Shiela Crerar, Psychic Detective:
Stories from 'The Blue Magazine'
by Ella M. Scrymsour, 1888-1962.
First published in The Blue Magazine,
Frank Sellicks (Ed.)
London: Walbrook & Co., 1920.
|"The Eyes of Doom"||May, 1920.|
|"The Death Vapour"||June, 1920.|
|"The Room of Fear"||July, 1920.|
|"The Phantom Isle"||August, 1920.|
|"The Werewolf of Rannoch"||September, 1920.|
|"The Wraith of Fergus McGinty"||October, 1920.|
The Eyes of Doom
SHIELA CRERAR FELT VERY LONELY as she sat in her tiny sitting-room in her dreary lodgings. She was tired, too, mentally as well as physically, and she tried to forget the misery of the past six months.
An orphan, she had been brought up by an uncle who idolised her. For twenty-two years she had lived in happiness in their home in the Highlands. She could visualise it now. A smallish house for a laird, built in the true Scottish baronial style, with turreted roof and pepper-box corners and a tiny courtyard. 'Kencraig' was built on the top of a high eminence overlooking Loch Lubnaig, and it had been one of her chief delights to sit among the heather and watch the rippling waters of the lake beneath. To her left was Ben Ledi, and she revelled in his rugged beauty. He stood for strength and chivalry in her young mind, and she always thought of him as a rough but courteous Bruce, with shaggy locks and tartan kilts flying in the wind. It was only a girlish fancy, but to her the Ben was a living personality – nature's gentleman – a Highland chief.
For twenty-two years she had bid him good morning and waved him a good night. For twenty-two years she had wandered among the heather, bathed in the Loch, and driven into Callender once a week to do her shopping. And now – she wondered why this sorrow should have come to her. Six months ago she had been out in the woods gathering rowan berries. She had gone home gay and bright, but there was no welcoming figure of Uncle John waiting at the door for her. She went into his study – and, oh, the horror of it! He was sitting at his desk, his eyes open wide, his mouth twisted sideways, his hands cold. He did not answer her call. She knew he was dead. 'Heart failure,' the doctor said, and Shiela felt that the light had gone out of her world.
The funeral over, she had gone into the library with Mr MacArthur, her uncle's attorney. At first Shiela did not understand what Mr MacArthur was trying to tell her. She couldn't realise that she had been left penniless, with only a heavily mortgaged estate as a legacy. Mr MacArthur advised her to sell Kencraig, pay off the mortgage, and with what little remained over fit herself to take her place among the workers of the great world. But Shiela refused to sell her home. Every stone was precious to her, every corner was a dear, living friend.
At last she agreed to let it on a five years' lease to a rich American widow.
'What do you intend doing now?' he asked.
'I shall have about a hundred pounds. I shall go to London, and try and get something to do there.'
She was obstinate. She procured cheap rooms in London in a road derisively called Air Street. Her hundred pounds did not go far. In vain she tried for work in the great Metropolis; no one wanted her. Depressed and silent, she sat in her little room, and wondered what would happen when her scanty money gave out. She was a petite maid, with nut-brown hair and grey eyes that looked all too trustingly at a cruel and heartless world.
She had no money to spend on amusements, and as she walked the streets of the great city she saw visions of the long ago. She wandered in Lincoln's Inn, and saw the passing of sedan chairs; watched gallants, with silken coat and jewelled sword, bend low before their lady loves. She sought out 'old London', and lived alone in the seventeenth century. Always psychic, her gift seemed trebled in her sorrow and loneliness, and her only friends now were the dim ghosts of the past.
She was sitting in the gardens of Lincoln's Inn one day, when she suddenly became aware of a quaint figure beside her – a wizened man of perhaps sixty years, in a dark, claret-coloured suit, with a black three-cornered hat upon his knee. And as she looked, he took a pinch of snuff from a beautifully enamelled box, and applied it to his nostrils, his little finger delicately poised like a bird on the wing.
'You are sad and lonely, little lady,' he said suddenly. 'Why not help those that are sad and lonely too? You have a gift – a most wonderful gift of sight. Use that sight for your own benefit and the benefit of mankind. I promise you, you will not fail.'
'But how?' she began, but the quaint little figure had gone; and there was only a fat old woman, with an untidy dress and a rusty black bonnet, watching her curiously from the further corner of the seat.
Shiela felt dazed. She rose and looked round. No, she was still in the bustling world of taxis and motor-buses. The picturesque past had vanished. She smiled a little, and went home, but her brain was working hard. She slept well that night, and when morning came her mind was made up.
For the next three days an advertisement appeared in the agony column of The Times:
Lady of gentle birth, Scottish, young, penniless, possessing strong psychic powers, will devote her services to the solving of uncanny mysteries or the 'laying of ghosts'. Offer quite genuine. Reply, with particulars and remuneration offered, to S. C. c/o Mrs Barker, 14b Air Street, Regent's Park, London.
And now she was waiting – waiting. Two days had passed since her advertisement had first appeared. A double knock sounded. The postman! A footstep sounded outside, and Mrs Barker appeared.
'A registered letter for you, my dear,' she remarked cheerily. 'I'll be bringing yer supper in 'alf a tick. See, it's a bloater tonight, ain't it? A poor man's steak, I calls it.'
And Shiela shuddered slightly. The well-meant vulgarity repelled her; the stench of cooking fish nauseated her. She felt nervy, restless, ill. The Highlands were calling her – she longed to feel the springy heather under her feet – to drink in the strong air. It was the call of the hills!
She looked at the thick, crested envelope curiously. It was certainly an answer to her advertisement, for it was addressed to her initials – S. C. Slowly she read it, and a flush of excitement crept into her cheeks.
Loch Long, N.B.
If S. C.'s offer is really genuine, will she accept the enclosed £10 on account for immediate expenses, and wire Lady Kildrummie that she is prepared to try to solve, and perhaps lay for ever, the very unpleasant mystery known as the 'Kildrummie Weird'? If S. C. states the time she will arrive at Arrochar Station, Lady Kildrummie will see that there is a car sent to meet her.
Shiela's eyes glowed. Arrochar! Scotland! Her luck had turned at last. She was going back to her beloved Highlands. But would she succeed in her undertaking? Then she remembered the 'little old man' in Lincoln's Inn. 'You will not fail,' he had said. Of course, she had heard of the 'Kildrummie Weird'. Who had not? Was it not as much speculated upon as the hidden mystery of Glamis? Was it not even as mysterious? What was the story – did not some great calamity happen when the Weird appeared?
Next day she wired Lady Kildrummie that she would come at once, and she caught the night train to Glasgow where she changed for the West Highland line. At Arrochar Station, over which Ben Lomond towers, she looked round eagerly.
A tall man in the late thirties came towards her – a handsome man, rugged, strong, in a kilt of the Cameron tartan, his mother's clan.
'Miss Crerar?' he asked, raising his bonnet. 'I am Stavordale Hartland. My aunt, Lady Kildrummie, asked me to meet you.'
His voice was pleasantly tuneful, and the wholesome admiration in his eyes could do nought but please her. Instantly she compared him to rugged Ben Ledi, and, had the man at her side but known, it was the greatest compliment she could have paid him.
Dunfunerie was situate on the Argyllshire side of Loch Long, nestling under the great shoulder of 'The Cobbler' himself. Lady Kildrummie met her with outstretched hands. 'How good of you to come, my dear. Are you by any chance related to Crerar of Kencraig?'
'He was my uncle.'
'Then you are doubly welcome, for Kencraig was my late husband's greatest friend. Now, Stavordale, you can leave Miss Crerar and me to have tea together.'
It was not until they had finished their tea that her hostess commenced her story.
'My dear, I am in great trouble,' she said, by way of starting. 'Your advertisement interested me, and I wondered if you could "lay for ever" the Weird that haunts this place. Up to now the story has been kept absurdly secret – I think none of us wanted to believe in it. Since the time of Coinneach the Strong, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, Kildrummie has been cursed by this Weird. Every twenty-three years some terrible calamity has occurred in the family, preceded for about six months by "The Eyes".'
'Yes, the "Eyes of Doom" they are called. The Kildrummie Weird takes the form of eyes that appear and disappear, and are mainly seen in the west wing. In recent years calamity has fallen on this house after the Eyes have been seen. In 1874, the year I was married, my husband's two elder brothers died – each by his own hand. One was found drowned in the Loch, the other was shot on the summit of the "Cobbler" yonder. At both inquests the verdict was "accidental death", but we all knew better. It was "the Eyes" that had driven them mad. My husband became heir to the title, and in 1897 my eldest son poisoned himself. Again it was put down to an accident. He was dabbling in photography, and it was supposed that he took some cyanide by mistake for his medicine. But it was no accident – twenty-three years had passed, and he had seen "The Eyes". This is 1920, Miss Crerar; it is twenty-three years since Diarmid died, and I am afraid. My son Duncan, the only one left to me, is now twenty-six years old. Lately he has complained of being kept awake at night by curious creakings. He has seen strange lights, and, oh, he is changed. I can't explain what I mean; you will see for yourself; he is all nerves. I am convinced he has seen "The Eyes of Doom". Will you try and solve the mystery for me, Miss Crerar? What the cause is I don't know, but the hideous waiting for some tragedy to fall is terrible.'
'I'll do my best, Lady Kildrummie. I can promise you no more.'
That evening Shiela met Duncan Kildrummie. Although young, he was a distinguished soldier – had won the D.S.O., and been mentioned several times in despatches, and had the reputation among his friends of being a regular dare-devil. But Shiela had a shock when she saw him. His hands were restless, the flesh under his eyes was puffy and dark, and if he was spoken to suddenly his whole body would respond with nervous twitchings.
'Lady Kildrummie,' she said after dinner, 'will you put your son into another room to sleep, and leave his empty for me to examine? I can see he is in a state of great mental distress. Can't you get him to go away for a change?'
'It's no use, Miss Crerar. I have begged him to go away, but nothing will induce him to leave.'
That night Shiela changed into a dark rest-gown, and when everyone had retired to bed she prowled up and down the long corridors armed only with a tiny flash-lamp. She unlocked the chapel door and went inside. Suddenly she felt an icy blast that seemed to pierce through her, and the heavy door closed silently behind her. She felt startled, and tried to open it, but the catch was down on the other side. She was locked in! The sudden gust of wind was not repeated, yet she found she was shivering with cold from head to foot. Always venturesome, the thought never entered her head to find a way of rousing the household. If she was unable to get out, then she would stay in the chapel till day came.
She sat down in one of the old-fashioned pews and looked about her. The moon was conveniently bright, and she could distinguish objects quite clearly by its light.
As she sat she became aware that someone was looking at her, and she turned sharply round.
A pair of eyes was gazing at her, eyes so mournful, so full of grief that Shiela felt her own fill with tears of sympathy.
And as she met the piteous gaze she became suddenly conscious of the fact that the eyes were not framed by a face! She rose with a startled exclamation of horror, and turned away, but to her right another pair of eyes appeared, eyes this time that were mad with hate; eyes so filled with loathing and malevolence that Shiela backed away from them in fear. But now the whole chapel seemed filled with the ghastly sight. Eyes with expression, eyes without! Eyes kind, eyes cruel! Eyes imbecile, eyes fanatical! Eyes with every expression in them that man could conceive.
Shiela put out her hands to beat the swelling mass away, but even as her arms were extended in front of her they were caught in a ghostly vice, and she was dragged to the vestry door.
She was drawn by unseen hands – hands that possessed an unseen body. All that she could see of her captor was two eyes, eyes that shone in the moonlight and that looked at her with cruel menace.
The vestry door swung silently open, and she was dragged through, followed by the eyes. She had no time to look round, for the door that communicated with the west wing, which was always doubly locked and barred, now stood open wide, and through it Shiela was taken.
The west wing was partly a ruin, and the wind whistled through glassless windows and roofless halls. Then the grip of iron relaxed, and she found she was in a small turret chamber, and around her were twenty-three pairs of eyes – all baleful and cruel, except one, and that one pair seemed as if they might belong to a wounded deer, so plaintive were they, so mournful and sad.
Shiela moved towards the door, but the eyes surrounded her. She tried to dodge them, tried to get away from them, but it was impossible. She was as keenly guarded as if by living bodies. Then she grew really frightened, terrified, her brain seemed to go numb, her teeth chattered, and she cried aloud in her agony of dread. But the eyes grew fiercer and more cruel – they seemed to menace her. With a cry she threw herself at the bodiless terrors, and all became dark.
For awhile she remembered nothing, then she was conscious that she was being carried down long corridors and up steep stairs. There was the sound of a click, and a voice said, 'Do you want anything, Miss Crerar? I heard you call out, so I came across to you.' It was Lady Kildrummie.
'I'm thirsty,' cried Shiela, 'and, oh, please, Lady Kildrummie, will you put the light on.'
But Lady Kildrummie stared in amazement, for she had switched on the electric light as she entered the room! She bent over the girl. Here eyes were open wide, but they met her gaze with a cold stare. The sight had gone!
'My dear, my dear,' she breathed, 'what has happened?'
'I – I hardly know. I – I was in the chapel – oh, do please put on the light. It is so dark here.'
Tenderly the elder woman put her arms about the girl.
'Tell me first what is the matter,' she said gently. 'The dark is so peaceful, and I am here with you.'
Incoherently Shiela spoke. 'I was in the chapel – through the turret room. There were twenty-three eyes – ' The girl's voice trailed off. She seemed to be in a stupor, but her eyes were still wide open. Lady Kildrummie rang a bell.
'Tell Doctor Graeme to come here at once,' she said to the startled maid. 'Miss Crerar is ill.'
The genial doctor, a guest in the house, came hurriedly and examined the girl.
'She's had a shock,' he said.
'Her eyes! Her eyes!' cried Lady Kildrummie, distractedly.
'My God! Blind! But she was all right at dinner!' said the doctor.
That night a watchful vigil was kept over Shiela, and when the sun rose she awoke from her torpor and looked at Lady Kildrummie in amazement.
'What is the matter?' she asked, curiously. 'Why are you here?'
And her hostess realised that she had regained the power of sight. When the doctor saw her he stared at her in amazement.
'My dear young lady, why, I – I – bless my soul – there's nothing wrong with her!'
Shiela told Lady Kildrummie of her experience in the night, but her hostess smiled.
'You have certainly described the turret room, Miss Crerar, but you couldn't have got into it last night, as I hold the key.'
'But I did,' protested Shiela. 'The door was open wide.'
'Well, we will go and look at it as soon as you are up, but I assure you it would be quite impossible for anyone to open the door without my key.'
'Now,' said Lady Kildrummie later, 'you see this door is twice bolted and twice locked.'
The bolts were stiff and the key turned with great difficulty, but the nail-studded door swung open at last. Shiela gave a little cry of triumph. The floor, thickly coated with the dust of ages, was marked by freshly made footprints – footprints of long, pointed boots that crossed and recrossed each other – and among the old-fashioned prints were some made by a little, light modern shoe.
Shiela took hers off, and bent down to the mark nearest the door. It fitted exactly!
'I was here last night,' she whispered, hysterically.
But Lady Kildrummie was almost speechless, and terror shone in her eyes. 'The Eyes of Doom,' she muttered, hoarsely. 'God help us, for our troubles are beginning.'
That night as Shiela was preparing for bed again the melancholy eyes appeared. She looked at them fearfully. It was an awe-inspiring sight to watch those expressive eyes move about, propelled by an unseen force. They seemed to float in the air, and she knew their power of locomotion rested in the bodies that were hidden from her sight. And even as she waited the other eyes manifested themselves. She tried to resist, but the ghostly hands were too strong, and again she was taken to the turret room. A circle of eyes was around her – eyes on a level with her own, but only space above them and space below. But they seemed less malignant, less cruel, though terrifying nevertheless. They seemed to be trying to tell her something, but she was unable to read their message. She was nervous, she was on the defensive, and unconsciously she rendered herself out of tune with the Weird. She was not in a fit psychic state to understand them. She was in too material a condition. The eyes seemed to realise this, and they grew menacing again, fretful, impatient. Again there came to the girl a space of forgetfulness, and when she awoke to realities she was back in her room, and she realised she was blind!
She moved uncertainly about the room. Everything seemed unfamiliar to her, unreal. Her eyes hurt her, they seemed inflamed, they were sore. All night long the pain was unbearable, and she sat on a chair, helpless and miserable. But as the dawn came so a veil seemed to be lifted from her eyes, and she could see once more. It was a blindness that came with the darkness and went with the morning light.
During the day Shiela was trying to get into communion with the astral world. She was trying to fit herself to 'see' even deeper into the mysteries of the 'unknown'. It was her first trial alone, and she was gradually becoming fitted for the task she had set herself.
Daily Duncan Kildrummie grew more silent, more morose, more taciturn. The Kildrummie Weird was trying to claim him as its victim, and he realised it and knew he was too weak to hold out against it for long. Soon he, too, would die – and die 'accidentally', as so many members of his family had done.
The eyes grew more venturesome. One night a pair hovered over the dinner table, and gazed at Duncan intently. All saw them, and as Lady Kildrummie screamed in terror they disappeared. But Duncan rose, and stumbled blindly out of the room. Stavordale went quickly after him, and found his cousin staring at the cold waters of the Loch. He was staring, staring, and there was a look of madness in his eyes. The next night several pairs circled round him. He tried to beat them off, but they seemed always just out of his reach, and their expression mocked him.
Stavordale Hartland attached himself to Shiela, and she found his strong personality a great help to her in the nerve-racking time she was going through. Night after night when the eyes claimed her she found she was a helpless entity in their grasp. And in the turret room they supplicated, entreated, menaced her, and still she was unable to read their meaning.
And daily the eyes seemed to appear more often. They followed Duncan from room to room, they drove him out of the house, and he would disappear for hours at a time, and his mother's heart would ache with apprehension.
One night Shiela resolved not to go to bed, and Lady Kildrummie and Stavordale agreed to sit up all night with her in the library. For Shiela had come to dread the period of blindness that was forced upon her in so mysterious a way, and she wondered if in company she would be strong enough to resist the ghostly hands.
First one pair of eyes appeared, and then another, until all twenty-three pairs surrounded the trio. As if turned to stone, Lady Kildrummie and Stavordale Hartland watched Shiela forcibly dragged out of the room. They could neither move nor speak, and when Shiela returned to them she found that three helpless people would have to stay in the library until dawn, for this time they were all blind!
Next night Shiela and Stavordale were standing together watching Duncan walking restlessly up and down the terrace.
'Don't you think you had better give all this up, little girl?' said Stavordale Hartland, and his voice held a tender, caressing note.
'I can't' she said, passionately. 'Look at him. He is all his mother has. Can't you see the Eyes are driving him mad? The Weird will claim another victim unless I can prevent it.' And even as she spoke the evil eyes appeared, phosphorescent in the darkness, and with a wild shriek Duncan Kildrummie fled into the blackness of the night. Until the morning he roamed the country at large, and when he appeared at breakfast he was haggard and worn, and the most inexperienced eye could tell that he was really ill.
Shiela alone seemed to have a soothing effect upon him, and when later in the day Dr Graeme administered a sleeping draught, he suggested that Shiela should sit by his bedside until it took effect. Lady Kildrummie left her for a moment, and immediately Shiela was conscious that the Eyes were watching her.
Before she realised it she was in the turret room, and she found she was numb from head to foot – she was powerless to move. As she watched, the eyes suddenly materialised into men. Gradually their bodies appeared until twenty-two men in doublet and hose stood before her. Their garments were of silk and velvet – rich, costly, gay. And the twenty-third of that ghostly company was a girl, almost a child of not more than fifteen years. Her hair was unbound and her face distorted with grief, and she clung piteously to a black-bearded man of middle age. A ghostly play began, and all the while Shiela watched with increasing horror. Others appeared on the scene – men in kilt and plaid, with dirks drawn, dirks red with blood. Roughly the girl was torn from the arms of her father and bound with hempen ropes.
The scenes that followed were hideous to behold, and Shiela knew that there was a power at work that compelled her to watch. The captive girl writhed and tore at her bonds, but all to no purpose – they were too cunningly tied. Not a word was said aloud, but the agonised expressions, the black terror spoke louder than words.
Two ghostly figures in black carried in a red-hot brazier; the coal burned and seemed to splutter, yet made no sound. Two long irons were placed in the glowing coals. The prisoners made a desperate effort to overpower their captors; for a few moments the whole place was in confusion, but gradually their efforts were subdued, and one by one they were dragged to the fire. One by one the red-hot iron was plunged into their eyes, one by one they were blinded and flung aside to die.
Shiela watched twenty-two men done to death in this awful way. She watched their agonies of pain, their writhings, their torments, and the scene was all the more horrible because of the deathly silence that accompanied it.
There was but one more victim – the girl. Roughly she was dragged to the brazier, but a merciful Providence intervened, she stumbled and fell, and when a man roughly turned her over with his foot he found the gentle spirit had fled.
The assassins looked round the room at the dead, and even as they did so the scene changed, and Shiela found she was out in the chestnut avenue, standing before the giant tree, the pride of Dunfunerie. The rain poured down in torrents, the wind blew hard, her dress clung to her figure and chilled her, her shoes were covered with mud. A black-cowled monk approached, with beads and breviary. Horror came into his countenance as he stumbled over the still warm bodies. He touched the girl in gentle pity, but he was jostled away rudely. He opened his book, and Shiela could see that he was pleading to be allowed to say a prayer over the bodies. A huge man struck him, and as he picked himself up he silently cursed the murderers. He cursed them on the Holy Book, but they jeered in his face and continued their nefarious work.
There under the spreading chestnut tree a pit was dug, and, with neither prayer nor priest, into it the girl was flung. Then followed the other twenty-three. The hole was small – the bodies protruded above the sides. With a ribald smile on his cruel face, the menacing figure in black forced the ground to receive them. The pit was covered in with earth, the murdered ones were safely hidden away, and Shiela realised she had witnessed a scene that had taken place some three hundred years before, a scene that had been re-enacted for her benefit. At last she knew what 'the Eyes' had tried to tell her.
The figures died away, they seemed to be absorbed into the atmosphere itself, and once more only twenty-three pairs of eyes were left, but they were eyes that looked at her with gratitude. They knew she understood.
And as she watched them, too, fade away she was conscious that her limbs were once more warm. She looked round in bewilderment – there on the bed lay the sleeping form of Duncan Kildrummie. She was back in his room. She felt her dress – it was quite dry. Her shoes had no trace of mud upon them. Lady Kildrummie entered.
'My dear, I'm sorry,' she said, 'I am afraid I have been rather a long time. Why ' she broke off, 'what's the matter?' For Shiela was gazing at the open door, and her expression was soft and pitiful. But Lady Kildrummie could not see the figure of a frail young girl, dressed in a soft homespun with a white kerchief round her shoulders, a girl who looked at Shiela with thanks in her soft brown eyes.
'I think I shall be able to help you lay your "Weird" successfully, Lady Kildrummie,' said Shiela. 'I'll tell you later, after I have had time to think.' Next day a small party gathered underneath the chestnut tree. The turf was smooth and velvety – it had grown undisturbed for many centuries, but now it was being removed.
'Ah!' said Shiela, suddenly, for as the spade dug deep into the rich brown earth a skeleton arm appeared. Reverently the mould was moved. Twenty-two skeletons were unearthed, twenty-two skeletons of full-grown men, but at the bottom of the pit was a tiny skeleton, a skeleton crushed and broken. And Shiela knew it was the last remains of the girl – the Weird with the mournful eyes!
Reverently the bones were placed in an empty stone sarcophagus in the little chapel, and reverently the minister spoke the prayers for the dead. And as the last amen was said, Shiela heard an unseen choir burst out in song. It was the 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo'.
Lady Kildrummie drew her cloak about her shoulders. 'Do you hear the wind whistling?' she asked. Shiela smiled. She knew.
Six weeks later Duncan Kildrummie was up for the first time, after a serious attack of brain fever, during which for some days his life had been in the balance. But now the nervous twitchings were entirely gone, and his eye was clear and steady.
'And you think we are free of the "Weird" at last?' asked Lady Kildrummie, as she was bidding Shiela goodbye.
'I hope so. I don't know the history of the turret room, but I should say the twenty-three were trapped there, and perhaps for religious reasons were foully murdered by some of your forebears. They were refused a Christian burial, and that accounted for their hatred and their hauntings. Their poor spirits were unable to rest in peace. Every twenty-three years – their number – they returned, but they could not make themselves understood.'
Stavordale accompanied Shiela to Glasgow. He was very silent during the journey, but as the train was drawing into the city he suddenly took one of her hands.
'Miss Crerar – Shiela – I – I – won't you give all this up?' he urged.
'I – I can't,Mr Hartland.'
'But why? Shiela, won't you be my wife?'
'I – I can't explain, but I have a mission to fulfil. I have set myself a task, and I must complete it.' She smiled at him. 'Won't you wait a little?'
'Then you do care,' he said, triumphantly, as he sought to draw her towards him, but the train had already stopped at the platform of the Glasgow terminus. Then all was bustle and rush, and it was not until he had said goodbye to her as she left for Edinburgh, where she had engaged rooms, that he realised she had not replied to his question!
Well, perhaps the time was not yet ripe for his love-making, but he realised whate'er might befall he had met his fate. And, like a knight in the 'days of long ago', the wish of his lady was his law. He would bide her time, impatient though he might be.
The Death Vapour
THE TELEPHONE BELL RANG. Shiela Crerar picked up the receiver. 'Yes, Hullo!' Her eyes brightened, but her voice remained cool and sedate. 'Mr Stavordale Hartland? Yes? What? Oh, dear! Yes, come round at once, and tell me all about it. Goodbye.'
Half an hour later Mr Hartland was ushered into Shiela's pretty little sitting-room in Edinburgh. He held her outstretched hand in both his, and looked hungrily into her eyes; but she deftly freed herself, and sat down in an armchair by the window.
'Now tell me all about it,' she said, motioning him to a seat opposite her.
'Very strange things have been happening at my sister's home,' he began. 'First we heard curious groanings about the place, but took no notice of them, putting it down to the wind under the eaves. Then the groanings changed to terrible cries, and now a peculiar vapour has manifested itself, which leaves a most unpleasant odour behind it.'
'What is it like?'
'I can only describe it as a volume of steam. It has appeared in all parts of the house, and at all times. It hovers about for a few seconds and then disappears. I can't describe what it is, but there is something so horribly evil about it that my sister is frightened to death.'
'Why doesn't she go away?'
'She can't, Miss Crerar. Her husband, who died quite recently, left a most eccentric will. He bequeathed all his money and property to her on one condition.'
'And that is?'
'That until her son marries, she spends nine consecutive months each year at her house – Duroch Lodge.'
'And how old is her son now?'
'Kenneth is just ten, so, of course, for his sake, she must obey the condition of the will. She knows all about you, and begged me to ask you to help her. Will you?'
'Of course I will,' said Shiela. 'Where is Duroch Lodge?'
'Quite near Benderloch. I suppose you couldn't come today?' he went on, hesitatingly. 'A train leaves just after twelve.'
Shiela looked round the room thoughtfully, and then consulted her wrist watch. 'Call for me with a taxi at a quarter to twelve,' she said, briskly. 'I'll be ready.'
'Thank you so much, Shi – Miss Crerar,' but with a gay little laugh, she was gone.
They caught their train easily, and when they reached Duroch Lodge Lady Morven was waiting for them.
She was a matronly figure of forty, pleasant and motherly.
'My dear, can you help us?' she cried. 'You are so young – so feminine. I expected a bespectacled young woman – sexless – who would tackle the problem from a purely scientific point of view.'
'I'm not very old – twenty-three,' she said, naively. 'I'll do my best.' A vague, dreamy look came into her eyes. 'I'm Highland, you know, and I've the second sight. I feel sure I can help you.'
'Thank you, dear,' and the elder woman kissed her impulsively.
After lunch Lady Morven took Shiela all over the house, to make her familiar with every nook and cranny, every hole and corner in it.
'I don't want you to tell me any more,' said Shiela. 'I just want you to treat me as an ordinary guest.'
Three days passed, which Shiela enjoyed immensely. She played golf, rode, walked, and, in the evenings, sang Highland folk songs. There was no sign of anything uncanny happening, and Shiela wondered if it was simply mind pictures that had been conjured up by a hyper-sensitive woman, and if there was really no mystery at all. It was March, and the wind was very cold, and the glow of the fire in her bedroom cheered her enormously. She curled herself up in a big armchair in front of it, and prepared for a delightful read before she finally got into bed.
Eleven had just struck – the whole house was still. There was nothing to be heard but the rustling of the trees outside, and the sharp gusts of the wind.
Suddenly there came the sound of a most terrible cry, a cry so full of poignant horror – of unutterable misery – of despair that it made her blood run cold. As it died away, it seemed to leave the place even more quiet than it had been before.
Shiela rose and opened her door softly. Now that her blood was stirred she had no sense of fear. She knew she was coming to grips at last with the unknown, and every nerve in her body thrilled at the thought. The long corridor was empty, but through a circular window at the end the moon sent her pale beams; and the scudding clouds made them appear and disappear in a weird fashion. As she stood, watching and listening, Lady Morven's door opened.
'Did you hear it?' she cried. 'Oh, it was terrible.'
'Go back,' said Shiela sternly. 'Leave me.'
The door clicked, and once more Shiela was alone. Quiet as a mouse she waited, but no cry came again to startle the stillness of the night. After a couple of hours of watchful vigil she returned to bed, and wondered in her heart if some cruel practical joke was being perpetrated by an unknown enemy.
Next morning Lady Morven greeted her guest with awestruck eyes.
'You aren't afraid?' she asked, curiously.
'Let me watch with you,' suggested Stavordale Hartland. 'I don't think it is wise to leave you alone. You might have a fright that would upset you for life.'
'Please,' said Shiela. 'I came to help Lady Morven. I must do it my own way.'
'Will you call on me, if you want any help?'
Shiela smiled into the earnest eyes that were watching her so closely. 'I promise,' she said, but she thrilled at the look of gratitude he gave her.
'Oh, it's terrible,' moaned Lady Morven. 'I must stay here. If I do not I lose my entire income, and everything not entailed is left to charity, so that my little son would suffer too.'
'Did your husband know of these – these hauntings?' asked Shiela.
'I don't see how he could have done. They only started since his death – five months ago.'
'It was an extraordinary will to make.'
'I think it was done to feel he could tie me down, even when he was dead. It curtailed my freedom. He always hated me' – she smiled wanly. 'It was a mariage de convenance, my dear, and sometimes he was really cruel to me. The only consolation I had then was little Ken.'
That night as Shiela was playing the piano in the drawing-room, she heard a smothered cry from Lady Morven; she looked round, and her hands involuntarily clashed on the notes, which resulted in a crashing discord.
Close by the fireplace rose a misty vapour – like the steam from a kettle, but of yellowish tint; just a thin spiral column that rose from floor to ceiling, and writhed and twisted in serpentine coils.
Shiela rushed towards it, but even as she drew near, it vanished from sight, leaving a slight sulphurous odour behind.
Later the dreaded cry came twice in quick succession, and even Shiela felt a cold shudder go down her spine as she heard the bloodcurdling sound. But though she waited throughout the night, nothing else happened.
Next day she examined the walls and floors where she had seen the mist rise, but there was nothing to account for its appearance. As she went up the stairs to her room that night she saw the vapour at the end of the passage, and she noticed that it was in the full light of the moon's rays.
'Deduction number one,' she said to herself. 'It must have light. Yesterday it was between the fire and the electric light, tonight it is basking in the light of the moon.'
She went towards it fearlessly, but the smell was stronger, and nearly stifled her. But as she reached the evil-looking column, it disappeared.
For the next few days the phenomenon was more pronounced. Almost every hour it could be seen in some part of the house; but the baleful vapour always kept in the direct rays of some light, artificial or otherwise.
Shiela's eyes grew bright. She spent nearly all her time alone-rummaging round the old world passages – investigating the little family chapel – even hunting among the ruins of the tiny Priory that had once flourished, and was now a mere handful of bricks and stone by the rose-garden.
'Have you a copy of Sir John Tadson's History of Historical Scottish Houses?' she asked one day.
'I think so,' said Stavordale, and he went with her into the big, old-fashioned library, where they discovered the musty old volume, that had probably not been opened since it was first purchased in 1823.
'Have you found anything out, dear?' asked Lady Morven at dinner that night.
'I think so,' she replied. 'At any rate, I want to try an experiment. The moon will be at the full tomorrow at nine. The beams will fall right across the corridor to your door, Mr Hartland. Now, if the "Death Vapour" appears tomorrow night, it seems within the bounds of possibility to presume it will appear where the moonbeams will fall directly on it. Don't you think so?'
'Yes, of course, judging by past experience.'
'Well, I want you both to help me.'
'I will hide in the shadow of your room, Lady Morven, close to where the beams will be at their brightest. I want you to stand behind the curtains over my door, and just watch. If I need any help, you will be there to give it, if not, well, I think the ghost will have been "laid" successfully.' She wouldn't explain what she intended doing, and Stavordale felt very anxious. The little 'nut-brown' maid had grown very dear to him, and the experiments in which she had engaged herself were none to his liking. He knew little about the occult, but he had a wholesome dread of interfering in things supernatural.
That night, at a little before nine, three human beings took up the positions allotted to them in the corridor. Gradually the moonbeams crept nearer and nearer. The night was clear – there was not a cloud in the sky, and there was only the faintest breath of wind, which hardly stirred the leaves on the trees.
There was a feeling of death in the air. Shiela alone was calm and restful. In her gown of white she looked almost like an angel.
No one spoke – the stillness could be felt. Suddenly the vapour appeared, the evil vapour which filled them all with dread. And even as they watched they saw Shiela suddenly throw herself, with a half-articulate cry, at the writhing mass. Stavordale saw the dress mingled with the foggy matter, and instinctively he rushed forward, but even as he did so, there came from the vapour that terrible cry. Blood-curdling – horrible – hellish – and as he reached the side of Shiela, who had fallen a crumpled heap on the floor, it disappeared.
'Help me,' he cried to his sister. 'God! I believe she is injured.'
He picked up the fainting girl, carried her into his sister's boudoir, and laid her gently on the settee. Her eyes were closed, her lips blue and swollen, and there was the tiniest wound on her cheek from which blood oozed. It was like a toothmark, and he shuddered as he saw it.
'Turn the light on full,' he cried. 'Where's the brandy?'
But as the electric light blazed out, he turned to his sister in horror. For Shiela was covered from head to foot in a thin slime that smelt like death. It was in glistening streaks all over her face, in glistening streaks all over her dress. A slime that was horrible, filthy, and evil-smelling. And even as he brushed her cheeks clean of the malodorous matter he felt a burning sensation in his finger, and he saw a blister had risen, as though he had passed his hand through a flame!
'This is awful,' he cried, never heeding the growing pain in his hands. 'Hillary, get Mrs Black – wash Shiela' – unconsciously he used her Christian name – 'wash her in milk. I'll get a doctor. Burn all her clothes,' and he gently held the icy cold hands. He had forced brandy between her tightly clenched teeth, but it had done her no good, and she still remained unconscious. Mrs Black, the housekeeper, a Highland woman of the old school, came quickly in answer to the bell. Gently she and Hillary undressed the senseless girl, and bathed her in oil and milk.
'Put her in my bed,' said Lady Morven. 'I'll sit up with her tonight.'
Mrs Black asked no questions, but tended the newcomer, who was popular with everyone.
With gloves on her hands, Lady Morven picked up the girl's clothing and placed it on the open fire. And as she did so, there came that awful cry, as if a living creature was in pain. As the last remnant disappeared into ashes the dreadful cry was repeated, and, as it died away into an unearthly moan, a sobbing breath came from the girl on the bed – she shivered violently and opened her eyes.
'It's gone,' she whispered. 'But oh, it burnt so.'
'My dear, my dear,' said Lady Morven brokenly. 'I shall not allow you to put yourself into such danger again. I have been a very wicked woman. I shall leave here.' A knock sounded.
'The doctor,' said Mrs Black.
The canny doctor entered. He had been told a little of what had happened, but he put it all down to excessive imagination on the part of Shiela.
'H'm. Burnt rather badly. How did it happen?' He examined the wound at the side of her cheek. 'What's this? It looks like a bite', and, even as he spoke, Shiela grew whiter than before.
'I'm bitten, you say? Oh, God help me', and she burst into tears.
When the doctor had gone she said to Lady Morven, 'I mustn't stay. I am a danger to you all. Oh, let me go now.'
'My dear, don't be foolish. Of course I shan't let you go. How do you mean you will be a danger?'
'I think I have discovered what has been haunting this place. It is an elemental. Now it has tasted my blood, and it will be even more fearless. Oh, send me away. I had armed myself with a crucifix when I threw myself at it, but in my excitement I dropped it. Thus it was able to feast upon me without interruption.'
That night was a night of terror to them all. Even Stavordale Hartland, a man of iron nerves, felt his blood run cold at the incessant cries of horror that rang throughout the night. Shiela was almost too weak to move, but suddenly, when there had been a hush for a time, she cried out, 'Beat it off, oh, don't let it come. Get a Bible. Keep it away from me.'
The 'Death Vapour' was materialising in the sick room. It drew nearer and nearer until it enveloped the figure on the sick bed.
'Stavordale, help me, help me,' cried his sister.
Together they bent over the writhing vapour, and the man placed a Bible on Shiela's breast.
With a hoarse cry of rage the vapour disappeared, but the watchers saw another tiny wound on the girl's neck.
All that night they wrestled with the 'Death Vapour'. The house rang with cries of rage and hate. The very rafters echoed with hoarse laughter and choking screams.
When the morning came Shiela announced her intention of getting up.
'I can't rest here,' she said pathetically. 'I want to get out into the fresh air.'
Later in the day she said, 'Was there any other strange clause in your husband's will?'
'No, I don't think so – only the one relating to my staying here.'
'Was that all?'
'Yes, except, of course, the crucifixes.'
'What was that?' quickly.
'Oh, from time immemorial, a crucifix has hung in every room in this house. I think it dated from the time when the monastery was dismantled, and this house was built. My husband said in his will that he wanted every crucifix in the house to be buried with him.'
'Ah, I think we may have your husband to thank for these unpleasant manifestations. It seems wicked to accuse the dead, but I'm afraid he knew what he was doing when he made that dastardly will.'
After a pause Shiela went on:
'Should you die, Lady Morven, who would benefit?'
A shadow passed over the face of Lady Morven.
'A very distant cousin, Miss Crerar, someone my late husband at one time wanted to marry.'
'Oh,' and Shiela looked sympathetically at the woman beside her. 'I've been looking up the history of this place and it makes very strange reading. Part of this house existed at the time of the monastery, and part of the foundations belong to the time of the monastery itself. History is very vague about it, but the Priory was completely dismantled in 1587.' Stavordale Hartland looked perplexed.
'What has this to do with the unpleasant happenings of last night, Miss Crerar?'
'A great deal. I have spent a considerable time in the library lately, Mr Hartland, and I have discovered a lot about this place which I believe you are in ignorance of.'
"In 1539 the Priory was at the height of its fame. The Prior, a holy man, was beloved of all, and you can judge his horror and dismay, when one day he found two of his most trusted monks offering up the "Black Mass" in the vault below the chapel.'
'This is getting exciting,' said Lady Morven. 'It sounds like a novel.'
'The whole matter was thrashed out, and it was discovered that Brothers Ambrose and Aloysius were in the habit of visiting the neighbouring hamlets and villages ostensibly on errands of mercy. In reality they enticed children from their homes and inaugurated the "Black Mass" sacrifices. They offered the children's warm, living blood to Sathanas, their chosen master, and drank it in communion.'
'Justice was meted out to them by the Prior. They were locked up in the vault they had profaned, and left there to die a slow death of starvation.'
'Still, I cannot see what all this has to do with the question in point,' said Hartland. 'After all it is only a legend.'
'No, that is where you are wrong. It really happened, and I believe the bones of those two unfortunates will still be found in the vault under the chapel.'
'But there isn't one,' said Lady Morven. 'At least I have never heard of one.'
'Suppose we find there is,' said Hartland. 'Suppose the bones are there, even. What is your theory with regard to the vapour that appears now?'
'I believe the place is haunted by an elemental – '
'What is that?' asked Lady Morven.
'It is difficult to explain. It is a – something that possesses an existence; it belongs to neither death nor heaven. It draws its life from humanity, or from the astral spirits it may come into contact with. I believe that, in the last moments of those two monks, this elemental took possession of them. It took hold of their astral selves and lived with them even when their flesh rotted and their bones decayed. In the far-off ages the monks and inhabitants of this place took the precaution of having crucifixes about to prevent evil spirits visiting them. That is the true origin of them being kept about this house.'
Stavordale Hartland looked with interest at the frail girl who spoke so convincingly about phenomena in which, in the twentieth century, it seemed almost impossible to believe.
'I believe that the elemental has inhabited this house ever since then, but by the precautions taken by the believers, its power has remained dormant, and it simply existed in a kind of trance condition in the vault below. Your husband, Lady Morven, left a will in which he ordered all the crucifixes to be taken away from this house, and you were to stay here for nine consecutive months in the year. Soon after his death the house became haunted – surely the deduction is obvious?'
'I think you are right, Miss Crerar. James hoped that the hauntings would occur, and either I should be frightened to death, or I should refuse to go on living here. In either case I should lose my income.'
'You have worked out a very ingenious theory, Miss Crerar,' said Mr Hartland, 'and knowing my late brother-in-law's particular refined cruelty, I really believe you are right.'
'Then, if I put the crucifixes back . . .' began Lady Morven.
'I don't think that will have much effect now. You see the elemental has tasted my blood – it will become more venturesome. It has now a living vitality. It will – '
And even as she spoke, the column of 'Vapour' rose on the air. But this time it was more solid, and in the moving, writhing mass they could see the form of a face. A malignant face, with eyes that gleamed and shone like sparks of living fire. It could only be called a semblance of a face, for although it possessed eyes, and nose, and mouth, it seemed but a shapeless mask. The most dominant feeling was the utter malignity of the creature, the almost devilish cruelty that seemed to exude from it.
Quickly Lady Morven and Hartland joined hands round Shiela, regardless of themselves. With 'Holy Book' outspread, they gradually fought their way across the garden to where a deep shadow rested under a cypress tree. As they reached the darkness under the branches the 'Vapour' lost its shape and was once more just a thin column of mist; but an awful screaming rent the air as it disappeared from sight.
'There's no time to be lost,' said Shiela. 'An elemental lives by light. I am safe as long as I am in the dark or in shadow. Mr Hartland, will you motor at once to the monastery on the Oban road?'
'But – '
'Please don't ask questions. I want to get everything done today. Twice has the "thing" feasted on my blood. Already it has become fearless. Ask there if they can send a priest with holy water to bless a house, and also to come prepared to say the Burial Service.'
'The Burial Service?' said Lady Morven, aghast.
'Yes, yes. I'll explain all to him when he comes. Only be as quick as you can.'
'Now, Lady Morven,' she went on, as soon as they had seen the car disappear round the bend, 'Is there any one here who would know if there is a vault that can be opened easily in the chapel?'
'Peter Dougal, our head gamekeeper, has been on the estate for over fifty years. He was here in my father-in-law's time, and – '
'Where is he?' shortly.
'At his cottage, I expect.'
'Let's go at once to him.'
Peter Dougal, a man of seventy-odd years, looked surprised when Shiela questioned him.
'Aye, 'deed, mem, of course, there's a vault. It was in '80 I think when it was last opened. The last master, mem, had it closed up.'
'He knew of it?' breathed Lady Morven.
'Why, yes, mem. He always said it was an evil place, and – '
'Would it be easy to open it?' asked Shiela, breaking in.
'Oh, aye. It's under the big pew in the chancel. Angus Malloch and me could move the big stone easily.'
'It's not sealed then?'
'No. Juist fixed in and wedged, that's a'.'
'Well, open it at once,' commanded Lady Morven, 'and tell me as soon as it is done.'
'Let us stay under the shadow of the trees,' said Shiela. 'We can watch for the car coming back.'
'How do you know what to do?' asked Lady Morven, curiously. 'Have you had experience with an elemental before?'
'No,' said Shiela laughing. 'And I don't want it again. But I have always been interested in the occult. My uncle and I were both psychic, and I remember many of the things he told me. He was always experimenting in psychical things, and, of course, I helped him.'
The time passed all too slowly. Shiela was very excited. She knew she was in danger – now the elemental had regained its hold on life through her; she knew that unless it was exterminated her very existence was in danger.
At length they heard the sound of the car and hurried to meet it. The priest, a jovial-looking man of middle age, was plainly mystified.
'Father,' commenced Shiela in her most winning way. 'I have a strange thing to ask you to do. You may think it is almost unorthodox, but I want you to help me – lay a ghost.'
The genial father looked distressed.
'Is it a joke?' he asked.
Quickly Shiela told him the story of the 'Death Vapour', and the whole history as she had learnt it.
'Now, Father,' she concluded. 'All I want you to do is to say the last prayers over the bones of those unhappy monks if we find them in the crypt. If they are not there, then just say the Burial Service without a body. Afterwards I want you to bless every room in the house.'
'Poor souls,' said the father gravely. 'Poor misguided men. May they rest in peace!'
'They will if you do as I ask.'
'It's a strange thing you have told me, Miss Crerar; but, as far as I can see, I shall be doing no harm by acceding to your request, and I may be doing a great deal of good. Where is the vault?'
'We'll go there in a minute. Lady Morven – can you find me two very long steel knitting needles and a spirit stove? Mr Hartland, will you get some lamps, as I expect the vault will be dark?'
When everything was ready they entered the tiny chapel.
'You are sure you all want to come?' asked Shiela. 'Something very horrible may happen down there – are you willing to risk it?'
Without a word Hartland began to descend the steps that led to the crypt below. They found it was quite small and very musty. They hadn't far to look for that which they sought. In one corner, on the earthy floor, were some human remains. Two skeletons lay close together, their bony arms embracing, as if in their last moments of agony they had drawn near to each other for sympathy. Their bones were white, and every scrap of flesh had long since disappeared. Shiela examined the skeletons closely, and gave a cry. 'It's as I thought. Look!' she said.
And there, in the bony frames, remained the hearts, slightly withered and parchment-like it is true, but retaining the shape and appearance of living flesh.
'I've never seen such an extraordinary thing,' said Stavordale Hartland. 'Those hearts look as if there is life in them still, and yet the bodies must have been dead for nearly four hundred years.'
'That explains what I meant,' said Shiela. 'Those monks have never really died, in the full sense of the word. Their flesh rotted and their bones are now like powder, but in the moment of their last agony the elemental enveloped them and took its life from them. There' – pointing to the two hearts – 'there is the very existence of the elemental. It is that I am hoping to destroy.'
Stavordale bent forward with his hand outstretched to touch them.
'Don't, don't,' cried Shiela. But she was too late.
The soft yielding flesh, still warm, filled with blood, burnt him; not with the pain of fire, but as if he had touched some foul, corrosive acid.
'Let us begin,' said the priest. 'I don't like this dabbling in the unknown. The whole thing savours too much of witchcraft.'
He lifted a crucifix on high and got out his breviary. Slowly he droned the Latin prayers.
Shiela stood close to the skeletons with her needles, already made red-hot in the little stove. Her nerves were all on edge, she was waiting – waiting.
Suddenly the watchers became aware of a little shuddering sigh that seemed to rise from the very hearts themselves. It grew in volume until the whole place reverberated with the strange ghostly sound. Still the priest droned on. Lady Morven drew nearer to her brother, and he put a protecting arm about her.
Then the skeletons became enveloped in the thick, greyish vapour that had for so long terrified the inhabitants of Duroch Lodge. It was faint at first, but it grew stronger and stronger until it had once more assumed its malignant shape. A shape that had no definite outline, but yet seemed half human. The hideous face peered at Shiela – it was a grinning, cruel, demoniacal face. It grew plainer, the body had formed; there was the semblance of arms and legs.
'Quick, father!' breathed Shiela. The priest never looked up, but his words tumbled over each other in his eagerness to finish.
The bones were sprinkled with holy water, and at that moment Shiela plunged the red-hot needles into the soft yielding hearts. Hearts of men who had been dead for centuries, yet still retained the semblance of life.
There was the smell of burning flesh, and a dismal howl came from the elemental, as it enfolded Shiela in its deadly embrace. But she was fortified, and it had lost its power. The whole place echoed with wild laughter – with yells of rage – and, even as the skeletons fell to pieces, the 'Death Vapour' grew fainter and vanished from sight. For a few seconds smothered screams rent the air, then they, too, died away, and the whole place was plunged in silence once more.
They all bent over the poor bones – the hearts had crumbled into a powdery dust – the bones were no longer whole. No longer was there anything evil about them, they seemed to breathe peace. Silently the little party made their way back to the chapel above, a silent group. The priest was the first to speak.
'Why, who are those?' he asked in amazement.
Hartland and Lady Morven saw nothing, but Shiela put her arm on his.
'The souls you have set free, father,' she said, softly. For she also saw two figures with shaven heads and habits of brown, girdles of rope about their waists, kneeling with bowed heads before the altar.
'Requiescant in pace,' murmured the priest, and, even as he spoke, a brilliant light surrounded them, they held out their arms in supplication, and disappeared.
The Room of Fear
MENZIES CASTLE WAS A HOUSE OF MOURNING! Sir John Baverie – delightful guest and most companionable of friends – was dead. Mollie, Lady Menzies, the youthful chatelaine of the historic house was red-eyed with weeping, as she flung herself into her husband's arms.
'Archie, I shall go mad if we stay here another day. It's too awful!'
Lord Menzies smoothed his wife's hair and fondled her tenderly. He was a gaunt man of forty-odd years, and his young wife was the apple of his eye.
'Little one, don't worry,' he said quietly. 'It's just a coincidence. You heard what the doctors said. Sir John died of heart failure and – '
'Yes,' she broke in, 'but so did Tom Estcourt. Tom – who was never ill in his life. And then Rosa Mullindon. No one could deny that Rosa was healthy enough – yet she died. And now dear old Sir John. I'm sure the Tower Room is haunted!'
'My dear Mollie, you really must not give way to such fancies. We live in the twentieth century, and rooms and places aren't haunted now. The Tower Room is perfectly safe, and it is only an extraordinary coincidence that on the three occasions it has been used as a bedchamber, its occupants have died of heart failure.'
But little Mollie Menzies shook her head. She still believed in the uncanny.
'Look here,' he said at last. 'I'll sleep there myself, one day soon. You see, I shall be quite all right.'
'No, no,' cried his wife. 'You mustn't – I'm so afraid, Archie, I – '
A bell clanged through the great hall. A second later the butler announced 'Miss Shiela Crerar'.
Lord Menzies smiled.
'All right, little girl. See your Psychic Detective. She has evidently agreed to take your case up for you.'
Shiela came forward quickly.
'I was so sorry to hear of your trouble, Lady Menzies, and I do hope I shall be able to help you.'
'You don't know how thankful I was to hear you were still staying with Lady Morven, Miss Crerar. She told me how wonderful you were over that peculiar affair at Duroch Lodge, and so I telephoned through on chance.'
'And as it was only a matter of fifteen miles I motored here at once,' finished Shiela with a smile.
'My husband, Miss Crerar. Now you must go, Archie, I can't possibly talk in front of you. You don't know how horribly material he is, Miss Crerar.'
As soon as the two women were alone Lady Menzies began.
'There isn't a great deal to tell,' she said thoughtfully. 'I will show you over the Castle later on. The Tower Room is the oldest part of it, and dates from the tenth century. There were originally four stories to it, now nothing is left but the Tower Room itself, which is built on a higher level than the rest of the Castle. Underneath it are cellars, which were originally used as kitchens, I believe. The room was closed up in my husband's grandfather's time – it was supposed to be damp. About two years ago, the Earl had the door re-opened, and the room furnished as a studio for me. The light is excellent there for painting. That is my great hobby, you know.'
'Well?' said Shiela interestedly.
'Well, there is no more to tell. I used the room constantly with no ill effect. A year ago this very month we had the entire west wing redecorated. There was a small house party here at the time, and I was rather pushed for room. I – I had the Tower Room fitted up as a bedroom for a distant cousin of mine.' Her voice broke slightly. 'I had known Tom Estcourt all my life. He was a sailor – a jolly, lighthearted fellow that nothing could upset. He slept in that room for three nights. He never complained about anything, on the fourth he was found dead in bed. It was "just heart failure" the doctor said. A few weeks later Rosa Mullindon came to stay with me. She had been engaged to Tom, and expressed a desire to occupy the same room in which he died. We tried to dissuade her, but she urged us to give in to her wishes; she was broken-hearted over his death. I went in to her at eleven – she was quite happy, reading a book of his that had never been removed. Next morning she was dead. Everyone thought it was just a coincidence, and when the ceiling fell down in Sir John's bedroom, he it was who suggested sleeping in the Tower Room. He knew of the deaths of Tom and Rosa, and always laughed at me when I said that some uncanny influence must be at work. I told him there was plenty of room, and there was not the slightest necessity to use that horrible room, but he insisted. That was last night. He was as merry as could be, and made arrangements to be called earlier this morning, as he had arranged to play nine holes of golf with the minister before breakfast. When his man went in to call him, he was dead, had been dead for some hours. Dr Brown was sent for at once, and certified, as before, heart failure. He seemed dissatisfied with his own diagnosis, however, and phoned to Taynuilt for Dr Andrew, and to Oban for Professor Weymiss. They arrived an hour ago, and corroborated his verdict. Just heart failure, with no complications. But I am not satisfied, Miss Crerar.'
'But it seems a very straightforward story,' said Shiela. 'So far it is strange that three deaths should have taken place there, but you say you used the room constantly as a studio with no ill effects?'
Lady Menzies held out her hands pathetically.
'That's the story,' she said. 'Sir John's relatives are very anxious that his body should be taken to England to his home there. It will leave by the night express tomorrow, so you can commence your investigations the day after. Meanwhile, the house is too sad to offer much entertainment. Sir John was very popular, you know.'
'Please don't bother about me,' said Shiela. 'If you will let me go to my room I shall be quite happy with a book.'
'Most of my guests left considerately this morning,' went on Mollie, 'and by lunch tomorrow the last one will have gone, so there will be a quiet house in which you can work. I'll take you to your room. We dine at seven.'
When Shiela was alone she sat at her open window and drank in the balmy air. Her life was altered by the merest chance. So far she had been successful. Would she continue so? On the following evening the minister held a brief service in the darkened death-chamber, and then the coffin was carried on stalwart shoulders to the ferry, where it was taken across the Loch to the nearest station – Taynuilt.
The castle was empty at last – Shiela its only guest. It was with mixed feelings she entered the Tower Room. In her heart she hoped that if some sinister influence was at work she would be able to discover it. But, on the whole, she felt rather sceptical, and thought Lady Menzies was distressing herself over nothing.
There was certainly nothing ghostly about the Tower Room. It was a long apartment, with a circular alcove at one end, lighted as well by large windows on either side. In the alcove was a glass door, which led down a short flight of steps to the garden and the cellars below. A huge stone hearth, with massive brass dogs, was built cornerwise across the room, which added considerably to its picturesque appearance.
There was neither cupboard nor recess, and nowhere where anyone could hide. Lady Menzies led the way down to the cellars. There was nothing even gloomy about these. They were lit by electricity, and the sandy floor was dry and clean. Both the Tower Room and the vaults seemed above reproach.
'I'll stay here all night,' announced Shiela, when once they were in the Tower Room.
'No, no,' gasped Lady Menzies. 'I am sure it's not safe. I couldn't allow it – '
'Nonsense,' smiled Shiela. 'If I am to investigate, I must stay here. Now please don't worry. I promise you I shall be quite all right. Oh, there is a bell. Is it in working order?' and she pulled at an old-fashioned bell cord.
Immediately there clanged out a cracked and plaintive call, and a maid came scared into the room.
'It's all right, Sanders,' said Lady Menzies. 'Miss Crerar was trying the bell.'
'Now,' said Shiela, 'if anything happens I'll peal the bell, and you can send someone in to me.'
It was not without misgivings that Lady Menzies left her in the ill-fated room that night. But Shiela was very cheerful. The lights were full on and a fire burnt merrily, and as Lady Menzies shut the door after her, Shiela heard the muffled tones of the big grandfather clock outside strike eleven. She had really no preparations to make. She had no plan of campaign, for she didn't know what she was waiting for – what she expected even. However, she drew a chair close to the blazing fire and began to read.
The book was rather dull, and she dozed over it; the fire burned low, and suddenly she awoke with a start. The grandfather clock outside chimed the three-quarters. It must be a quarter to one! She had been asleep nearly an hour. She stretched her arms in delicious contentment, her mouth was wide open in a yawn, but even as the last silvery notes died away in the silence she became conscious of fear, fear of something intangible, and she realised she was shivering from head to foot. With an effort she relaxed her muscles, and her arms fell to her sides, but the effort left her weak and trembling. Her mouth was stiff with horror, and she closed it with a jerk.
She looked round the room – there was nothing to be seen – the lights shone steadily, and a faint glow came from the fast-dying embers. Suddenly her knees gave way under her, and she sank exhausted to the floor. The grandfather clock chimed again and in a mellow tone proclaimed the hour of one.
For fifteen minutes she had lain upon the floor in an uncontrollable fit of fear. She tried to reason with herself, but could scarcely command her thoughts. She was only conscious of one thing, one sensation – terror, a blind terror that was all the more hideous as its source was nameless.
There was no unreal quiet about the room – no ghostly calm. There was no strange light to be seen or unaccustomed cry to be heard. Everything was quite natural – there was absolutely nothing to account for her nervous state. She managed to raise herself on one elbow, and was shocked to find the sweat pouring off her forehead, while her heart pumped painfully. She dragged herself to her chair and fell back exhausted into it. As the minutes passed so her terror increased until she felt suffocated. The grandfather clock chimed with monotonous regularity, and presently struck two. An hour and a quarter had passed! Shiela felt powerless to move – the minutes were the most awful in her life. The fire burnt lower still until the embers of wood became white and lifeless. Again and again the silvery chimes rent the air, but the girl was as if under a spell, and remained motionless, her eyes glazed with terror, her face white and drawn, and her limbs quaking.
Three o'clock – four! Already the grey dawn was creeping in through the curtained windows and the birds had commenced their morning song.
As the last stroke of four died away the nauseating pall that had hung over Shiela like an unwholesome garment lifted. She became aware of a sense of relief. Her limbs ceased trembling. She was weak, it was true, but she was clothed once more in her right mind. Tired and worn out with her vigil of terror, she flung herself on the bed and drew the eiderdown about her cold shoulders.
At eight tea was brought her by a frightened maid, who feared what she might find in that room of tragedy. But Shiela was sleeping peacefully, and there was no hint of mystery or horror.
She awoke lazily, and drank her tea greedily. She was tired and very thirsty. She looked round the room, and gradually the night's events unfolded themselves to her sleepy brain. She remembered the unholy terror she had suffered. From a quarter to one until four she had been within its awful grasp. She had suffered the tortures of the damned, yet there was nothing to account for it. She dressed slowly, and thought deeply. Yes, there must be something wrong with the room! She knew now that the doctor's verdict of heart failure was correct. The inmates had died of heart failure brought on by fear. But fear of what?
She tapped the walls; they were all solid stone, and gave out no hollow sound. She looked up the chimney; it was a very old-fashioned one, and she could see the glimmer of light beyond the gloom. It was a very puzzled Shiela that appeared at breakfast. Lady Menzies looked at her anxiously.
'How did you sleep?' she asked.
'When I got to bed – very well indeed. But I sat up rather late. I feel tired this morning.'
'You saw nothing – heard nothing?'
Her hostess seemed relieved, and spent the day with Shiela in the open air. They had a round of golf, and in the afternoon explored the glens and woods.
The second night she sat up as before. Again the room had no perceptible change, but as the last sound of the clock chiming the quarter to one broke the stillness, the same terror came over her. This time the fear was more intense. She experienced her old childish fears of the dark, but they were intensified a thousandfold. She was horribly frightened, she crouched down in a corner of the room as if waiting for some terrible doom. Her heart beat painfully – her throat was parched – her lips cracked. She tried to remonstrate with herself for her stupidity, but the ever present feeling of terror overwhelmed her. Her head was bent as if waiting for a blow – she anticipated the hideousness of pain.
Her wonderful will power was hardly strong enough to help her in her fears, and as she involuntarily gave way to them, her sufferings were more acute than before.
She made one more effort to reach the door, but her limbs refused to work, and she sank down, muttering incoherent gibberings. Time passed – she had lost the sense of where she was. Dimly she heard four silvery notes. Four o'clock! And as if by magic, the fear left her.
This time she felt weaker than on the previous night, and when the maid called her in the morning she was flushed and feverish, and said she would have her breakfast in bed.
Lady Menzies came in to see her, and realised at once that something had happened. Shiela, however, refused to tell her anything, and only announced that she intended going on with her investigations.
Three more nights passed, but the strain was growing too much for the girl. She grew to dread the days, because they would lead to the nights. She dreaded the nights, and longed for day to dawn. Every night, as regularly as clockwork, as soon as the clock chimed the quarter to one, the feeling of terror claimed her, and for hours she was in its cold embrace.
She was very reticent about her discovery, but Lady Menzies felt alarmed as she saw the roses fading from her cheeks, and the deep shadows under her eyes growing darker day by day.
The mystery remained unsolved. Try as she might, she could discover no reason for the paroxysms that oppressed her.
One day she asked Lord Menzies to send for Robert Moffat, a well-known chemical analyst of Glasgow. Carefully he examined the room, but could find not the slightest sign of poison or noxious gas concealed in the wallpapers or furniture. After a long examination he announced that there was absolutely nothing the matter with the room at all!
Then they brought an architect in to see if he could discover any secret chamber leading from the Tower Room, but his examinations only proved that the walls were quite solid.
A fortnight passed, and Shiela had become very nervy and restless. The nightly torment she went through was beginning to undermine her constitution. Each night left her weaker than the previous one; she began to suffer from palpitations of the heart, and experienced great pain when she breathed.
'I won't give in,' she said to herself, between tightly clenched teeth. 'I will master this stupid terror.'
Although the fear was still intangible, it had become more real. She suffered actual physical pain at times. It varied in intensity, but, always sensitive to the slightest scratch, her sufferings at times were almost unbearable. Then came the night when her whole body felt as if it was on the rack. Her joints cracked – her muscles swelled, and when she woke in the morning, her arms were inflamed and sore.
She felt the time had come to speak of the terror she was going through. Lord Menzies looked grave.
'If there is anything supernatural at work, don't you think it would be wiser if I had the door blocked up again? The room needn't be used, and I think it would be wiser for you to give up this search.'
'No,' said Shiela, defiantly; 'I am determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. I wonder if you would have the room entirely re-decorated?
'Why, certainly, if you think it will make any difference.'
'And the chimney swept?'
The orders were given, and for a week Shiela slept in peace, and to some extent recovered her nerve.
When the room was finished, Shiela again insisted on sleeping there, but the horror was worse, if anything, than it was before. She felt the cold sweat running down her body; her hands were clammy and cold, and as the clock outside struck three, she realised she could no longer stand the strain. She dragged herself across the floor to the bell-pull – unconsciously her lips moved. 'Stavordale! Stavordale! help me,' she cried. A harsh bell clanged through the oaken corridors with startling suddenness. Lady Menzies stirred uneasily, and then woke to life.
'Archie – It's Miss Crerar; she's in danger,' she cried. ' Quickly – quickly.'
But the servants were before her, and when she reached the Tower Room, Shiela was being carried out. She was quite stiff; her eyes were closed, and her breath came in short convulsive gasps. Tenderly she was placed on a settee, and brandy was forced between her tightly clenched teeth. She moaned slightly, and opened her eyes, and then fell into a rather restless sleep.
Lady Menzies watched by her side through the rest of the night, and in the morning, although she was much better, a doctor was sent for.
'Heart trouble,' he said, quickly, when he first glanced at her, but after examination – 'Very strange. She shows every sign of having a badly strained heart. Yet it is working quite normally now. I should say she has had some great shock. Plenty of rest and quiet, a light diet, and she will be quite all right in a couple of days.'
About ten, Stavordale Hartland came over in a great state of excitement..
'Shiela – Miss Crerar?' he asked. 'Is she ill?'
'Why, how did you know?' asked Lady Menzies in some surprise. 'She is certainly not very well. She fainted last night, but there is not the slightest cause for alarm.'
Stavordale's face whitened.
'It's damnable,' he cried. 'I beg your pardon, Lady Menzies, but it really is. It's perfectly mad of a child like Shiela to meddle with the unknown. When may I see her?' eagerly.
'Tomorrow. She will be quite herself, I hope.'
Next morning Stavordale arrived with an armful of flowers for Shiela. She smiled shyly as she took them.
'How did you know I was ill?' she asked.
'You told me yourself,' he said, grimly.
'I did?' in some astonishment.
'Yes. I awoke and heard you calling me. "Stavordale, Stavordale, help me," you seemed to say. Oh, so distinctly that I thought for the moment you were still with us in the house. The horror in your voice nearly maddened me – I knew something was wrong. Little girl,' he went on hoarsely, 'if you called for me in distress, surely it proves you think of me sometimes? Won't you give all this up and be my wife?'
'Oh, I can't' she cried tremulously. 'I – I can't. I have a mission to fulfil I can't explain. If you will only be patient – '
'Will you send for me if you ever want any help?' he pleaded. 'I promise you I will be patient. I won't worry you any more – '
'If I ever need any help I will send for you,' she said sweetly, and he had to be content with that.
'I am going to stay in the cellars under the Tower Room,' announced Shiela a few days later. In vain they threatened – forbade – commanded.
'Won't you let someone watch with you?' pleaded Lady Menzies, but she refused all help.
At eleven she went down and turned the lights on full. It was rather chilly, and she buttoned up her coat and drew a rug round her shoulders. The hours passed slowly. One – two – three – four. At seven she went to her own room, and slept peacefully until late in the morning. The next night found her in the cellars again, but nothing disturbed her tranquillity. The cellars were obviously immune from the phenomena that haunted the upper chamber.
In desperation she fulfilled her promise to Stavordale and sent for him.
'I can't fathom this at all,' she said. 'I wonder if you and Lord Menzies would sit up with me tonight in the Tower Room? I want to see if the same fear will affect you both.'
That night there were three watchers. It was very still, and there was a pleasant smell of cigar smoke in the room. They talked on all subjects but one – psychology was taboo. Lord Menzies was in the midst of a funny story when the clock chimed the quarter to one. He stopped in the middle of a word, his face whitened, and he stared at Shiela out of glassy eyes. Stavordale moved restlessly. Shiela had lost consciousness, fear the omnipotent held her within its thrall.
Lord Menzies staggered to his feet, and gasped in unnatural tones, 'I'm stifling. Let's get out of this accursed place.'
It took the united efforts of the three to force themselves out of the room. They staggered, supported each other, staggered again, and eventually reached the door. The sweat was running down the two men's faces, and it was with a sigh of relief that they closed the door behind them. But as they reached the passage the terror left them.
'This is the end,' said Lord Menzies dryly. 'You don't sleep there again, young lady. Tomorrow I have the door bricked up. Why, it's worse than uncanny – it's unholy.'
Next day Shiela went to the Tower Room. She was very disappointed. All the suffering she had gone through had been for nought. She had not discovered the sinister secret of the room. Already the furniture was gone, and the carpet had been taken away. The sunlight streamed in and its beams strayed into the passage beyond. Almost without thinking, she noticed the difference in the flooring. Out in the passage it was black and shining, slightly rough and uneven in places. In the Tower Room itself the floor was more even – newer, smoother.
'I wonder,' she said to herself, and went in search of the earl.
'Before the door is bricked up,' she said abruptly, 'I wonder if you would try and prise up some of the flooring in the Tower Room?'
'Why?' he asked.
'I was looking at it just now, and the floor looks altogether newer than that outside. Surely if the Tower is the oldest part of the castle, and the original flooring is in the passage, the Tower Room ought to have still older boards?'
'Start at the door,' she directed. 'One of the boards looks quite loose there.'
With great difficulty he succeeded in raising one of the narrow boards. Eagerly they peered underneath. A wooden step, black with age, worm-eaten, and uneven, met their astonished gaze. He prised open a second and a third board, and three more steps were laid bare before them.
'This room was on a lower level at one time,' said Shiela in excitement. 'Oh, have the floor all taken up, Lord Menzies.'
With the help of some of the outdoor servants, the whole of the flooring was removed, and the original floor was open to view, some three and a half feet below; three stairs led down to it from the other portion of the house.
Shiela gazed at it uncomprehendingly. it was a very rough, uneven floor, great knots were in the wood, and in parts it was very frail. Here and there iron rings and rusty bolts were fixed to the ground. In one corner an iron slab was raised perhaps a foot from the ground. On the slab itself were fastened metal sockets in the shape of a boot. Shiela gazed at them curiously, and slipped her little feet into them.
'Whatever are they for?' she asked, and suddenly gave a cry of pain. 'Oh, help me, Lord Menzies. I can't get out. Something is hurting me.'
The earl bent over her. A rusty catch on one side still worked, and he opened the boot-shaped metal. Inside were sharp iron spikes that fell into position when the foot was slipped into the 'boot'; but they were so cunningly fixed that they would not allow the feet to come out again, and the slightest movement gave the most excruciating pain.
Shiela was scared. 'What is it?' she asked.
'Torture,' he breathed.
He picked up an old and rusty pair of thumbscrews. 'A torture chamber,' he repeated, 'and I should say one of the most horrible of its kind, yet I have never heard of it. Who used it – whether it was civil or religious – I don't know. It must have been complete in its terrors.'
Blood stains on the floor had turned brown and rusty, but they were ominous reminders of the horrors of bygone days. In one corner lay a spiked iron club, rusted with blood. There was a rack fixed to the floor itself. Chains, clubs, iron masks with bloody spikes inside – the room was completely equipped for its dreadful purpose.
'It's horrible,' said Shiela, shuddering. 'I wonder I didn't think of the solution myself. This was a torture chamber, and probably always used at the dead of night.'
'From about a quarter to one until four o'clock,' put in Lord Menzies.
'Yes. It would be the most unlikely time for discovery. It was no doubt entirely secret. That is the reason you have no records of its existence. You see,' she went on excitedly, 'the hideous fear of the unhappy victims communicated itself to the very room. The walls, the wood, the bricks, were impregnated with wave upon wave of terror from the suffering ones. They retained it throughout the ages, and each night the terror that was once inflicted here, is let loose again at the hour it used to take place.'
'But is such a thing possible?' asked the earl.
Shiela smiled. 'It seems like it, doesn't it? What other explanation can you give? At any rate, may I suggest that you have the old floor taken away altogether?'
'Have the cavity between the old and new floors filled in, and destroy' – pointing with a shudder – 'these.'
'And you think that the room will be all right then?'
'I don't know. It seems possible.'
'You will stay till it is all complete,' urged Lady Menzies.
The work was set in motion at once, and in the course of excavations the workmen discovered a charred skeleton. The fingers were gone, and the way the bones were twisted proved only too plainly the pain that the unhappy creature must have suffered.
'May it rest in peace,' said Lord Menzies, and he gave orders for its burial.
The hideous belts and torture instruments the earl caused to be thrown into the loch. He never found any records of the terrible place. He searched his own family histories, but never a sign or clue was given to point to its existence.
Shiela, Lord Menzies, and Stavordale Hartland stayed in the room the first night that the floor had been relaid. At a quarter to one they all became nervous, but the night passed with no ill effects. Clearly the Room of Fear no longer justified its name. The intangible horrors of the past had gone.
The sounds of agony, the horror and terror, the awe inspiring spectacles that had been absorbed into the very room itself, and that were nightly exuded from it, had gone never to return. The Torture Chamber was no more. It was early September when Shiela once more boarded a train en route for Edinburgh.
Stavordale Hartland saw her off from Benderloch. She had stayed a couple of nights at Duroch Lodge after leaving Menzies Castle. As the guard waved his flag, Stavordale drew towards her, and instinctively their lips met. The whistle blew, and Shiela, blushing rosy red, slipped back into her corner seat, trembling with happiness.
Stavordale Hartland watched the train fade away in the distance. What mattered it that no smiling face leant out of the window and waved him a farewell? He pictured the rosy face in the corner, the tremulous lips, the downcast eyes. He was well content.
The Phantom Isle
SHIELA CRERAR HAD WANDERED delightedly over Roslyn Chapel. She had tenderly touched the 'Prentice Pillar, had feasted her eyes on the legendary carvings, had listened to the guide's tuneful voice as he told the story of the Chapel, and of the hate and violence that had been fostered there.
She went down the narrow roadway with the wonder of the past still in her heart. She was a very radiant Shiela. Her first cases had been so successful that she had many minor calls made upon her, which, though they had all proved uninteresting, had at least been remunerative. And now she was spending a few days at Roslyn, and revelling in the beauties of the famous chapel.
A telegram was waiting for her when she reached the hotel. She opened it tremulously – she hoped it was from Stavordale Hartland. She had not seen him since the memorable day he had kissed her farewell as the train was on the point of steaming out of Benderloch station. It had been re-directed from her Edinburgh rooms. It ran:
Can you see me tomorrow. Urgent. Lady Menzies recommends. Murdoch, Caledonian Hotel, Princes Street.
The name was unfamiliar, and she felt disappointed. She had so hoped it was from Stavordale!
'Resting. Undertaking no cases,' she wired, but early next day there was another telegram for her:
Motoring Roslyn immediately. Please see me and hear details. Most urgent. Murdoch.
Shiela was vexed. She had told her landlady to give no one her address, and now a stranger was coming to worry her. She wanted a rest badly, but her better nature prevailed, and she waited in for her visitor.
About twelve a card was brought to her.
Mrs Murdoch proved to be a prematurely aged woman. Her hair was white, and her face lined and wrinkled; but her eyes, bright and piercing, gave lie to the thought that proclaimed her old.
'Miss Crerar,' she said brokenly. 'I am in such trouble. Do forgive me for intruding upon you, but I feel that you are the only one that can help me.'
Her distress was so real that Shiela was touched.
'Sit down by the fire and tell me what your trouble is, and I will promise to help you if I can.'
Mrs Murdoch remained silent a moment, and then: 'It all seems so little, when I try and put it into words,' she began, 'but' – apologetically – 'at the bottom of my heart I feel that there is something wrong. A year ago, Elspeth, my only daughter and child, returned from the Continent, where she had been at a finishing school. She came back a blithe, heartsome lassie, full of fun, loving, kind. Her first season was a brilliant success. She became engaged to the Duke of Cremont's eldest son, and the two were inseparable. It was a most desirable match in every way. They were both young, and had wealth and love to help them. Their marriage was to have taken place at the New Year.'
'Then the engagement is broken?' asked Shiela.
'Yes, Miss Crerar. Two months ago Elspeth went out sailing. It was quite a usual thing for her to do, but she came back inexplicably changed. She seemed no longer a girl – but a discontented woman; old before her time, peevish, miserable. I thought she was sickening for some illness, but she became very irritable when I suggested she should go to bed.'
'From that moment she has never been the same. Next day she was up at dawn, and spent the whole of it in her little sailing boat. The days passed – she would hardly speak to me, and she spent her whole time on the sea. Then I received a broken-hearted letter from the young Marquis of Mavoir – '
Mrs Murdoch nodded. 'Elspeth had written to him breaking off her engagement. It was done without my knowledge, so you will understand that the news came as a great shock. I wired Cedric to come to us at once. He had a very stormy interview with Elspeth. She gave him no reason for her change – simply refused to marry him, that was all. Cedric was broken-hearted, and left the same day for London. I've not heard from him since.'
'If she no longer cared for him – ' suggested Shiela.
'Don't think I am a mercenary, match-making mother, Miss Crerar,' said Mrs Murdoch. 'I only want my daughter to marry for love, and it was because I felt she really cared for Cedric and he for her, that I was anxious for their union. Two days ago, my daughter told me quite casually that she was to be married on her twenty-first birthday.'
'And that is?'
'Next Friday week.'
'And you don't approve?'
'Miss Crerar, this is the real source of my trouble. She told me she is to marry Malcolm MacLaurie, Laird of Tath-Gart Isle. Well, there is no Laird of Tath-Gart now. This is where I want your aid. The last of the MacLauries was foully murdered in 1745 by the Chief of the Clan Murdoch – our clan. As far as I know, there is no living MacLaurie left – yet my daughter avows that she is going to marry the Chief. Now do you understand my fears?'
'I think so,' said Shiela. 'Where does your daughter meet this – this man?'
'On Tath-Gart Isle.'
'Where is that?'
'About eight and a half miles from us – to the north.'
'How did the last MacLaurie die?' asked Shiela.
'Old Malcolm MacLaurie was mortally wounded at Culloden,' continued Mrs Murdoch, 'and his only son, young Malcolm, fled with the Prince to the hills. After a great deal of suffering and privation, they reached the coast in safety, and eventually gained Tath-Gart Isle. A traitor, however, was in their ranks. Wolf Murdoch, Chief of the Clan, left the island secretly, and – for a price – gave information to the English General. He and a boatload of redcoats made their way to the isle, but a faithful gillie gave the alarm, and the Prince and his retinue escaped to Skye. When the English soldiers landed, headed by the Wolf, they found the young chieftain at dinner with his sisters, alone.
'The castle was ransacked, but no trace of the fugitives was found. Young MacLaurie denied all knowledge of the Prince. There had long been enmity between the two houses, and in his baffled rage, Wolf Murdoch drew his sword and killed the elder girl in front of her brother and sister. Mad with grief and anger MacLaurie fell upon the Murdoch, but a score of soldiers overpowered him. Then the Wolf tore the living sister from the body of the dead one, and in cold blood murdered her before her brother's eyes.'
'Not content with that, for now the pent-up hatred and petty jealousies of a rival clan were let loose, young Tath-Gart was forced to witness the burning of his home and his crops. He saw his servants and clansmen slaughtered, and when his home had been reduced to ruins, he was hanged upon his own castle walls. That is the history of the last MacLaurie, Miss Crerar. There have been none since.'
'And yet your daughter is to marry a MacLaurie?'
'Yes. She told me he was Malcolm MacLaurie, Laird of Tath-Gart, and Earl of the Kelden Isles. It is the very title that lapsed in '45.'
'And she says her wedding-day is fixed!'
'Yes, Friday week.'
'Then we have a clear ten days before us. May I return with you to Ach-na-Dindoch?' said Shiela briskly.
'Thank you, oh, thank you,' said the broken-hearted mother.
The journey was not eventful. They crossed from Mallaig on the mainland to Armadale in Skye. The mail-boat was rather cheerless and Shiela, tired and cold, was glad to wrap herself cosily up in the fur rugs in the Rolls Royce that was waiting for them at the pierhead.
When they arrived at the house, Mrs Murdoch asked at once for Elspeth.
'She is in her room, madam,' said the servant. 'She has not been out all day.'
A look of relief passed over the mother's face.
'Dinner will be served in half an hour, madam,' went on the servant.
'Thank you. That will give us plenty of time, Miss Crerar. We won't dress tonight. I am sure we are both too tired.'
The gong sounded, and Shiela made her way to the dining-room. Mrs Murdoch was waiting for her excitedly.
'I've persuaded Elspeth to have dinner with us. I told her you were going to stay with us for a little. I never mentioned the real reason, of course, but she showed no curiosity – '
At that moment the door opened and Elspeth Murdoch entered. She was a very sweet-looking girl of the ethereal type. Pale, fair-haired, and petite, she gave one the impression that a sudden gust of wind would blow her away. Yet Shiela knew she was athletic, and could handle a yacht with the ease of a man.
'Elspeth, this is Miss Crerar.'
'How do you do?'
'How do you do?'
The girl talked brightly throughout the meal, but Shiela noticed the nervous twitching of her hands, and the artificial gaiety of her manner. At times, too, she looked away into the distance and seemed hardly to be aware of her surroundings.
They made their way into the drawing room, but at the threshold she halted.
'I won't have any coffee, thank you. Good night, Miss Crerar. Good night, mother.'
Shiela felt unable to pierce the veil of mystery that hung over Elspeth Murdoch's love story. That she was engaged to a man who had been hanged nearly two hundred years ago was absurd, yet, who was the mysterious stranger she had fallen in love with? Why had her whole nature changed? Was it someone impersonating the MacLaurie, or was it something far worse – the visitation of the dead to the living for the purposes of revenge?
Elspeth was absent in her yacht all the next day, but as the twilight deepened, the watchers caught the glint of a sail coming round the furthermost corner of the bay, and a few seconds later the pretty little craft drew close in, was beached neatly, and a moment later Elspeth vaulted out on to the dry silver sand.
'Elspeth,' said her mother wistfully, 'we came down to meet you.'
The girl passed a hand across her brow wearily. 'I'm sorry you troubled, mother,' she said.
'You're very late,' hazarded the unhappy woman.
'I'm sorry, mother, but Malcolm kept me later than usual. The castle is being made ready for the festival. The island is quite gay, and the servants are already making preparations for the wedding banquet.'
'My dear, my dear,' said her mother brokenly, 'don't be so foolish. Why, you know there is no castle now. It was demolished long ago; as a child you played among the ruins.'
A softer tone crept into the girl's voice. 'You want me to be happy, mother, yet you deny me my love. You question the fidelity of my lover, almost his reality. Why, he has bidden three hundred guests to our wedding. All his clansmen will welcome me, a Murdoch, as his bride. The old feud is broken. No longer will Murdoch fight MacLaurie, or MacLaurie raid Murdoch. Love has healed the breach. Love has conquered all.'
'Won't you bring the – the MacLaurie to see me, dearie?'
A shadow passed over the girl's face. 'He won't come, mother. He bids you to the marriage feast. On that joyous day, he says all old scores will for ever be wiped out. By giving myself in marriage to him, I shall obliterate a thousand-fold the injuries that my ancestors did to his.'
'May I come over to the island with you tomorrow, Miss Murdoch?' asked Shiela.
The girl trembled violently.
'No! No! No!' she cried. 'I can take no one until my bridal day. It is his wish. Oh, how happy I am. I love him so. I love him so!'
Then suddenly her mood changed. Once more she was hard, callous. A woman had taken the place of a young girl. 'I am sorry you bothered to meet me, mother, I am going straight to my room now. Flora will bring me my supper on a tray.' And she walked quickly away.
'I am going to the island tomorrow,' said Shiela determinedly. 'Is it possible to hire a little motor boat anywhere?'
'Yes, old Sandy Black has one.'
'Is it safe to go alone?'
'If it is a fairly calm day, yes. But what if Elspeth sees you?'
'I shall start at sunrise, before she is up.'
'There is only one safe landing – in a little bay under the shadow of the castle ruins.'
Next morning, Shiela started alone on her adventure. She saw Tath-Gart in the distance, hazy in the morning mist. As the sun rose red the island loomed out quite distinctly. The bay was easy to find, and she made the little boat safe, where it lay hidden behind a rugged rock. The island was even more barren than she had anticipated, and of the old castle practically nothing remained. One wall only stood sentinel at the cliff's edge, the remainder had been swallowed up by time.
There were high cliffs all round, but the top of the island was a barren plateau, with not a bush behind which to hide. She walked carefully round the little place, but could find not the slightest sign of life. Even the sea-birds seemed to have neglected it, and made their homes elsewhere. As she reached the bay she caught sight of The Mermaid, Elspeth's little white craft. It was quite close in, and instinctively she flung herself down flat upon the ground.
And then the scene changed. The whole island seemed to become full of life. Two stalwart men in kilts leapt knee deep in the water, and drew the little boat high on to the beach. A tall man with flowing locks and a long, straggling beard came towards the boat. Elspeth gave a cry of joy and held out her arms invitingly. He lifted her out of the boat, and held her close in an embrace. Elspeth gave herself up to the delight of his presence, and buried her head on his shoulder.
The man raised his head and looked at the serving men who were near, and Shiela shuddered at his malignant expression.
'Malcolm, Malcolm, you love me?' cried the girl, and for answer the man kissed her hair, her eyes, her lips. But Shiela shivered, for the embrace seemed to her to signify a fierce hatred, instead of love. Then the man drew roughly away, and the two walked up the steep incline towards the castle. Shiela gazed in amazement at the scene.
No longer was the ruined wall standing swaying at the cliff's edge, the piteous remnant of a glory that had gone. In its place a giant castle stood, a castle with smoke curling from its chimneys and one that bore sign of habitation.
The two passed close to Shiela, and she followed them. A drawbridge was lowered, and although a sentry was posted at the portcullis, he gave no challenge when Shiela walked in. By this time she scarcely realised the phenomena she was witnessing. Through corridors and passages she wandered; through gaunt rooms, with bare stone walls; now through tapestried apartments, and bedchambers hung with silk. But although servants were continually passing her, although in the distance she saw soldiers and guests disporting in the gloom, no sound was made. The everyday life was being carried on, yet there was not the slightest noise.
In the kitchen she saw a whole ox roasting before a blazing fire, yet when she put her hand near the blaze, no warmth came from it, and the contact seemed to chill her. Then the realisation came upon her suddenly, that the whole castle had been destroyed long ago. Where then was she?
A woman in a mob cap and kirtle of green hurried past her carrying a tray of crockery. Shiela called to her, but the woman made no answer – it was as though she had not heard her voice.
She ran from the kitchen to the wide stairs. Men in Highland dress with claymores bare, stood on either side of it but they seemed not to see her, as she sped past them. In a large apartment at the top of the stairs she caught a glimpse of Elspeth and her lover. Two girls were with them, girls with flowing hair and robed in white, but again the appalling hatred in their expressions terrified her.
Elspeth bent to kiss the elder girl, and as she did so Shiela cried out: 'Oh, don't, don't.' Then everything seemed to darken, and when she looked round again, she found she was standing in front of the old castle wall. The sun was sinking, and already Elspeth was halfway to the mainland in her yacht.
Shuddering slightly, Shiela went swiftly down to the little bay to the motor boat, and soon had left the uncanny island far behind her. What had she seen? Was it the ghostly past come to life again? Had the dying hatred of the MacLauries existed through death itself, and would their curse be visited on the last fair daughter of the Murdochs? The thought was horrible.
'Well?' asked Mrs Murdoch eagerly, when she saw Shiela.
'You are right, Mrs Murdoch. There is an evil influence at work, and I hardly know how we can combat it.' She told the story of her visit, and Mrs Murdoch was incredulous.
'Yes,' went on Shiela. 'Your daughter's lover is just a phantom lover, with a phantom home and phantom retinue. If you went to Tath-Gart you would probably see nothing. I am psychic, the wonders of the supernatural are often revealed to me. In this case, I saw eye to eye with Elspeth. I entered the castle in a negative state of mind. I was excited, inquisitive. I hardly realised what I was doing. My presence had no effect on the supernatural element there. They took no notice of me at all until they felt my hostility. When I saw Elspeth bend to kiss that horrible, malignant face, I tried to prevent her, and I succeeded. The whole scene vanished, it was not my actual words which caused it, but my will opposing the wills of the evil spirits. It's easy now to explain everything. Throughout the ages, he has no doubt haunted the isle that was once his pride and joy. He has concentrated all his power of thought on the last Murdoch. His will power has drawn her to the island, has made her see the castle as it was in 1745, has caused her to give her heart to him – a phantom. It is a fitting vengeance for the wrongs he suffered at the hands of a Murdoch. And now he in his turn is weaving a diabolical plot in which he will destroy the heiress to the Murdoch estates. He in turn will wipe out the last remaining Murdoch. In a hideous marriage ceremony in which the living is united to the dead, he will slay his bride.'
'Don't, don't!' cried the distressed mother. 'It can't be true.'
'It is true,' said Shiela grimly. 'His object is to wipe out the Murdochs, and I intend preventing him.'
Shiela shook her head. 'I don't know. I must think – think.'
'Mother,' said Elspeth later in the evening. 'I am not going to Tath-Gart again until my wedding day. My wedding robe is only half completed, and my lover wishes me to be handsomely arrayed. I must work hard – hard.'
'What are you using for your wedding dress?' asked her mother.
'Why, the old white satin dress belonging to Lady Elspeth, mother. It is too big for me, and it is difficult to make it fit.'
Mrs Murdoch gave a cry of horror. It was the wedding dress that had been worn by the bride of Wolf Murdoch – the slaughterer of the MacLaurie! It had been preserved through the ages – for this.
Every day during that last week, Shiela visited the island, and once Mrs Murdoch herself went with her. They saw no psychic demonstrations, heard no sound of ghostly laughter, felt no uncanny presence.
The wedding morning arrived at last, and Shiela interviewed the servants and begged them to humour Miss Elspeth. She explained that she was 'not well, and must not be thwarted'.
Elspeth came slowly down the stairs. She had not altered the style of her dress, and she looked like an old painting that had come to life. She had left her hair unbound, and it hung in a rippling cascade down to her waist. She had caught her veil demurely round her face, and it looked like an old-fashioned mob cap. In her arms she carried a huge bunch of purple heather. Heather that had been gathered some months before, and was now dry and withered, its colour faded, its beauty gone.
She insisted on navigating the yacht herself, but was strangely silent. They reached the little bay in safety, and Shiela prayed that she might be guided in her actions. She was extremely nervous and highly strung, indeed, the only member of the little party that seemed to be at all composed was Elspeth herself.
Throughout the scenes that followed, Mrs Murdoch saw nothing but the gaunt island with its ruins, and her two companions; heard nothing but the whining moan of the wind, the lashing of the waves, and the voices of her two companions; felt nothing but the bleakness of a raw November day! But all the same she nearly fainted with terror – terror of scenes that were not visible to her, yet which she knew were being enacted beneath her very eyes!
'Don't come too close,' whispered Shiela to Mrs Murdoch, 'and don't interfere at all, no matter what happens.'
Elspeth seemed to forget the two who had brought her to the isle, and boldly walked up the steep incline alone. Shiela followed closely, and again she saw the phantom castle, and again she crossed the phantom draw-bridge.
Two girls in white came towards the bride. Shiela gazed at them in horror. She recognised them to be the murdered sisters of the MacLaurie. Their faces were white and lifeless; their eyes lacked lustre, and their expressions of unholy loathing frightened her.
Elspeth seemed to be in a trance, and, noticing nothing, walked by their side. They led her into a large, tapestried hall, where the bridegroom awaited her. A bridegroom dressed in mourning, a bridegroom whose face was livid and discoloured; whose eyes bulged from their sockets; whose tongue, swollen and hideous, projected from his mouth. A bridegroom who bore in his face the signs of having met his death by strangulation. Yes – the MacLaurie had been hanged in 1745!
The hall was full of guests, but their clothing was rotten and worn, and their faces were those of dead men. Slowly a priest walked up the great hall. A priest with the face of a skull; a priest with fleshless fingers, and with vestments that covered a skeleton body. The ghastly ceremony had commenced. The living was being united to the dead.
For a moment only, Shiela hesitated. The sepulchral tones came distinctly on her ear:
'Wilt thou take this woman to be thy wedded wife?'
Her mind was made up. Swiftly she crossed the hall and flung her arm protectively round Elspeth.
The girl made a movement towards the bridegroom.
'Malcolm, my love,' she murmured.
'In the name of God I command you – Go,' cried Shiela.
She concentrated every ounce of will-power she possessed upon the phantoms. The brother and two sisters beat at her with long, bony fingers. The priest laughed hollowly. The guests grew blurred and vanished.
'Go, go,' she cried vehemently, still with her arms tightly round the now senseless Elspeth.
The priest vanished – the castle walls were gone, but the hatred of the MacLauries remained. It was will against will – the will of the living against the will of the dead.
But Shiela was the strongest in that unholy contest.
First she saw one sister – then the other – fade away; but still the MacLaurie remained.
She was conscious now of only one thing – she must defeat him. Once that was done, he would vanish to return no more.
The maddened spirit loomed upon her – he seemed to envelop her. His breath was foetid and choked her. He uttered maniacal cries of thwarted rage and hatred, but her eyes met his fearlessly.
'In the name of Christ – Go!' she cried. Her breath was coming fast and the sweat was pouring off her, the result of the mental strain she was undergoing. The victory was nearly won. The form of the dead MacLaurie was growing fainter, she felt his demoniacal hatred less intense, and even as he vanished, she laid Elspeth on the ground, and fell exhausted by her side.
Elspeth was still sleeping when she was carried from the yacht to the house. Gently she was undressed and put to bed.
'There are a lot of red marks on her frock,' said Mrs Murdoch. 'They look like blood. Do you know what it can be, Miss Crerar?'
But Shiela shook her head. 'Some stain from the ground, I expect,' she said quietly. 'That's all.'
The details of the horrible scene would never pass her lips.
Elspeth slept the round of the clock, and when she awoke, all memory of the past few months had left her. She had not the slightest recollection of the part she had played. She greeted Shiela shyly, as if she had never seen her before – and Shiela was well content.
A few weeks later Shiela read the following in the Scotsman:
The marriage which was arranged between the Marquis of Mavoir, the Duke of Cremont's son and heir, and Miss Elspeth Murdoch, only daughter of the late Murdoch of Murdoch, and Mrs Murdoch of Ach-na-Dindoch, Skye, will take place on the 18th inst. at Armadale, Skye. Owing to the recent illness of the bride-elect, the ceremony will be an extremely quiet one, only the nearest relatives being present.
The Werewolf of Rannoch
IT WAS A CHILL NIGHT in late January. The snow lay thick upon the ground; the wind howled among the trees; and the full moon shone down on a desolate wilderness.
Half-a-mile from the little village of Dhuvhair – a village situated in the very heart and desolation of Rannoch – stood the little unpretentious house tenanted by Doctor Chisholm and his sister. It was a wild, dreary spot in which to live, and the mystery and horrors which had fallen upon the little community were in keeping with the weirdness of the place itself.
For some months Dhuvhair had suffered from an 'evil visitation', to put it in the words of the 'Wee Free Meenister'. Cattle and sheep had been found dead in their pens, bloody and torn. Horses in their stalls had not escaped, pigs in their sties, dogs in their kennels, chickens in their runs had all suffered. And the manner of the kill was always the same, the throat of the victim was lacerated and bleeding, and the bowels torn from the body were left partly devoured.
'It's a Killer,' said the Moorland folk. 'It's a Killer. Keep your cattle under lock and key.'
For a Killer is a dread thing among the shepherds and cottars of the North. By a Killer they mean a sheep-dog that has gone mad for blood; a dog that can no longer be trusted to look after the sheep, but one that will steal away as soon as darkness falls, and will slay the very creatures he is trained to guard.
But when children disappeared, and grown men and women, and their bodies were afterwards found torn and bleeding, lacerated with savage toothmarks, the people looked at each other timidly, and kept behind bolted doors at night, and prayed with the minister in the kirk on the Sabbath that 'the visitation' might be lifted from them.
And it was the Reverend Evan Macintosh himself who wrote to Shiela Crerar and asked her to come and investigate the mystery that surrounded Dhuvhair; for he had known her since she was a little girl, and had heard of her marvellous successes. She had accepted, and Miss Chisholm had offered to put her up, as the manse was only a bachelor establishment.
So Shiela arrived at the little Highland clachan, situated in the heart of remote Rannoch Moor, and set to work on perhaps the most gruesome mystery she ever had to solve.
The days passed, and she was still unsuccessful. Each morning she chose a new theory upon which to work, and each night had to abandon it as being either impossible or absurd.
There was certainly the element of the unreal about the visitation. Crofters averred they saw 'a shaggy shape with eyes like burning coal, slinking about the hillside at the full of the moon'. And always, after the creature had been seen, there was a Kill. Children were kept indoors at night and came screaming from the 'ben' room, saying they had seen the face of a wolf at the window. The whole countryside was in a ferment of terror, and Shiela felt powerless to cope with it. She followed up clue after clue that proved useless, and all her nerves were on edge.
Doctor Chisholm, her host, a cheery soul of sixty-odd years, gave her all the help in his power, but he was openly sceptical about her theory that the Killer was possessed of a supernatural element. 'I am sure we shall find that it is simply some mad dog loose on the country, Miss Crerar. What else can it be?'
'Have you never heard of werewolves, Doctor?' she asked, quietly.
'Yes,' he replied, 'but I don't think I am quite sure in my own mind as to what they are supposed to be.'
'They are men with dual personalities, Doctor, who have the power to change themselves into the form of a wolf or some other carnivorous animal.'
'My dear Miss Crerar – ' smiled the Doctor, genially, and ran his hand through his snowy hair.
'Oh, I believe in it, Doctor. It is another form of the "Jekyll and Hyde" theory, that's all, only a much worse form. The astral spirit leaves the body in a sleeping condition, while it assumes an animal shape itself. Thus free, it roams round the world at will, and lengthens its existence by drinking fresh, warm blood drawn from a new kill.'
'Surely that is quite a mediaeval superstition, Miss Crerar,' protested the Doctor again. 'We are in the prosaic twentieth century, and – '
But Shiela refused to answer. She had been in touch with the unreal too often to doubt. She knew the power of the spirits from the other world – the tangibility of the elemental – she had come across the very essence of witchcraft. Nothing was impossible.
And that night, as she stood at the garden gate after dinner and enjoyed the glory of a white earth under a full moon, she caught sight of a shadowy grey shape creeping among the trees. It was her first glimpse of the Killer. Without a thought of fear she bounded after it – hatless, coatless, breathless, she followed it. It turned its head – its eyes gleamed viciously, and it snarled angrily. Shiela pulled a branch of whitethorn – a protection against witchcraft – and held it high above her head. The wolf leapt at her, but as it touched the tree, it whined, slunk round a corner, and when Shiela moved a second later it had vanished from sight. There was no place in which it could hide, yet it had gone completely, and the only living thing in sight was a man who was walking quickly into the distance. She hurried after him, but the space between them never seemed to lessen. His walk, his figure, his manner seemed familiar to her, but there suddenly came a flash, and when she opened her eyes, he, too, was gone. She walked back slowly and ran into Doctor Chisholm.
'I've proved my theory,' she said, with quiet concentration. 'The visitant is a Werewolf. I have seen it tonight, and I must now set to work to discover who it is that is the menace to this little place. I believe some men have no knowledge that they possess this power, and while their astral spirit is absent, they are asleep and unconscious of their evil doings. This Werewolf is different. I am convinced he knows his own powers.'
'Why, what makes you think that?'
'Because just now he appeared as a wolf – a second later the animal had gone, but a man had taken his place. I tried to reach the man. At first I didn't realise that the change had taken place, but when I drew near he used his magical powers, blinded me with a light for a moment, and when I could see, he too had vanished.'
'Have you any idea who this – this man is?'
'Not the slightest at present. Although he seemed familiar to me, I find I am unable to place him. But I shall work hard to discover him, and then – ' She left the sentence unfinished, and the kindly doctor tucked his arm though hers, and led the way back to his house.
But although Shiela saw the ominous grey shape many times, she was never able to track it to its lair.
'Will you watch with me tonight, Doctor?' she asked one day. 'I want to try and discover the direction from which the Werewolf comes. Let us hide in the bushes by the churchyard. We shall be safe there on consecrated ground.'
So they waited that night at the edge of the little graveyard – a spot eerie and forlorn.
'Get behind that tombstone,' said the Doctor genially, 'and I'll wait here.'
'But I can't see you, Doctor.'
'Never mind. I can see you.'
So they waited. The moon was hidden beneath heavy clouds, the wind was piercing, and heavy flakes of snow cut Shiela's face and made it smart. Suddenly, as the clock in the church tower boomed twelve, there came the sound of ghostly laughter – laughter that seemed to come from the regions of the damned.
Shiela felt her blood run cold, and, as she watched, she heard the baying of hounds in the distance – and knew them to be the ghostly hounds of the wicked dead. Nearer they drew, and nearer. Shiela watched their approach, and counted them mechanically. Five – six – seven – eight. And they strained at a leash that was held taut by their invisible master. And even as they passed her Shiela heard the crack of a whip, and saw the quiver of the flesh that was flayed – yet of the whip itself there was nothing to be seen. As they passed, leaving a luminous trail behind them, she saw the 'grey hulking shapes' speed swiftly by, there was the snapping of hungry jaws, a cry of pain, and the ghostly pack only numbered seven! They had passed, and all was still and quiet.
'Doctor, Doctor! Don't say now that you don't believe!' said Shiela.
'Doctor, Doctor!' she cried again.
'Doctor Chisholm, are you there?' and a frightened note crept into her voice.
But the genial doctor answered her, his voice grave and low. 'Forgive me, Miss Crerar, I scarcely realised you were speaking. I was carried away by the scene.'
Shiela left her hiding-place and crossed to him. He was rising from the shelter of a large whin bush, and the girl cried out in dismay.
'Oh, Doctor, thank God you are safe!'
'Why, what is the matter, Miss Crerar?'
'Do you realise you have not been on consecrated ground at all? You were on the path that separates the graveyard from the flower gardens that surround it.'
He gave a little wry smile.
'Then it was your presence that no doubt saved me from harm, my dear.'
Then one day Shiela saw the Werewolf lurking in the meadow near the Chisholms' byre. With the protecting whitethorn spray, she tracked it, but it disappeared behind the building itself, and as she turned the corner she came face to face with Doctor Chisholm's partner. They passed with a curt 'Good night', and Shiela thought no more about the incident.
A week later it was, however, brought back to her mind. She was waiting again in the churchyard, but this time alone. Midnight boomed out, and the Killer passed. But even as he vanished from sight the Doctor's partner appeared from the copse at the side of the road. This time she passed him without speaking, for the moment her eyes lighted upon him a wild possibility suggested itself to her mind, and she felt at last that she had a clue – that at last she was on the right track.
When she had first met Doctor Chisholm's partner she had taken a dislike to him. He was a Dane – Olaf Sylmak by name – a dark, taciturn man of late middle life. She felt sorry he was an inmate of Cnoc-na-Ruaidh, as the Chisholm's house was called. She never spoke to him more than courtesy demanded of her.
She read craft in his expression, cruelty in his tight, thin lips, and shivered at the touch of his damp, flaccid hand. And now – well, she hoped the denouement was not far off. The Killer was always abroad when the moon was full, and tonight she would try and track the malefactor to its lair.
'Well,' said Doctor Chisholm genially, as she said good night, 'you have not discovered the identity of our unpleasant visitor yet?'
'Not yet. But I think I am at last on his track.'
The old man's eyes twinkled, and he gave an exaggerated little shudder.
'Oh, you modern women! You dabble in science and medicine, you dabble in politics and law, and now you dabble in the occult. What else is there left for mere man?'
'Well, Doctor, you'll be glad if this mysterious horror is satisfactorily cleared up, won't you?'
'Of course I shall, my dear young lady – and so will Mary.' He nodded affectionately at his sister. 'Why, Mary scarcely ever sleeps a wink at nights now, do you?'
Miss Chisholm, a delicate spinster, many years her brother's junior, looked up flutteringly.
'Indeed, Miss Crerar, I have not. If it were not for Doctor Sylmak's kindness to me, his cheery presence, and the wonderful tonic he had made up for me for nerves, I am sure I should have had a breakdown long ago. The suspense is terrible, not to know from one minute to the next whether the – the Killer will make his visitation here.'
Shiela looked grave. 'You like Doctor Sylmak, don't you, Miss Chisholm?'
The little lady flushed.
'It is quite a secret. My brother, of course, knows; but if Doctor Sylmak is successful in a big experiment he is making, we are to be married.'
Shiela was unable to look into the candid eyes of the little young-old lady.
'I – I hope he – he will be successful,' she murmured, and then she not only surprised herself by bending over the spinster and kissing her on the forehead, saying, 'But, above all, I hope you will be happy.'
When she reached her room she muttered angrily to herself, 'If I am right in my conjectures, I shall bring unhappiness on that poor little soul who trusts him. Yet better one heart broken than distress and desolation on many.'
It was a bitterly cold night, and she wrapped herself up very warmly, put on snow-shoes, and pulled a woollen cap close about her ears. She loaded a little automatic revolver, and carefully opened a French window that led from her room to the outside stair, so prevalent in Scottish houses. Quickly she descended it, and crept into the shadow of a holly bush, and remained waiting – waiting.
It was an eerie night. The moon was brilliant, but the huge rings round it foretold stormy weather. The wind moaned and whistled, and Shiela drew her cloak close around her. She looked at her watch, and saw that it wanted but a few seconds to midnight, when she suddenly stiffened and her nostrils quivered. She had caught the scent of her prey!
There was a crunch! crunch! on the frozen snow, and a great grey beast slunk round the corner of the house. His nose was high in the air, and his red eyes gleamed banefully. The foam dropped from his slobbering jowl, and the steam rose from his heated body. She raised her revolver, and the beast seemed to scent danger, for with a whimper of fear it slunk into the shadows and vanished from sight. Quickly Shiela followed the direction it had taken. Among the trees she saw a grey shape flitting. It was the malevolent beast she knew to be responsible for the killings.
Night after night she had waited for it; tracked it among the peat hags and morasses of the moor; had followed it along the banks of lochs and peaty tarns; across heathery hummocks and granite boulders. But always the uncanny brute had evaded her. But now she had seen it come from the shadow of Cnoc-na-Ruaidh, and she felt that the Doctor's house was indeed the lair of the Werewolf – a thing loathsome, treacherous, vile. And even as she sped after it she shook with anger at the thought of the gentle spinster who had given her heart to Olaf Sylmak – the Wolf-man. Shiela had no doubts now – she had been suspicious of him from the first; but she had now to prove that he and the Killer were one.
As she crossed the dreary wasteland she heard a choking cry of pain – a cry that was hideous in the silence of the night. Still on she went, and at last came on the body of a stag. It was the beautiful creature that had cried out in its death agony. Its throat was completely gone, its body ripped open, and its entrails partly devoured. Drops of crimson stained the whiteness of the snow, and Shiela followed the bloody track. On it went across the uneven moorland, and at last came to a sudden stop, and Shiela saw the marks on the snow where the brute had wiped its jaws after its ghoulish meal.
The girl found she had journeyed to the edge of the moor. The spot was unfamiliar to her. A rugged mountain rose precipitously from the side of a melancholy loch. Her quest was done for the night. She could trail the beast no further, and she turned back to Cnoc-na-Ruaidh.
And even as she came in sight of the house she caught a glimpse of a hulking grey form crossing the front lawn. It seemed unconscious of the watchful eyes upon it, and stealthily crept beneath the shelter of a half-opened lobby window. For a second or two it remained quite quiet, then even as the girl watched it, it disappeared, and a moment later she saw the window shut and heard it latched from the inside.
Next day, as soon as breakfast was over, she retraced her steps of the previous night. The body of the stag was still in the same place, and the bloodstains, faint and blurred, still directed her. At the edge of the loch she hesitated and wondered which way to turn. A quarter way up the mountain side a huge lichen-covered boulder jutted out. At its base grew thick bushes of stunted holly, and Shiela's practised eye told her that some massive body had crept hastily beneath the shelter of the low branches. She climbed swiftly up to it, and peered beneath. There was an opening at the foot of the rock, and, fearless as ever, she crept into the passage-way. The way proved to be very narrow, and ran perhaps thirty feet down into a large cavern. As Shiela entered it she gave a cry of excited pleasure. She had found the Wolf-man's lair!
The place was full of strange devices and mechanical appliances, the use of which she did not know. High up the rocky wall was a tiny ledge. Quickly she tried to reach it. It was an arduous task, but she was sure-footed, the rocky wall gave her foothold, and she reached it safely. It was in reality the mouth of a tiny cave, and she could stay there in safety, and watch all unseen anyone who might be down below. It commanded a perfect view of the whole cavern.
She hurried home and rested, preparing for her nocturnal adventure; but she was not destined to go out that night. A sudden storm came on, the rain came down in torrents, and she knew it would be a physical impossibility to walk the five miles alone. She went to bed early, however, and quivered with indignation as she saw Dr Sylmak bend tenderly over the gentle spinster, who looked with such trust into his eyes.
He was a Werewolf! A man whose astral spirit took on the form of a wolf, and prowled at night in search of prey! A man who left his body in his chamber while his real self gorged on cannibalistic feasts. It was terrible – horrible – abhorrent!
Shiela was restless in her sleep, her dreams were uneasy, and she tossed from side to side in the large canopied bed. Suddenly she realised she was awake, and listened. There was a soft pad-padding outside her door, and she heard the snuffling of an animal, followed by a tiny whimper. Now, there were no animals at Cnoc-na-Ruaidh – neither cat nor dog nor bird. The house possessed no pets.
She lit her candle and looked round quickly, and gave a sigh of relief as she saw the branch of whitethorn by her side. She caught it up in her hand and opened her door. There was nothing outside. She felt a little mystified. She expected an encounter with the ghostly creature itself, and was a little disappointed. She shut her door and listened. Again she heard the whimper. This time she crept behind the door and waited. Slowly the door opened, yet neither handle turned nor lock clicked. It seemed to glide through rather than open, and through the crack in the hinges she saw the Wolf outside. There was no mistaking it! Its little red eyes gleamed with hatred, and its tongue lolled out of its mouth hungrily. It entered her bedchamber. Round and round it stalked, and she, ever watchful, held the whitethorn high above her head. It was a mighty duel of wits and strength.
The great grey shape crouched at her feet. Its breath was foetid and vile, and its coat gave forth a sulphurous vapour. Its murderous little eyes seemed to laugh as it saw the effort Shiela had to make to keep her arms above her head. How long they faced each other she never knew. She felt at any moment she must let her arms drop for very weariness. The stench of the creature was unbearable; the fumes from its body choked and nauseated her.
She saw her little revolver on her dressing-table, but was unable to reach it. Her eyes grew dim – her head ached. Then suddenly the Wolf was gone, and a pure white kitten clawed at her skirts and mewed piteously. Its foot was hurt, and in the prettiest way imaginable it lifted up its little paw. For a moment only Shiela hesitated, then with a swift movement she slashed viciously at the pretty little creature with her weapon of whitethorn, and the same instant reached her revolver. When she looked again there was no pretty white kitten, but a hideous grey creature, that whined savagely and licked the blood that oozed from a jagged wound across its body.
At that moment Shiela fired, and, with a cry, the Wolf leapt out of the door, and she realised she had missed it.
But had she, after all?
Dr Sylmak appeared at her door, and there was blood upon his hand.
'What is the matter, Miss Crerar? I heard a noise, and came to see what it was. At that minute you must have fired, for see – the bullet just grazed my little finger.'
Shiela gazed at him in horror. Then she had touched the grey shape after all. She thought she had missed; but was there not such a thing as repercussion?
If she wounded the Wolf, would not the man also suffer? If she killed the Wolf, would not the man die in a like manner? Although she had levelled the revolver at the Wolf, Olaf Sylmak had received the discharge. It was indeed curious!
But she did not mean to show her hand yet.
'Pray accept my apology,' she said sweetly. 'I thought I saw a burglar. I woke from a bad dream. I do hope I have not hurt you much?'
'Nothing to worry about, Miss Crerar. Go back to bed, and sleep better. Good night.'
But Shiela did not intend delaying further, and directly after dinner the next night she slipped out of her room and started on her walk to the Wolf-man's cave. She had plenty of time; it was still before nine. She reached the place in safety, climbed the rocky wall, and waited.
It was very dreary in that place of fear, and she wished she had told Dr Chisholm of her discovery, and invited him to accompany her. Time dragged. She must have fallen asleep, for suddenly she realised the place was lighted by huge torches that were fitted in brackets on the wall. In the centre of the cavern a brazier burned, its flames blue and red. A hooded man in a red gown, covered in strange hieroglyphics, stood over it, muttering in a monotone as he sprinkled a powder on the glowing coals that caused the flames to shoot up about the feet, assuming the colours of the rainbow.
A faint cry came from a darkened corner, and Shiela gazed in horror as she saw the magician stoop down and lift up in his arms a tiny naked child of perhaps two years. The plump little body squirmed and struggled with fear, but the man held it deftly while he anointed it with oils and sweet-smelling spices. Suddenly he held a knife aloft, and Shiela buried her face in her hands. There was an agonising cry – a cry that ended with a muffled, choking moan – and silence!
The girl felt too sick to watch; but the scene had its fascination as well as its horror, and tightly clasped in her hand was her loaded revolver. She would make no mistake tonight! But the wizard had not yet finished his revels. He dragged a stool in front of the brazier, and on it he placed two quaint figures. Subconsciously Shiela realised they were familiar. She peered cautiously down from her hiding-place, and realised that one was dressed like Miss Chisholm, while the other was wrapped round in a black hood, the exact counterpart of the one she was wearing at that moment.
The figure below raised the effigy of Miss Chisholm, and in a low voice called on Satan the Mighty, and Shiela knew she was looking at a corp chréidh* ceremony. She did not know that the practice still existed: the cult of fashioning a body in clay, and by aid of ghastly spells and prayers to the devil, working harm through its medium upon the person it represented.
The sorcerer held the little clay figure in one hand, and with a long, pincer-shaped instrument twisted off the right hand from the wrist. And as he did so, a cry of pain came from the effigy, and a second later Shiela heard Miss Chisholm's voice cry out, 'It hurts! It hurts!'
Then the image was flung contemptuously aside, and the man picked up the one dressed in the likeness of Shiela.
He lifted the corp chréidh in his hand, and with muffled words of hatred, bent over it for a moment before he plunged the entire left arm into the flames. And as the limb was shrivelled up by the furnace it uttered a wail of agony.
But Shiela had turned white and deadly faint, and she realised she was suffering the pain of burns. She hesitated no longer, and fired twice in quick succession at the monster below.
A piercing shriek broke the stillness of the night, and the man below had vanished; but Shiela saw a grey shape lift up its muzzle in the air and howl dismally, and even as it did so, it, too, disappeared from her ken.
Shiela, trembling and terror-stricken, crept home in the grey morning. Her arm was painful, but she had bound it up with strips torn from her petticoat. In the dim light she saw great blisters had risen from the inflamed flesh. She was worn out and tired, and hoped to creep into her room unseen. But she found the house full of excitement and trouble. Miss Chisholm was in the dining-room, weeping convulsively. Dr Olaf Sylmak was bending over her, and soothing her.
'Why, whatever is the matter?' asked Shiela.
'My – my brother!' sobbed the woman. 'He – he is dead!'
'What?' And as she spoke she noticed Miss Chisholm's right hand was bandaged.
'Shot twice through the heart, Miss Crerar. I heard the sound of a revolver fired twice in quick succession, and when I rushed into Dr Chisholm's room – he was quite dead.'
Shiela looked full into Olaf Sylmak's eyes, and read the truth there.
'May I see him?' she asked quietly.
It was Dr Sylmak himself who led her into the darkened death-chamber. The face of Robert Chisholm had lost its benignity – its contour. The lips were drawn back, and revealed sharp fangs – fangs that scarcely seemed to belong to a human creature.
'There will be no more killings now, Miss Crerar,' said Olaf Sylmak softly.
'You knew?' breathed Shiela.
The man nodded.
'I suspected it some time ago. I've been watching.'
'Forgive me! Oh, forgive me!' cried the girl.
But Olaf Sylmak never knew what she meant.
* Gaelic for clay body.
The Wraith of Fergus McGinty
FIVE YEARS HAD NEARLY PASSED since Shiela Crerar had first taken up her strange occupation. They had been years full of incident – life – success, and they had been years of love. Love mainly unspoken, it is true, but she knew that Stavordale Hartland's very life was hers, and she revelled in the thought. And now she had completed her task. Kencraig was once more her own. Every debt was paid, and although her banking account was small her heart was light.
She was staying with Doctor and Mrs Chalmers at their Glasgow house for a short holiday, and Stavordale was coming on the morrow. She had written him a quaint, prim little note in which she told him her news, and now? – well, she was glad he was on such terms with the Chalmers that he could invite himself to their home.
She leant back in the depths of an armchair, and surrendered herself to the delight of a favourite author. She was glad she had no 'case' on hand, for she was worn out with the strain of her psychic investigations, and she felt she needed a rest. Motherly Mrs Chalmers was looking after and fussing over her, and the change was a joy to the sensitive girl.
The door opened and she looked up. A man entered – a man with white hair and a flowing white beard. His air was a little old-fashioned, his kilt of homespun was threadbare in places, but his manner was gentle and courteous.
He sat down opposite her and looked round him curiously. He touched a modern writing table and sighed heavily, and a tear coursed down his furrowed cheek. The girl watched him; he did not speak to her, yet his whole manner suggested that he had something on his mind.
The doctor's bell rang out, and she knew he was waiting for another patient. The old man rose, and with the same old-world dignity and courtesy bowed himself out of the room. Immediately afterwards she heard the doctor's door close, and she presumed the queer stranger had gone in to consult him.
She thought no more of the incident until dinner that night, when she suddenly said, 'What a dear that old man was who came to see you this afternoon, doctor!'
'What old man, my dear?'
'The old man with the long white beard. He came into the drawing-room, but when he heard your bell, he went out. He looked exactly like a picture of an old patriarch.'
The doctor looked puzzled. 'No one answering to that description came to see me this afternoon,' he said.
'But he went into your room,' she persisted. 'I heard the clock strike four as he left the room.'
'He never came into me,' said the doctor with a smile. 'At four I saw Lady Mackleton to the door myself. She was anxious to get to Buchanan Street by a quarter-past as she was meeting a friend. I put her into her motor, and closed the door myself.'
'I expect the old man got tired of waiting,' said Shiela vaguely.
'A great number of people are that,' said the doctor with a little chuckle, for he was the most popular practitioner in Glasgow.
The doctor's house was very old – new flats, ugly houses, shops, had grown up round it, but in spite of modern innovations it still retained a certain amount of old-world charm.
As Shiela went along the corridor to her room that night, she perceived a kilted figure in front of her. A gust of wind came from an open window, and she saw him shade his burning candle with his hand. He turned into a room known as 'The Panelled Room', and Shiela caught sight of a flowing beard. It was her visitor of the afternoon! It was a very guilty Shiela that entered her bedroom. The old man was no patient, but an inmate of the doctor's house. Perhaps a relative who lived there quietly, unknown to the outside world – a recluse. And she had seemed to spy into the affairs of her friends!
She slept well – the noise of the thundering city failed to keep her awake, and as she rose, her heart sang – Stavordale! Stavordale! He would be with her at noon.
There was a double hall to the big house, and the inner formed a comfortable and picturesque smoking room, with its open grate and galleried stairway. Mrs Chalmers was sitting there on a settee by the fire when she came down, ready to go to the station to meet Stavordale – and at the further end of the same settee sat the white-bearded old man.
Shiela felt embarrassed and would have passed with a smile, but Mrs Chalmers called her.
'You have plenty of time, dear. The doctor has ordered the car to take you to the station. It isn't round yet. Sit down by me until it comes.'
With a little apologetic smile the girl sat down between Mrs Chalmers and the stranger. She felt horribly uncomfortable, for her hostess made no attempt to introduce her, and she was thankful when she heard the car at the door.
All the way to the station Shiela pondered over the matter. Could her friends be so heartless as to treat possibly a dependant relative in so churlish a manner? The thought disturbed her, but she was resolved to say nothing to Stavordale. The old man or his relations with her friends was not her business, and she – well, she was going to meet Stavordale!
His train was to time. They had no need of words, for as their lips met they realised they had found each other at last.
'I had your letter, little woman,' he said. 'I think I could read between the lines. You won't keep me waiting much longer, will you?'
'I am ready when you want me,' was her shy confession.
For answer he touched his breast pocket. 'I have a special licence here, my darling. Will you marry me soon – next week?'
Her face was suffused with rosy blushes as she gave him the answer he so longed to hear.
Dr and Mrs Chalmers greeted Stavordale warmly.
'My old room, I suppose?' he asked gaily.
'Yes, dear boy, the Panelled Room is reserved for you.'
A curious shiver ran through Shiela – she scarcely knew why. It was the room that the old man had entered the night before! He was being turned out for Stavordale.
They spent the evening quietly and Shiela went upstairs with Mrs Chalmers. Again she saw the white-bearded man, and again she watched him enter the Panelled Room!
She felt her heart beat rapidly, but her hostess seemed unconcerned. 'Good night, sleep well, dear,' she said, kissing her, and crossed the corridor and put her hand on the panelled door. 'I hope Mary remembered to light the fire in here,' she went on brightly. 'The room was quite chilly when I went in earlier in the day.'
Shiela watched her in open-mouthed amazement. Mrs Chalmers went straight into the room – the room the old man had entered only a few seconds before – and she heard her poking the fire. Her voice came through the door. 'Shiela, my dear, have you a large lump of coal to spare in your room? They are all such small pieces here.'
Mechanically Shiela lifted a piece out with the tongs and carried it on a shovel, but she hesitated at the door a second before she entered the room. It was large, with old-fashioned eighteenth century furniture, and the fire blazed merrily. She looked round it – there on a chair lay a pile of neatly folded clothes. A pair of brogues with the taws torn were underneath, while sitting up right in the very centre of the huge four-poster was the little old man. He wore a night-cap, and was eating from a bowl from which the steam rose. Shiela rubbed her eyes. Why was the stranger there? Why didn't Mrs Chalmers notice him?
The old man nodded pleasantly, and quickly the girl crossed to the other woman, but before she could reach her, Mrs Chalmers was standing by the bed and smoothing the sheets. Sheets that had never been rumpled with wear – and the bed was empty.
Shiela went to her bedroom in a thoughtful mood. She knew now that her power of 'sight' was no unmixed blessing. She could foresee no rest from psychic labours now! In grey Glasgow – a city of work and toil – she hardly expected to meet with the unseen. The house stood in a little cul-de-sac off Bath Street. The roar of Sauchiehall Street was near at hand. The lights were bright outside – all was modernity and rush. Yet – within sound of the city – 'vision' had come to her, the meaning of which was as yet obscured.
'I had a strange dream,' began Stavordale at breakfast next morning. 'I seemed to see an old man with a long – ' but Shiela heard no more. She rose and left the table and her heart felt sick within her. All that day she was nervous and irritable. She couldn't tell why, but the presence of the affable, white-bearded old man harassed her.
As she sat down at dinner that night she looked up suddenly. There, opposite her, sat the old man. He was unfolding his napkin, and when he had finished he helped himself liberally from a decanter at his elbow. A basin of soup stood in front of him, he seasoned it well, and began to eat.
Shiela gazed with horror at the figure, and Doctor Chalmers noticed her. He followed the direction of her eyes.
'Why, Madeline,' he said to his wife, 'are you expecting a visitor tonight?'
'See, an extra cover has been set.'
'How careless,' she replied, and then to the maid: 'Did you set the table tonight, Hoskins?'
'Yes, Ma'am. It was quite an accident. I can't think how I came to make such a mistake. I'm very sorry.'
But although she removed the knives and forks, and put the glasses on the sideboard, when Shiela looked again the old man was still in his place enjoying his dinner – but he was two courses ahead of the others!
That night the Wraith appeared in the drawing-room. He seemed to enjoy the music, and sat gently nodding his head in quiet appreciation. Then he rose and crossed to Shiela, and so she sat – her lover on one side, and an unknown wraith on the other!
The situation was incongruous. She felt a wild desire to laugh aloud. Stavordale bent to her.
'What is the matter, dear one?' he asked. 'You look tired – anxious. Thank God I shall soon have the right to take care of you altogether.'
'Stav,' she whispered. 'That dream you spoke of – the old man' but the figure on her left turned slightly and met her gaze, and she found she was unable to say what she intended, and passed it off with a smile.
The next afternoon she watched the old man descend the broad stairs in the hall. As he reached the open door the doctor appeared and stared at the unbidden guest for a moment. Shiela saw him hesitate for a second, and then stride after him, but the old man had reached the door and it had swung to behind him.
'You saw?' she asked.
'Yes, of all the confounded impertinence – excuse me, my dear – but did you see? He walked down my stairs as if they belonged to him, and let himself out of my front door, as if he owned the whole place. Who the deuce is he? Why, my dear, isn't he the same man that was in the drawing-room with you one day?'
'Who is he? Do you know?'
'Doctor' – hesitatingly – 'I am glad you have seen him too, for the matter has been troubling me greatly. As a matter of fact he has sat with us at dinner for the last few nights!'
The doctor looked at her as if she had gone mad.
'My dear Shiela,' he exploded. 'Don't bring all your psychic stuff and nonsense here. The man's real enough.'
'He's not, doctor. I don't know who he is, but he is certainly not human.'
The doctor was clearly a disbeliever, but even his calm was shaken that afternoon, for his wife came into him with an alarmed expression.
'My dear,' she said, 'I am sorry to disturb you, but I really feel rather nervous. A white-bearded man has gone into the Panelled Room. I saw him go down the corridor, but although I called to him, he took no notice. I distinctly saw him go into the room, yet when I followed him a few seconds later, the room was empty.'
The doctor with angry mutterings went upstairs, but although he searched everywhere, he could find not the slightest trace of the stranger.
Then Stavordale came in.
'Hullo!' he said. 'I see you have a visitor. Who's the patriarchal old chap in the library? He seems to be making himself very much at home among the books there.'
The doctor made no reply. The whole situation annoyed him. He was material himself, and he did not like to have his theory of an entirely material world shaken like this.
Then followed a period of unrest for the four in that house. Every day they caught a glimpse of the stranger in one part of the house or another. He sat with them at dinner; he listened to the music afterwards; Stavordale saw him in his bed. But whenever they tried to touch him, he melted into nothingness and vanished.
'I don't like it at all,' cried Mrs Chalmers. 'My dear, you are to be married at the end of next week – won't you try and settle us here first? That old man is on my nerves. I know he seems quite quiet and peaceable, but I – well, the truth is, I'm not used to ghosts and I don't like it.'
Shiela comforted the motherly woman.
'I am sure his presence is no menace to any of us,' she said. 'Try not to bother about it. I am sure sooner or later I shall find a solution to the mystery.'
Several times Shiela tried to get into communication with the stranger, but he never uttered a word, and when she addressed him he just faded from sight. Faded is the only word to describe how he vanished. His appearance became lighter and lighter until he looked like a figure of vapour – transparent and ethereal.
Shiela seemed unable to get to the bottom of the mystery. The old man was certainly harmless – he had no sinister effect upon anyone in the house, yet his presence caused a vague feeling of disquiet. They could feel his presence even when they could not see him, and Mrs Chalmers became quite hysterical. It was her first introduction to the unreal.
Shiela was walking up the broad stairway when she became aware that the old man was in front of her. She followed him down the corridor and he vanished into the Panelled Room. Hardly realising what she was doing, she followed him in. As she entered she was in time to see him disappear behind a piece of wainscotting that swung to after him. Delighted with her discovery she hurried downstairs, and told her story to the others.
'Let's go up at once,' said Stavordale eagerly. 'We must see if we can find a hidden door there.'
They tapped on the wall – it certainly emitted a hollow sound, but the secret spring was very cleverly hidden. The carving represented a huge vine laden with fruit, and Shiela noticed that one grape seemed larger, fuller than the others.
'Push that one,' she said excitedly. But although he pressed it, turned it to the right and turned it to the left, nothing happened.
'Can you pull it out?' she asked at last.
He obeyed her instructions. The carved wooden fruit moved ever so slightly, and then slowly the panels swung back and left revealed a small stairway.
'Get some candles quickly,' cried Stavordale, and then slowly and cautiously the others followed him, Mrs Chalmers nervously bringing up the rear, having first carefully propped the secret door open with a chair, 'in case of accidents' as she explained.
The stairway was long and steep, and at the bottom a bolted door met their gaze, but even as Stavordale put forward a hand to unfasten it, the stranger mysteriously appeared, and lo! the door was open wide.
Courteously he bowed the little party through. They found they were in a very tiny room, so small that it might once have been used as a Priest's Hole. There was neither window nor grating to be seen, yet the air was pleasantly fresh. It was quite empty, except for a large chest that stood in one corner. Tears fell down the furrowed cheeks of the old man as he silently pointed to it.
Stavordale tried to open it, but it was heavily bolted, and its locks were of a mechanism that needed careful manipulation.
'We must carry it upstairs,' he said, and with a smile, it seemed almost of relief, the old man faded away.
It was a difficult task to get the heavy chest up the narrow stairway, but they managed it, and at last, with patience and care, the lid was opened.
They clustered round the ancient chest – eager to see the contents. Tenderly Shiela lifted out a silken dress, a hooped dress of flowered silk that almost crumbled to pieces at a touch. Its style was of more than a century ago. Underneath it were more dresses – suits and a jewelled sword. A duelling sword with rusty stains on its blade – stains that told an ominous story.
But at the bottom of the chest a wonderful treasure was displayed. Plate of gold heavily chased came into sight, and on each piece was engraved a coat of arms, a broken key surmounted by a coronet. Piece by piece the plate was lifted out until forty pieces of solid gold were exposed to view.
'Where can it have come from?' said Mrs Chalmers.
But Shiela found a clue. In faded writing on the lid of the box itself was scrawled:
All this is the property of Strathbolla.
I hide it while there is still time. F. McG.
Anno Domini 1801.
'Look! Look!' she cried eagerly.
Mrs Chalmers read it uncomprehendingly. Still she repeated, 'Whatever does it mean?'
'It means we have stumbled on some property of the Strathbolla,' said her husband, 'and mighty queer it is to think we have lived here over thirty years, and yet had no suspicion of that hiding-place.'
'How did it ever get here?' asked his wife.
'Ah! that is a mystery we shall never solve,' he replied.
But Shiela thought differently.
'We shall have to communicate with the present Laird of Strathbolla,' she said. 'Do you know anything about him, Doctor?'
'Yes; his place is quite near Aberfeldy. He has only recently come into the estates.'
All that day they were eagerly speculating upon the mystery, and wondered what part in the long-forgotten past the white-bearded old man had played.
The Stranger did not appear at dinner that night, and Shiela felt that he knew his mission was accomplished.
Early next day Strathbolla came in person to see the Doctor. In the presence of Doctor and Mrs Chalmers and Stavordale, Shiela told her story.
She spoke of the haunting of the house by the old man, and of the subsequent finding of the chest.
The man's eyes glowed. He looked at the writing on the chest.
'F. McG.,' he murmured. 'Poor, faithful old Fergus McGinty!'
'Why, you know the initials?' asked the Doctor in surprise.
'Yes, and now I will tell you my story. Really I should have told it first, for, had you but known, yours is the sequel. This is the famous Strathbolla plate, Doctor, though perhaps you have never heard of it. The story was told me by my grandfather, for he knew and loved Fergus McGinty well, although he was still a lad when the old man died.'
'When did he die?' asked Shiela.
'In 1801. My grandfather was then about six – you know, he died in 1888, and had lived nearly a century.'
'Well, the story goes back a long way. It was about 1740 that Fergus McGinty first entered the service of the Strathbollas. He was – well, factor we should call him today; but he was far more than that, he was confidential friend as well. Niel Strathbolla, the young heir to the estates, was his dearest charge, and later when he grew up, and became restless and wanted to go to London, it was Fergus McGinty who accompanied him there. He valeted him – looked after him – lent him money when he needed it – in fact, was to him a second father. And, to the young man's credit be it said, he trusted him and loved him. Young Strathbolla got mixed up with a very fast set. He gambled, fought, and became entangled with a worthless woman, whom he married. In 1796, I think it was, he fought a duel, and killed his adversary, and for a time had to leave the country. He sent his wife and small son – my grandfather – to Scotland, and with Fergus McGinty went to Holland.' The man stopped for a moment and looked at the jewelled sword that lay open on the table. 'Probably that is the very sword that was used in the fatal quarrel,' he went on dreamily. 'At any rate, after that everything seemed to go wrong for him, and he returned to Scotland in 1799 a ruined man. His father was dead, and he had heavily mortgaged the estates – he hardly had enough money left to buy the barest necessities of life. Nothing was left but the famous gold plate – the very plate on the table yonder – that was given to the family by James V. It was Fergus McGinty who hid the plate from the hungry creditors who came to see what they could get. They burst into the house at Aberfeldy, and seized everything they could lay hands upon. The house was completely sacked, and afterwards burned, and Niel Strathbolla and his son escaped by the aid of loyal Fergus.'
All the company in the room were listening to the story with rapt attention. They were being carried into the past ages, and they could picture the stirring deeds that were performed in the 'good old days'.
'Well, Niel died shortly afterwards – I regret to say it – of delirium tremens; his wife had predeceased him; and Fergus McGinty, now an old man, took charge of the little son, and it was that son – my grandfather – from whom I learnt the story. Fergus went back to the ruined house and dug up the gold plate, which he had buried, and took it to Glasgow. There he hid it in what he considered was a safer place, and he told my grandfather that it was kept safe for him, and that one day he would show him his wonderful possessions.
'Unfortunately, that day never came. He was overheard talking about it by a servant, and it was repeated to the creditors of the estate – that it was Fergus McGinty who had done them out of what they considered their just due. Six men came to the little cottage where Fergus and my grandfather were living, and demanded to know the hiding-place of the plate. He refused.
'"It is safe," he cried boldly. "It is in trust for my little master here. No one shall ever possess it but a Strathbolla." Brutally he was knocked down, and a Campbell stood over him and menaced him. "Tell us where it is," he demanded; but to neither cajolery nor threats, menace or promise, would the old man yield. "It belongs to Strathbolla," he said, "and Strathbolla's it shall remain." But the men of those days paid little attention to law and order. In front of my grandfather – a wee, scared bairn – they cut Fergus McGinty's tongue from his mouth. With a wild oath the Campbell stabbed him through the heart. "If we are not to benefit, then neither shall the Strathbolla!" and they left the bleeding body, over which a poor, little, terrified child wept.
'Many times my grandfather has described the hideous scene, for it remained vivid in his mind all his life. He told me he scarcely realised what had happened, but suddenly the dead Fergus raised himself up, and from his tongueless, bleeding mouth came the words, "One day Strathbolla shall come into its own!" The child saw no more, for he was found later fainting on the dead body of his friend. There is little more to tell. He was taken care of by a distant relative, who left him his fortune. He paid off all his father's debts and rebuilt the old house – the very one I now possess. He made many attempts to discover the missing plate, but the secret was locked in the heart of his faithful Fergus – Fergus, who had lost his life and lost his tongue in the service of the Strathbolla.'
'It's wonderful!' said Shiela, and Stavordale saw the tears in her eyes.
'My grandfather was convinced that one day the secret of the hidden treasure would be revealed; but neither my father nor I ever thought we should see the plate again.'
'Then it was Fergus McGinty who told the secret!' said Shiela. 'It was Fergus McGinty who invited us here! Poor dumb Fergus!'
'Did your grandfather ever describe him?' asked the Doctor.
'Often,' replied Strathbolla. 'He was a shortish man, well-built, but not stout. His eyes were blue – pale – but of a piercing brilliancy, and his hair was white, while his long white beard hung down well past his waist.'
'The Stranger!' ejaculated Mrs Chalmers, and, even as she spoke, the Wraith appeared at the side of Strathbolla. He raised one hand, as if in benediction, and with a smile of infinite tenderness faded away into nothingness.
Shiela and Stavordale were married on the following Saturday. In the large dining-room of the Chalmers' house the simple Scottish ceremony was performed. The house, they found upon enquiry, was once tenanted by a certain John McGinty. What relation he was to Fergus they never knew, but the secret had been well kept.
As the happy pair left the house for the car that was to take them to Kencraig, where their honeymoon was to be spent, the Wraith of Fergus McGinty followed them. Shiela saw him, and smiled; and as she did so a wonderful expression of peace came on the old face, and his features were lit up with happiness. Stavordale tucked his arm through hers as the car drove off.
'Happy, little one?' he asked.
'Oh, so happy.'
And as he bent to kiss her: 'Don't "see" anything during our honeymoon, my dearest. Do have a perfect holiday.'
'I'll try,' she said quietly; but her expression was thoughtfully serious, and he realised that her 'power of sight' was a gift – a gift that she could not shake on and off at will. But he loved her, and was content.