trembling fingers closed over the button. Light flooded the room. She sank back upon the edge of the bed with a soft sob.
The heavy, gaunt furniture threw shadows about the huge room; the curtains swayed to and fro in the breeze. She stared into the corner; sighed relievedly when she found the door still fastened. The windows remained slightly open, just as she left them an hour before. Her arms were shaking as the hands pressed into the bed, and her heart beat with heavy, unsteady thumps. She licked her dry lips, gazed round the room again, but she could see nothing to create alarm; nothing beyond the sinister darkness of the centuries old furniture, the time-stained walls, the murky distance of the beamed ceiling, the gentle flapping of the curtains, the cold emptiness of the huge grate, the impalpable heaviness of atmosphere.
So what had wakened her?
Another quiver started from her feet, streamed up to her face. But that was not the embrace of fear. The biting air was curling through the windows, piercing the flimsy covering of the silk nightdress. The girl reached towards the end of the bed, dragged a dressing-gown towards her, swathed it round her shoulders. Her teeth were clenched to curb their chattering. It seemed that her body was folded in a cold sweat. She looked at the clock beside the bed. It was five minutes after midnight. Then she rose to her feet, walked falteringly towards the dressing-table. As she crossed the floor the ancient boards creaked like whimpering mice. She sat down; stared at her reflection in the mirror. It was consoling to find even the ally of one’s own image.
Yet there was nothing reassuring about the face. The dark brown eyes were wide and startled, the pupils had contracted, the cheeks were whitely pink, the lips compressed into a straight line. She pushed back the hair that was draped over her forehead, tried to force her features into a smile. The effort was pathetically futile. She extended a hand, looked at it as though viewing it for the first time. It quivered so violently that she thrust it beneath the drape of her dressing-gown, tried to persuade herself that coldness gripped her; but she knew that was not true, except that she suffered from the coldness of terror.
She struggled to convince herself that a nightmare must have flung her into horrible awakening. She remained unconvinced. So what had happened? It could have been nothing in her bedroom. And what could have happened outside that would jerk her into a state of terror? She could hear the dimmed roar of the weir a hundred yards farther up the river. Still, that monotonous sound could have produced no fearful effect. For five months she had wakened each morning to hear that rush of water, had learned to listen to it at night as one would hear a lullaby. From the belt of trees round the house came a gentle swish of sound. The song of the trees she knew too well to distrust it.
The creaking floorboards, the occasional scurry of a mouse, the soft groan of ancient timbers—these were part of the house, sounds too familiar to create alarm.
Suddenly she stiffened, became rigidly erect. She knew what had wakened her, she remembered now the shrill scream, the agonising shriek that had jerked her head from the pillow.
That was no nightmare! The reality was too terrifying to be imaginary. Again she felt the icy grasp of a cold sweat, and the saliva dried in her mouth. The dressing-gown afforded no protection. Clothes cannot help when the body is bathed in a sweat of fear.
Who had screamed? Could it be—? The girl rose to her feet, found some difficulty in standing steadily. It seemed to her that she shook and swayed in the faint breeze. She dragged the gown closer to her body, started to walk across the floor, stopped in the middle of a stride as though fastened in a giant trap.
Again that outcry sounded through the house! She could no longer seek a consoling answer. That high-pitched, terrifying shriek was no sound bred in the imagination. It was burdened with agony, screamed of horror and terror. Even the rumble of the weir, the voice of the trees, seemed to cease. It was as though they, too, had paused to listen.
The girl’s limbs commenced to buckle at the knees. She felt the strength fading away from them, could feel the beat of her heart rising until it became a pain, a throb that filled her body. She moved towards the bed unsteadily, slumped down upon it. The furniture began to take on an evil significance, the room seemed redolent with foul atmosphere, even the swaying curtains seemed to cover some enormity.
But who had raised that desperate cry, that unearthly yell? The girl bit her lip, shook her head, and rose to her feet again. Something more than fear moved her. She fastened the belt around her gown, slid her cold feet into slippers, fumbled in the cupboard at the side of the bed until she found a small torch. All the colour had ebbed from her face. Now the large brown eyes looked ghastly in the sea of white around them. Tremors rippled up and down her back, waves of coldness flooded all over her body. She started walking towards the door. Twice she paused, fear ridden. Each time she cursed her cowardice, moved onward.
A gust of cold draught struck her as she opened the door. There seemed venom in the air as it passed along the corridor. She looked behind her, and hesitated again. It seemed foolish to leave the sanctuary of her bedroom, to forsake that bright light for the narrow, twisting passage. The stab of light from the torch looked dangerously trivial, a mere pencil line that flattered to deceive. She could feel the cold air wafting round her ankles as she moved. The bedroom door she left wide open. It was some small lighthouse in the storm, a haven of retreat in case . . . She ceased to think of possibilities. They were too terrifying. She fought to gain some degree of calm, to steady the tortured nerves, to allay the incessant trembling that shook her.
The passage, even in the height of the day, was never very light. But now the darkness seemed tangible—and it was no ordinary darkness. It seemed to breathe of everything that can shatter nerves. The girl tried to hurry, found her arms striking the walls as she swayed, her feet unable to grip on the uneven floor. She passed two closed doors, took a frightened glance at each, and hurried on. She knew that the rooms were empty. Even that thought she corrected with a shiver. She knew that the rooms had been empty. There was a terrifying difference!
She paused at the far corner of the corridor, wanted to twist her head to discover whether any silent steps were following her, found that she dare not. As her hand fastened on the handle of a door she took a breath so deep that it rose into a frightened sigh. Slowly she pushed back the door. What would she find? Her voice sounded strange, oddly distant when she spoke. Even the words came from her dry mouth with an effort.
“Are you quite all right, Mrs. Graham?”
Even as she spoke her finger pressed down on the light switch. The girl felt her throat closing again. There was no answer. She stepped into the room. Only an hour before she had left it. Yet now it appeared strange. She did not know why, wondered whether everything seemed strange to eyes affected by fright. The same cumbersome furniture filled the room, the same black beams spanned the ceiling, the same huge bed rested in the far corner. She closed the door behind her, fearful lest terror might follow her into the room. By now she was afraid to think, scared in case the most trivial thought suddenly assumed the shape of great evil, of sudden death, of incredible agony, of fiends, of hellish that had no place in the scheme of human life, of . . . She ceased to think.
Her stride quickened as she drew nearer to the bed. It seemed even that the pounding heartbeat was shaking her head. Her lips parted as she gasped, a hand jerked up to hold her throat, and a stifled sob broke from her. She stood staring at the bed—and at the occupant.
The old lady lay motionless, her arms stretched out over the bed. The clothes were flung down as far as her waist. The body was slightly twisted to one side, and the head lolled over the side of the pillow. The girl’s frame shook violently. Then she lowered her hand to grasp the old lady’s shoulder. She meant to whisper, found herself shouting as she asked:
“What is the matter, Mrs. Graham? What is wrong with you, Mrs. Graham?”
The old lady did not move. The girl gulped as she laid the torch on the bed, sat down beside the woman. Her hand trembled as she placed it over the old lady’s heart. So unsteady were her movements that she knew the effort was useless. The hand shook so violently that no delicate beat of a heart could be discerned. She placed the back of her hand over the woman’s mouth, suddenly sighed wearily, felt a lump fill her throat, saw the furniture in the room careering in a crazy dance.
Her body slid forward slowly until her face reached the bed. She lay across the body of the old lady. The girl had fainted.
For how long she lay crumpled across the bed the girl never knew. Her first recollection of consciousness was a feeling of nausea, a wave of sickness that swept through her body. She opened her eyes slowly, still dazed. The furniture looked indistinct, the outlines were vague, the walls of the room seemed to bend to and fro with a slight sway. She felt the limp form beneath her, moved hurriedly. She knew only too well why she had fainted. Relief can cause consciousness to fade away. And in that moment before all turned black she knew that the old lady still breathed, that the form had the stillness, the pallor of a corpse, but that life still flowed through her, however slowly.
The girl moved with an effort. She felt utterly weary, as though the strength had forsaken her for ever. She turned to the woman again, saw that she had moved slightly. Instantly, the girl jumped to her feet, crossed the room, returned with a bottle of smelling salts. The old lady jerked back her head, gulped convulsively, blinked her eyes. Then she grasped the girl’s wrist with a hold of extraordinary strength; it was a grip intensified by fear. The girl winced, said softly: “Don’t be afraid, Mrs. Graham. You’re all right now. I won’t leave you.”
The woman shuddered, closed her eyes, only to open them again almost immediately. The girl tried to smile reassuringly. The effort was not altogether successful. She dropped the smelling bottle, patted the old lady’s face, and then raised the clothes around her.
“What was it?” asked Mrs. Graham. Her voice was tremulous, high-pitched.
“I reckon it must have been one of those screech owls, Mrs. Graham.”
“Don’t lie to me, child. You know it wasn’t. It woke me up. I was so frightened that I must have fainted. What was it, do you think?”
“I think maybe you imagined most of it,” lied the girl. “I think this house must be getting on your nerves a bit. You mustn’t stay here any longer, Mrs. Graham. The place is enough to send anybody mad.”
“Don’t, please don’t!” pleaded the old lady. “Are any of the others about? Did they hear it? Where are they? It was dreadful. I thought I should die. Has anybody been killed? That’s what it sounded like, didn’t it?”
“It wasn’t as bad as that. I heard what I thought was an owl, and came along to see if you were all right. Don’t work yourself into such a state, Mrs. Graham. You know your heart isn’t made for shocks like that.”
“I can’t help it. I think we must all be going mad. I don’t believe you ever thought it was an owl. They don’t make noises like that. It sounded as though somebody was being stabbed, or burnt, or something like that.”
“Don’t get ideas like that into your head. Just lay back on the pillow and I’ll hold your hand until you feel more settled. You ought to go to sleep, and forget all about it. Is there anything you want, Mrs. Graham?”
“I can’t forget about it, and I know I won’t go to sleep again. Where are the others, and why didn’t they hear it? Are you the only one in the house who is up? They must have heard that dreadful shrieking.”
“Be quiet, Mrs. Graham. Is there anything you want me to do for you?”
“Yes, I don’t mind being left now that I feel better. Find out what has happened to the others. I want to know what caused that awful cry.”
The girl’s lips compressed, and her eyes widened with fear. Her mouth opened. She was about to shout out an emphatic refusal. Then her glance flickered round to Mrs. Graham. It seemed that there was more than a request behind her words. In her eyes one could see a silent appeal amounting to supplication. The girl shrugged her shoulders, rose from the bed. One had to humour the old lady. She picked up the torch, started for the door. A weight rested on the pit of her stomach like solid metal.
“Come straight back to me when you’ve seen that everything is safe,” said Mrs. Graham. “I think that one of them must have screamed in their sleep. Don’t be too long. I don’t feel well enough to be left alone.”
The girl nodded her head. As she stepped into the passage she looked along towards the oblong of light thrown against the wall through her open door. The temptation to beat a retreat was more than strong. She averted her glance abruptly, turned the corner in the passage, followed the pencil ray thrown by the torch. All now seemed unnaturally quiet, too quiet to be wholesome. The girl even wished that something would happen to break the silence. Then she thought of that horrific scream, and changed her mind. At the head of the stairs she tried the door on the left-hand side. It was locked. She rapped on the wood, heard a distressed whimper from within. The girl coughed nervously, called out: “Elsie, are you all right? What are you crying for? What’s the matter?”
“Oh!” The sigh of relief from within the room was loud and unforced. A slither of feet prefaced the clicking of the lock, and the opening of the door. A pale-faced girl poked her head round the opening. Her tousled hair spread over her face like a spider’s web. The lips were bloodless.
“My God!” she exclaimed. “Did you hear it? I’ve had more than I can stand of this hell hole. First thing in the morning I’m packing my bags. I’m not staying here to be butchered and murdered. There’s plenty of better places for me, and I reckon you ought to get out before you’re killed.”
Elsie didn’t wait to express herself further. She closed the door, the key was turned, and the bed springs creaked. The girl smiled grimly. Elsie was a maid without much intelligence, but this time she had spoken plenty that sounded sensible. In most affairs of life there are limits beyond which it is not safe to travel. Elsie had reached her limit!
The girl clung to the bannister as she moved down the stairs. She had always thought it crazy that Mrs. Graham should sleep on the second floor, should insist that others in the house should take the first floor bedrooms. There seemed neither rhyme nor reason behind the idea. But an employee can’t often argue.
The stillness, the quiet, became more intense as the girl strode down. It seemed to her that noise was being bottled down, that another wild cry would break the silence at any second. Even the thought of such a happening made her shiver violently. Again she stopped at a door, rapped with her knuckles. This time a strong, masculine voice called out: “Who is that? What do you want? Get away from my door.”
Ferry, the butler, sounded as though he had raised his voice to give himself courage. It was too loud to be convincing.
“This is Miss Knight,” said the girl. “Do you know what happened?”
“I heard it,” called the man, “and I wouldn’t move from this room for a million. Get back to bed while you’re safe. This house isn’t safe.”
The girl said nothing. She agreed with all he said. So she moved farther along the landing, wondering whether or not to turn on all the lights.
She stopped abruptly. There was every reason why she should, she could hear a movement, an unmistakable movement, in the hall below. It sounded like the slither of slippered feet. She pressed the back of her hand against her mouth to restrain the rising shriek, turned to flee to the sanctuary of her room. Her legs refused to function. They had turned into melting fat. Her entire body shook as she clutched the bannister rail. Her chest was rising and falling heavily, and the breath tore from her mouth in short gasps. Sickness struck her stomach, and the light from the torch commenced to sway unsteadily.
She bit tightly into her lip, strove to fight back the waves of darkness swelling over her. Then her quivering fingers opened slightly. The torch fell from her grasp, rolled down three or four stairs. Again the girl tried to scream, could not. Her throat seemed paralysed.
She heard the tread of approaching footsteps. She moaned. Somebody was coming up the stairs! Somebody was coming for her! The control over her limbs no longer existed, and her legs started to bend, to grow limp.
In the darkness she saw a dim blur, could hear a person breathing. The shadowy form grew closer. Her eyes distended, sweat beading her face, the girl swung round, raised an unwilling foot to the next stair.
She lost consciousness as a hand was slammed over her mouth!
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