Collected Plays and Stories
CWSA. Volume 3 and 4
The Door at Abelard
The village of Streadhew lay just under the hill, a collection of brown solid cottages straggling through the pastures, and on the top of the incline Abelard with its gables and antique windows watched the road wind and drop slowly to the roofs of Orringham two miles away. For many centuries the house and the village had looked with an unchanged face on a changing world, and in their old frames housed new men and manners, while Orringham beyond adapted itself and cast off its mediaeval slough. The masters of Abelard lived with the burden of a past which they could not change.
Stephen Abelard of Abelard, the last male of his line, had lived in the house with the old gables for the past twenty years mixing formally in the society of his equals, discharging the activities incidental to his position with a punctilious conscientiousness, but withdrawn in soul from the life around him. That was since the death of his wife in childbirth followed soon afterwards by the fading of the son to give whom she had died. Two daughters, Isabel and Alo˙se, survived. Stephen Abelard did not marry again; he was content that the old line should be continued through the female side, and when his daughter Isabel married Richard Lancaster, the younger son of a neighbouring country family, he stipulated that the husband should first consent to bear the name of his wife’s ancestors. This attachment to the old name was the one1 thing known in the lord of the old house that belonged to the past. For Stephen Abelard, in spite of his spiritual aloofness, was a man forward in thought, with a keen emancipated intellect which neither present nor past dogma could bind, and gifted with a high courage to act according to the light that he had.
A strange series of accidents had helped to bring the old family near to extinction. For the last hundred years no daughter-in-law of the house had been able to survive by many days the birth of her first male child. Girl-children had been born and no harm had happened but some fatality seemed to attend the birth of a son. Stephen’s great-grandfather had male issue, Hugh and Walter, and one daughter, Bertha, who died tragically, murdered in her chamber, no one knew by whom. It was after this incident that the fatality seemed to weigh on the house and popular superstition was not slow to connect the fatality with the deed. Hugh Abelard had already a wife and two sons at the time2 of the occurrence, but Walter was unmarried. One year after the tragic and mysterious death of his sister he brought a bride home to Abelard and in yet another year a son had been born to him. But only seven days after the birth of her child Mary Abelard was found dead in her room, possibly from some unexplained shock to the heart, for she was strong and in good health when she perished, and Walter, unhinged by the death of his young wife, went into foreign lands where he too died. The tongues of the countryside did not hesitate to whisper that he only paid in his affliction the penalty of an undetected crime. Hugh’s sons grew up and married, but the same fatality fell upon the unions they had contracted; they died early and their sons did not live to enjoy the estate they successively inherited. Then Walter Abelard’s son came with his wife and daughter and took possession. Stephen was born two years later and within three days of his birth his mother had shared the fate of all women who married into the fated house. So strong was the impression made upon Richard Abelard by this fate or this strong recurrent coincidence that when he married again, he would not allow his wife to enter the home of his ancestors. He bought a house in the neighbouring county and lived there till his death from an accident in the hunting-field. After him Stephen reigned, a man modern-minded, full of energy and courage, who returned, scornful of antiquated superstitions, to the old family house, married and had two daughters, and then — well, coincidence insisted and the male child came and the mother, adored of her husband, passed away. But there was no mystery about this death. She died of collapse after childbirth, her life fought for by skilful doctors, watched over by careful attendants, sleeplessly guarded at night by her husband. A coincidence, nothing more.
Therefore Isabel and Richard Lancaster Abelard came fearlessly to live at the fated house. The daughters of the house had been immune from any fatality, and when she became enceinte, no superstitious fears haunted the mind of any among the numerous3 friends and relatives who loved her for her charm and her gaiety. About three months before the birth of the child could be expected her sister Alo˙se married, not as the Abelards had hitherto done, into the neighbouring families, but, contrary to all precedent, a young foreign doctor settled at Orringham, a man not only foreign, but of Asiatic blood. Popular as Dr. Armand Sieurcaye was in the neighbourhood, the alliance had come with something of a shock to the countryside; for the Abelards, though less wealthy than many, were the oldest of the county4 families. But neither Abelard nor his daughter were troubled with these prejudices. The young man had powerfully attracted them both and the marriage was as much the choice of the father as of the daughter.
Armand Sieurcaye came from the south of France, and there was only the glossy blackness of his hair and the richer tint of the olive in his face to suggest a non-European origin. His grandfather, son of the mixed alliance of a Maratha Sirdar with the daughter of a French adventurer in the service of Scindia, had been the first to settle in France purchasing an estate in Provence with the riches amassed and hoarded by battle and plunder on Indian soil. Armand5 was the younger of two sons and had studied medicine at Nancy and then, driven rather by some adventurous strain in his blood than any necessity, sought his fortune abroad. He went first to Bombay, but did little there beyond some curious investigations which interested his keen, sceptical and inquiring mind, but did not help his purse. At Bombay, he met John Lancaster, Richard’s brother, and was induced by him to try his fortune in the English county6 town aided by whatever local influence his friend, plucked by an almost miraculous cure from the grip of a fatal disease, could afford him in gratitude for the saving of his life. In twelve months Armand Sieurcaye had won for himself universal popularity, a lucrative practice, and Alo˙se Abelard.
The old house, bathed in spring sunshine, had little in it of the ominous or weird to Armand Sieurcaye when with his young wife he entered it for a lengthened stay in the month of Isabel’s delivery. He was attracted by its old-world quaintness, by the mass of the green ivy smothering the ancient walls, by the heavenward question of its short pointed towers; but there was nothing there to alarm or to daunt. Isabel had hurried to the study to her father, and Armand guided by Richard7 Lancaster repaired to the room into which the domestics had already carried his belongings.
“Awfully good of you to leave your practice and come,” said Lancaster, “It’s a relief to have you. Herries8 is a fool and I’m not used to the worry.”
Armand looked at him with some surprise. He had not expected even so much nervousness9 in his cheerful, vigorous, commonplace brother-in-law.
“Is there any trouble?” he asked lightly, “Isabel seems strong. There can’t be any reason for fear.”
“Oh, there isn’t. But I tell you, I’m not used to the worry,” and, then, starting off from the subject, “How do you like your room?”
Armand had not looked at his room, but he looked at it now. It was a comfortable, well-furnished room with nothing apparently unmodern about it except the old oak panelling of the walls and the unusual narrowness and length of the two windows that looked out on the grounds behind the house. His eyes fell on a door in the wall to his right hand.
“What’s there?” he asked. “I thought the10 room was the last at this end of the house.”
“I haven’t any idea,” was the indifferent answer. “It can’t be anything more than a balcony or closet.”
The door attracted Armand’s attention strangely. Of some slighter wood, not of the oak with which Abelard abounded, it was carved with great plainness and struck him as more modern than the rest of the house. Still it was not precisely a modern door. He walked over to it to satisfy his curiosity, but the attempt to turn the handle brought no result.
“Locked?” questioned Lancaster, a little surprised. He too sauntered over and turned the handle in vain.
“I hope it’s not a haunted chamber,” said Armand, making the useless attempt again. He had spoken carelessly and was not prepared for the unwonted ebullition that followed his words. Richard’s face darkened, he struck the floor with his heel, angrily.
“It’s a beastly house,” he cried. “When old Stephen dies, I’ll sell it for a song.”
More and more surprised, Armand turned to look closely at his brother-in-law. It might be his fancy which told him that the young man’s face was paler than ordinarily and an uneasy restless look leaped from time to time into the shallowness of his light blue eyes. It was certainly his fancy which said that Richard looked as an animal might look when it is aware of some hidden enemy hunting it. He dismissed the imagination immediately, and put away from him the thought of the door.
But it occurred to him again when, returning from a solitary walk in the grounds, he chanced to look up at11 the angle of the house occupied by his room and the locked closet or balcony12.
A corner of wall there did jut out beyond what he judged to be the limit of his room and then curved lightly round and formed a porch supporting a small room that could not have been more than eight feet by twelve in size; over the room a peaked tower. The erection was meant to imitate and harmonise with the older pointed towers of the building, but a slight observation confirmed the Doctor’s surmise that here was a later excrescence inharmoniously added for some whim or personal convenience. But the ivy was unusually thick on this side and even covered the great carved and high-arched orifices that all along the length of the erection did duty for windows. It must then be rather in the nature of a closed balcony than a room. It struck him casually how easy it would be for an intruder to climb up the strong thick growths of ivy from outside and enter the house by the balcony. The possibility, no doubt, explained the locked door. Greatly relieved, he knew not why, Armand continued his walk. But he thought of the door idly more than once before nightfall.
That night, Armand Sieurcaye, sleeping by the side of his wife, was awakened by what seemed to him a noise in or outside his room. The lamp was burning low but nothing stirred in the dimness of the room. His eyes fell on the locked door and a disagreeable attraction rivetted them upon it; to his newly-awakened senses there seemed to be something weird and threatening in the plain mass of wood. With a violent effort he flung the fancy from him and sought slumber again; the noise that awakened him was possibly some figment of senses bewildered by sleep. He knew not after how long an interval he again woke, but this time a cold air upon him, and before he opened unwilling eyes, he was aware of the door of13 his room being softly opened and closed. Still the lamp burned,— the room was empty. Involuntarily his eyes sought the locked door. It was swung back on its hinges, wide open14! And if the closed door had alarmed something sensitive and irrational within him, how much ghastlier, more menacing seemed that open rectangle with the pit of darkness beyond!
Cursing his nerves for fools Armand Sieurcaye leaped from the bed, turned up the lamp and, conquering a nervous reluctance the violence of which surprised him, stood, lamp in hand, at the threshold of the darkness beyond. It was, as he had conjectured, a wide balcony walled in so as to form a habitable sitting or sleeping-room in summer, and it seemed as such to have been utilised; for a bare iron bedstead occupied the width of the room near the wall, an old armchair with faded and tarnished cushions stood against the opposite end of the room. But the arched orifices were now heavily curtained with the thick folds of the climbing ivy. Otherwise the room was entirely empty. He decided to look out from these windows into the moonlit world outside.
But as he advanced into the room, he was aware of a growing disorder in his nerves which he could not control. It was not fear, so much as an intense horror and hatred — of what, he could not determine, but, it almost seemed to him, of that bare iron bed, of that faded armchair. In any case, he carefully kept his full distance from both as he crossed the room to the ivied openings and thrusting aside part of those green curtains peered into the night. A great world of dark green flooded with moonlight met his eyes. And then he noticed in the moonlight a man standing in the grounds of Abelard looking up at the balcony with a hand shading his eyes. It was Richard Lancaster Abelard, heir of the old house, he who knew nothing of the door and the balcony. And then the strong descendant of old French and Maratha fighters recoiled as if he had received a blow. He did not look again but hastily crossed the balcony and entered his room casting a glance of loathing as he passed to each side of him, once at the iron bed, once at the disused armchair. He could almost have sworn that a shadowy form lay propped upon shadowy pillows on the old iron bed, that somebody looked at him ironically from the tarnished cushions of the chair.
Wondering at himself Armand put on a dressing gown and sat down in an easy chair. “I must have it out with my nerves,” he said, resolutely15; “Whoever entered my room and opened the door, will, I feel sure, return to close it; I will wait, I will see him and prove to my nerves what unspeakable superstitious idiots they are. There is16 nothing strange in Richard Lancaster being out there in the moonlight; no doubt, he could not sleep and was taking a stroll outside to help pass away some sleepless hours. What I saw in him, was an optical effect of the moonlight — nothing more, I tell you, nothing more.”
For about half an hour he kept his vigil. As he sat his mind left its present surroundings and turned to the experiments in occultism he had conducted in Bombay. From his childhood he had been a highly imaginative lad with a nervous system almost as sensitive as an animal’s. But if Armand Sieurcaye had the nervous temperament of the Asiatic mystic, his brain had been invincibly sceptical not only with the material French scepticism but with the merciless Indian scepticism which, once aroused, is far more obstinate and searching than its grosser European shadow. Refusing to accept secondhand proof, however strong, and aware of his own rich nervous endowment, he had himself experimented in occult science with the double and inconsistent determination to be rigidly fair to the supernatural and allow it to establish itself if it existed, and, secondly, to destroy and disprove it for ever by the very fairness and thoroughness of his experiments. He had been able to establish as undoubtedly existing in himself a fair power of correct presentiment, but against this he had to set a number of baulked presentiments; he therefore dismissed the gift as merely a lively power of divining the trend of events. He was also aware that his personal attractions and repulsions were practically unerring; but, after all, was not this merely the equivalent in man to the instinct which so often warns children and animals of their friends and enemies? It was probable that the adventurous life of his Maratha forefathers, compelled to be always on the alert against violence and treachery, had stamped the instinct deep into the hereditary temperament of their issue. All the rest of the phenomena17 valued by occultists18 he had, he thought, proved to be sensory19 hallucinations or inordinate subconscious cerebral activity.
In the course of his reflections he returned suddenly to his immediate surroundings and, with a start, looked towards the balcony-chamber. The20 door was closed, that had been open! There it stood shut, plain, dumb, denying that it had ever been anything else. Amazed, Armand leaped to his feet, strode to the door and turned the handle, ignoring a cry within that commanded him to desist. The door yielded not; it was not only closed but locked. Was it possible for any human being to have crossed his room, closed that door and locked it, under his very eyes and yet without his knowledge? Then he remembered the completeness of his absorption and how utterly his mind had withdrawn into itself. “Nothing wonderful in that!” he said. “How often have I been oblivious to time and space and circumstance21 outside when absorbed in a train of thoughts22 or in an experiment.” The23 visitor must have thought him24 asleep in the easy chair and moved quietly. There was nothing more to be done that night and he returned, baffled, to his slumbers.
The first man he met next morning was Richard Lancaster who greeted him with his usual shallow and cheerful cordiality. There was no trace of yesterday’s disturbance in his look or demeanour.
“Slept well?” asked Armand casually, but carefully watching his features.
“Like a top!” answered Richard, heartily. “Didn’t raise my head once from the pillow from eleven to seven.”
Wondering Armand passed him and entered the library. Stephen Abelard sat deep in the pages of a book; a cup of tea stood untasted beside his elbow. After some ordinary conversation suggested by the book, Armand suddenly questioned his father-in-law:
“By the way, sir, is there a room next to mine? I noticed a locked door between.”
Stephen Abelard’s eyes narrowed a little and he looked at his questioner before he replied. He had raised the cup of tea to his lips, but he put it down still untasted.
“Disturbed?” he questioned, sharply.
“Not at all,” parried Armand. “Why should I be?”
“Why indeed? You don’t believe in the supernatural. Who does? But in our nerves and imaginations we are all of us the fools our ancestors made us. I had better tell you.” Stephen Abelard began sipping his tea and then pursued with a careful deliberateness. “The room you sleep25 in was the chamber occupied by the unfortunate girl, Bertha Abelard, with whose name scandal in her life and superstition after her death have been busy. You’ve heard all that nonsense about the curse on Abelard. I need not repeat the rubbish. But this is true that only two people have slept in the balcony-chamber since her death. One was a guest, and he refused to sleep there after the first night.”
“Nervous imaginations! Somebody resenting his presence, somebody in the armchair opposite. What will not men imagine? The other was Hugh Abelard’s youngest son and he — ”
A shade crossed the face of the master of the house.
“And he — ”
“Was found dead in the iron bed the next morning.”
Armand Sieurcaye quivered like a horse struck by the lash. He restrained himself.
“Failure of the heart. The Abelards are subject to failure of the heart. Might it not have happened equally in any other room? It has so happened, in fact, more than once.”
Armand nodded. Hereditary weakness of the heart! It might very well be. But what then was Richard Lancaster or the hallucination of him doing outside in the moonlight?
“Since that death, out of deference to prejudices the balcony is kept locked and opened twice a week only when Roberts takes the key of the door from Isabel and cleans up. Roberts has no nerves. She believes in the ghost, but argues she, ‘Miss Bertha won’t hurt me; I’m26 only keeping her quarters clean for her.’”
Armand remembered the stories in circulation in the county27. Rumour had charged Walter Abelard with the responsibility for the death of his sister, partly on the ground of subsequent incidents, partly on the impossibility of an outside28 assassin penetrating so far or, even supposing29 he entered, committing the deed and effecting his escape without leaving one trace behind. Why, there was the ivy. And even if the ivy were not so thick one hundred years ago, an agile man and a gymnast could easily ascend the porch to the arched orifices and descend again after his work had been done.
“You30 are interested?” said Abelard, “well, we’ll go31 at once and see the room.” And he rang for a servant to bring the key of the ominous chamber.
Armand had by this time almost convinced himself that his nocturnal experience was only a peculiarly vivid and disagreeable dream. He followed Stephen with the expectation,— or was it not the hope? — of finding the room quite other than he had seen it in that uncomfortable experience. As Stephen32 Abelard opened the door and light overcame its native dimness, the first thing Armand saw was a bare iron bed in the width of the outer wall, the next a faded armchair with tarnished cushions against the inner masonry. The room was dim by reason of the thickness of the ivy choking its arched stone orifices.
No dream then, but a reality! Someone had twice entered his room, once to open, once to shut the door of ill omen. Was it Mrs.33 Roberts, somnambulist, vaguely drawn to the door she alone was accustomed to unlock? But where at night could she get the key? for it was, Stephen had said, with Isabel Abelard. Again, it was as if a blow struck him. For, if the key was with Isabel, only Richard Lancaster could easily have got it from her at night, only he or she could have made that nocturnal entry. And it was Richard Lancaster he had seen under the balcony when he looked out into the moonlight. Was it the heir of the house who had entered, opened the door, gone out to look up at the room from outside and afterwards returned to shut it? But on what conceivable impulse? Was it the memory of a somnambulist returning to Armand’s question of the morning? That was a very likely explanation and fitted admirably with all the34 circumstances. Or was his action in any way linked to those nervous perturbations so new and out of place in this shallow, confident and ordinary nature? That was a circumstance into which the theory did not fit quite so easily35. A great uneasiness was growing36 on Armand Sieurcaye. In a supernatural mystery he did not believe, but he was too practised in life not to believe in natural human mysteries underlying the even surface of things. He knew that men of the most commonplace outside have often belied their appearance by their actions. A presentiment of dangerous and calamitous things was upon him, and he remembered that his presentiments had more often justified themselves than not. But to Stephen Abelard he said nothing; least of all did he say anything to Richard Abelard of that nocturnal outing which he had so glibly denied.
Another week had passed by, but Armand’s nerves were not reconciled to the door of ill omen that looked nightly at him with the secret of Bertha Abelard’s death behind it. Yet nothing37 farther had happened of an unusual nature. Richard Abelard was often absent and distracted, a thing formerly unknown in him, and his speech was occasionally irritable, but there was nothing out of the ordinary in his action. He walked, smoked, shot, rode, hunted, played billiards and read the light literature that pleased him, without any deviation from his familiar habits. Armand noticed that on some days he was entirely his old self, and then he invariably spoke with great satisfaction of the profound sleep he had enjoyed all night. Sieurcaye finally dismissed the presentiment from his mind. He had accepted the somnambulist theory; it was sleeplessness that was telling on Richard’s nerves. The whole mystery received a rational explanation on that simple hypothesis.
Two nights after he arrived at this cheerful conclusion, he woke at night for the first time after the experience of the open door. Every night he had thought of watching for the somnambulist, but, though38 he had been accustomed all his life to light slumbers, a39 sleep as profound as that of which Richard Lancaster boasted, glued his head to the pillow. On this particular night his wife was not with him, for, to satisfy a caprice of Isabel’s, she was sleeping with her sister in their40 old nursery. Armand turned on his pillow, noticed with the surprise of a half-sleeping man the absence of his wife, then glanced about the room and observed that the door of his chamber was slightly open. A meaningless detail at first, the circumstance began to awaken a sort of indolent wonder — had Alo˙se come into the room to visit his sleep and gone back to the nursery? Or was it Richard the somnambulist driven by the monomania of the locked room? And then, as if galvanised by a shock of electricity, he sat up in41 bed, suddenly, violently, and stared at the door with unbelieving eyes. It had come back to him that, before turning into bed, on the spur of some unaccountable impulse, he had locked his room and lain down wondering at his own purposeless action. And there now was the door he had thus secured, open, with the key in the lock, challenging him for an explanation. Had he got up himself in his sleep and opened it? Had he too grown a somnambulist? He remembered the profound slumber, so unusual to him, so similar to Lancaster’s, that had surprised him for the last few nights. Then an idea occurred to his rapidly working mind; he got out of bed, went to the inner door and turned the handle. It opened! He looked into the room with the iron bed. There was no one there, only the bed and the armchair. Then he closed the door, walked over to his own door, locked it, put the key under his pillow and got into bed again. His heart was beating a little faster than usual as he lay gazing at the door of Bertha Abelard’s death chamber. And then a very simple explanation flashed on him. Baulked by the locked door, Richard had climbed up by the ivy from outside and effected his entry from Bertha’s chamber. But Isabel was not with Richard tonight — how could he have got possession of the key? Well, conceivably, Isabel might have left her keys by oversight in her own chamber, or the somnambulist might have entered the nursery and detached what he needed from his wife’s chatelaine. But what settled waking idea, what persistent fancy of sleep drove Richard Lancaster to the ominous chamber, forced him to devise entrance against every obstacle and by such forbidden means? Armand shuddered as he remembered the story of Bertha Abelard’s death and his own theory of the means by which her assassin had gained entrance.
As he expected, he soon fell asleep. Rising the next morning, his first action was to walk over to the inner door and try it. It was locked! Well, that was natural. Somnambulists were often alert and keen-minded even beyond their waking selves and Richard, foiled again by the locked door, had climbed up once more by the ivy to efface all proof of his nocturnal visit.
Armand contrived that morning to be alone with Isabel in order to ask her where she kept the key of Bertha Abelard’s chamber. She turned to him with laughing eyes.
“You are not haunted, Armand? No? It’s always with me and the ghost, if she’s there, must get through solid wood to invade your room. I keep my chatelaine at night under my pillow.”
“You had it there last night?”
“Armand! I am positive our ancestress has visited you. Yes, last night too.” And then suddenly, “Why, no, it was not. I put it last night in the box where I kept my doll and my toys. Don’t look42 surprised, Armand. I’m a great baby still in many things and I wanted to have everything last night just as it was when we were children. I was a very careful and jealous little housewife, and before I slept I used always to lock up my chatelaine with my doll and playthings and treasure the tiny key of my box in a locket under my nightgown. I did all that last night. If you have been haunted, I’m not responsible.”
“Did you tell anybody what you were going to do?”
“I did not think of it till we went to bed. Only Alo˙se knew.”
“Does anybody else know of this habit of your childhood?”
“Only Roberts and papa. They don’t remember, probably. I had forgotten it myself till last night. What is puzzling you, Armand?”
“Oh, it is only an idea I had,” he replied, and rapidly escaped from farther43 question to the sitting-room set apart for himself and Alo˙se.
The thing was staggering. Somnambulism did not make one omniscient, and it was impossible that Richard Abelard should have known this arrangement of Isabel’s far-off childhood, extracted the key from his sleeping wife’s locket, the chatelaine from the box and restored them undiscovered, when his need was finished. The theory involved such a chain of impossibilities and improbabilities that it must be rejected. And then, as always, a solution suggested itself. Richard Abelard must have taken, long ago, the impress of the key and got a duplicate of it made for his own secret use. But if so, what unavowable44 design, what stealthy manoeuvres must such a subterfuge be intended to serve? What legitimate need could Richard Abelard have of this secret and ominous exit or entry? Was it not Armand’s duty to warn Stephen Abelard of proceedings that must conceal in them something abnormal, perilous or even criminal? But there was the danger that Isabel might come to hear of it and receive a shock. Armand decided to wait till after her delivery.
A knock at the door roused him from his thoughts and in response to his invitation Richard Abelard himself entered. He walked up to the fireplace, flung himself into a chair opposite Armand and jerked out abruptly:
“Dr. Armand, you are a dab at medical diagnosis. Can’t you tell me what’s the matter with me?”
“Name your symptoms.”
“You’ve seen some of them yourself. I’ve observed you noticing me. But that’s nothing. It’s the mind.”
“What of the mind?”
“Oh, how should I know? Dreams, imaginations, sensations, impulses. Yes, impulses.” He grew pale as he repeated the word.
“Can’t you be more precise?”
“I can’t; the thing’s vague.” He paused a moment; and then his features altered, a look of deep agony passed over them. “Somebody is hunting me,” he cried, “somebody’s hunting me.”
A great dread and sickness of heart45 seized upon Armand Sieurcaye as he looked at his brother-in-law.
“Steady!” he cried, “it’s a nervous disorder, of course, nothing more. But you are hiding something from me. That won’t do.”
“Nerves! Don’t tell me I’m going mad! Or if I am, prevent it, for Isabel’s sake.”
“Of course, I’ll prevent it. But you have got to be frank with me. I must know everything.”
A visible hesitation held Richard for a few seconds, then he said, “I’ve told all I can think of, all that’s definite.” Then, suddenly, striking the arm of his chair with his closed hand, “It’s this beastly house,” he cried; “there’s something in it! There’s something in it that ought not to be there.”
“If you think so, you must leave it till your nerves are restored. Look here, why not take John’s yacht and go for a cruise, oh, to America, if you like,— or to Japan. Japan will give you a longer spell of the sea.”
“I’ll do it,” cried Richard Lancaster, “as soon as Isabel’s safe through this, I’ll go. Thank you, Armand.” And with a look of great relief on his face, he rose and left the room.
Armand had not much time to ponder over this singular interview, though certain phrases Richard had used, kept ringing in his brain; for that night the pangs of childbirth came upon Isabel and she was safely delivered of a male child. An heir was born to the dying house of Abelard. The strong health of Isabel Abelard easily shook from it the effects of the strain. There was no danger for her and the child seemed likely to inherit the robust physique of his parents. As for Richard, he was joyous, at ease and seemed to have put from him his idea of a flight from Abelard.
But on the third night after the delivery Armand Sieurcaye had troubled dreams and wandered through strange afflictions; the rustling of a dress haunted him; a pang of terror, a movement of agony seemed to come from someone’s heart into his own, and there was a laughter in the air he did not love. And in the grey of the autumn morning, Stephen Abelard with a strange look in his eyes stood by his side.
“Get up, Armand; dress and come. Do not disturb Alo˙se.”
In three minutes Armand was outside on the landing where Stephen Abelard was pacing to and fro under the whip of the sorrow that had leaped46 upon him.
“Isabel is dead,” he said briefly.
With a dull brain that refused to think Armand followed the father to the death chamber of his child. The wall lamp was flaring high above the bed. A night-lamp that no one had thought to put out, burned on the toilette-table. In a chair far from the bed Richard Lancaster with his face hidden in his hands sat rocking himself, his body shaken by sobs. When Armand entered, he uncovered his face, cast at him a tragic look from eyes full of tears, and went swaying from the room.
Armand stood at the bedside and looked at the dead girl. As he looked, a pang of fear troubled his heart, for his practised perceptions, familiar with many kinds of death, gave him an appalling intimation. Isabel had not died easily! Then something peculiar in the pose of the head and neck struck his awakened brain. He bent down suddenly, then rose47 as suddenly, his olive face sallow48 with some strong emotion, strode to the toilette-table, seized the night-lamp and returning held it to Isabel’s neck.
“What is it?” asked Stephen Abelard. One could see that he was holding himself tight to meet a possible shock. Armand carefully put back the lamp where it had stood and returned to the bedside before he answered. In the shock of his discovery he had forgotten his surroundings, forgotten to whom he was about to speak.
“It is a murder,” he said, slowly and mechanically.
“It is a murder,” he continued, unheeding the cry of the father, “I cannot be mistaken. And effected by unusual means. There is a spot in the body which has only to be found by the fingers and receive a peculiar pressure and a man dies suddenly, surely, with so light a trace only the eyes of the initiate can discover it — not even a trace, only an indication, but a sure indication. The Japanese wrestlers know the device, but do not impart it except to those who are too self-disciplined to abuse it. That is what has been done here.”
Stephen Abelard seized Armand’s shoulder with a tense, violent grip. “Armand,” he cried, “who besides yourself knows of this means of murder?”
“John Lancaster knows it.”
Stephen’s hand fell limply49 from his son-in-law’s shoulder. After a time he said in a voice that was again calm, “Armand, my child died of heart-failure as so many of the Abelards have done.”
“It is best so,” replied Armand Sieurcaye.
“Now go, Armand,” continued Stephen quietly, “go and leave me alone with my child.”
Armand did not return to his chamber, but went into his sitting-room, lighted a candle and sat, looking at the chair in which Richard Abelard had consulted him only three days ago. John Lancaster, Richard’s brother, who alone near Orringham knew of the Japanese secret! What share had John Lancaster, friend of Armand Sieurcaye, in the murder of Isabel Abelard? Was it for his entry that Richard had provided, by the duplicate key, by his strange and perilous manoeuvres with the ivy and the balcony room? But why not open the front door for him or leave unshuttered one of the lower windows, a much easier and less dangerous passage? Then he remembered that the great dog, Brilliant, lay at the bottom of the stairs and would not allow any but an inmate to pass unchallenged. John Lancaster was his friend, his benefactor, but Armand knew the man, a reckless flamboyant profligate capable of the most glorious and self-immolating actions and capable equally of the most cruel and cynical crimes. He remembered, too, how he himself had taught John that peculiar trick of the Japanese art of slaying. In a certain sense he himself was responsible for Isabel’s death. How wise were the Easterns50 in their rigid reticence when they taught only to prepared and disciplined natures the secrets that might be misused to harm mankind! And then his mind travelled to Isabel and her sorrowful end slain in the supreme moment of a woman’s joy by the husband she loved. What grim and inexorable Power ruling the world, Fate, Chance, Providence, had singled out for this doom a girl whose whole life had been an innocent shedding of sunshine on all who came near? Providence! He smiled. There were still fools who believed in an overruling Providence, a wise and compassionate God! And then the insoluble problem returned to baffle his mind, what possible motive moved Richard to compass this heartless crime or John to assist him?
All that day of sorrow Richard was absent from the house, and Armand had no chance of probing him. It was late at night, about eleven, that he entered. Armand met him on his way to his room, candle in hand.
“I should51 like a word with you, Richard,” he said.
Richard turned on him, laughing with a terrible gaiety. “No use, Doctor Armand. You could not save me, you see. The thing was too strong. Mark my words, the thing will be too strong even for you.” And he strode to his room leaving Armand amazed on the staircase.
Alo˙se had elected to sleep that night with her dead sister’s child and Armand once more found himself alone in Bertha Abelard’s chamber with no companion except the locked door, accomplice perhaps in the tragedy that had darkened the house. Again his slumbers were troubled and he dreamed always of the locked door open and someone traversing the room on a mission of evil, a work of horror. He woke with a start, his heart in him dull and heavy as lead and full of the conviction, which it called knowledge, that the tragedy was not finished but more crimes mysterious and unnatural were about to pollute the old walls of Abelard. Then his thoughts52 flew to Alo˙se. He dressed himself hastily and went to the room where she was sleeping. Alo˙se was asleep and the child’s nurse slept on a bed some five feet away, but Armand cast only a fleeting glance at the two women, for between the beds was the cradle of Isabel’s child and over it was a figure stooping, and as it lifted its face towards the opened door, he saw a face that was and yet was not the face of Richard Lancaster. Richard immediately moved over to the door. As he neared53, Armand drew away from it with the first pang of absolute terror in his heart he had ever experienced since his childhood. Richard Lancaster noted the emotion and it seemed to amuse him, for he laughed. And again there was something in the laugh that was not in the laugh of Richard Lancaster or of any human mirth to which Armand Sieurcaye had ever listened. As soon as Richard had left the room, Armand almost ran to the door, locked it and sat down at his wife’s bedside shaking with an excitement he could not control. He soon recovered hold of his nerves, but he did not leave the room and its unconscious inmates. He sat there motionless till at four o’clock in the morning a light knock at the door startled him. When he opened it, Stephen Abelard entered. He took Armand’s presence as a matter of course and went calmly to the side of the child and began looking down on the heir of his house, the little baby who was54 all that was left to him of Isabel. When he turned from the cradle, Armand spoke.
“Sir, you must do something about Richard.”
Stephen looked at him. “Come to my room, Armand,” he said, “We will talk there.” Before following Stephen, Armand woke the nurse and bade her watch over the child. “Lock the door,” he added, “and keep it locked till I return.” As he went through the corridors, he passed Richard’s room. The door was open, but the room absolutely dark; still his practised eyes perceived in the doorway a figure standing which drew back when he looked at it, obviously not the figure of Richard, for it was shorter, slenderer. When he was entering Stephen’s room, it occurred to him that he had unconsciously carried away in his mind the impression that it was the figure of a woman. After the first disagreeable feeling had passed, he shook the absurdity from him; it must have been the dressing-gown that gave him the idea of a woman’s robe. After a brief talk with Stephen, the two were pulling in silence at the cigars they had lighted, when, perhaps half an hour after his leaving the nursery, someone knocked at the door and the nurse appeared and beckoned to Armand Sieurcaye. There was a look of terrible anxiety on her face that brought Armand striding to the door.
“Will you come, sir?” she said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with the child.”
“Did you lock the door?” asked Armand, as they went.
The nurse looked troubled. “I thought I did, though I could not understand why you wanted it; but it seems I can’t have turned the key well. For when I dozed off for two minutes, I woke to find the door open.” Then she paused and added with great hesitation. “And I almost55 felt, sir, as if I had noticed a woman in the room standing by the cradle56, but I was too sleepy to understand. It wasn’t Mrs. Sieurcaye, for I had to wake her up afterwards.”
A woman! And the locked door that opened! Armand groaned; he could understand nothing, but he knew what he would find even before he bent with the already awakened and anxious Alo˙se over the dead child who had thus so swiftly followed his mother to the grave. And it was by the same way.
That morning Stephen Abelard spoke to his elder son-in-law. “Richard,” he said, “you will start for your sea-voyage today. Take John’s yacht at Bristol. You need not wait for the funeral nor mind what people will say. If I were you, I’ld have a doctor on board.”
Richard Lancaster was very calm and deliberate as he replied, “I had settled that, sir, before you spoke. I’m going on a long journey and I’m going direct, not by Bristol nor in the yacht. As you suggest, I’ll not wait for the funeral and I’m past caring what people will say.”
“Don’t forget the doctor,” insisted Stephen.
“The doctor can’t come,” said Richard, “And he wouldn’t57 like the voyage. I’m not mad, sir,— worse luck!”
The two sons-in-law of Stephen Abelard left the house-steps together, Armand for a stroll in the grounds to steady his heated brain and his shaken nerves, Richard in the direction of the stables.
When Armand was returning to the house, a pale-faced groom ran up to him and pointed in the direction of the great avenue of stately trees before Abelard.
“Mr. Richard’s lying there,” he faltered, “— shot!”
Armand stood stock-still for a moment, then ran to the spot indicated. Of this last tragedy he had had no presentiment. What was it? What was this maddening and bloody tangle? This death dance of an incomprehensible fate which had struck down mother, father and child in less than thirty hours? No gleam of motive, no shred of coherence illuminated the nightmare. His reason stood helpless at last in the maze. It was the locked door, he thought, that opened and revealed nothing. But his reason insisted. Richard Abelard was mad, and in his madness he had used the device John must have incautiously taught him to slay wife and child; and this last act of self-slaughter was the natural refuge of a disturbed brain made aware by Armand’s looks and by Stephen’s words of discovery.
Richard Abelard lay dead on the grass by the avenue, shot through the heart and the revolver lay fallen two feet from his outstretched and nerveless hand. Armand, bending to assure himself that life was extinct, caught sight of a small piece of paper lying close to the knee of the dead man. When he rose, he turned to the groom. “Mr. Richard’s dead,” he said, “go and tell Mr. Abelard and bring men here to carry him in.”
The man reluctantly departed and Armand caught up the paper and put it swiftly into his pocket. It was not till an hour later that he had time to take it out in his parlour and look at it. As he had suspected, it was a brief note in Richard’s handwriting, and thus it ran, brief, pointed, tragic, menacing.
“Armand, you knew! But it was not I. God is my Witness, I am not guilty of murder. I can say no more; but in mercy to Alo˙se, look to yourself!”
For a long time Armand Sieurcaye held in his hand the dead man’s mysterious warning. Then he flung it into the fire and watched its whiteness blacken, shrivel and turn into ashes.
[The story was abandoned here.]
Earlier edition of this work: Sri Aurobindo Birth Century Library: Set in 30 volumes.- Volume 7.- Collected Plays and Short Stories: Part Two.- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Asram, 1972.- 562-1089 pp.
1 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: only
2 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: hour
3 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: numerous
4 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: country
5 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: Charles
6 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: country
7 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: by his brother-in-law Richard
8 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: Harris
9 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: much of nervousness
10 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: this
11 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: up closer at
12 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: locked balcony
13 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: in
14 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: wide open swung back on its hinges
15 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: resolute
16 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: was
17 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: phenomenon
18 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: by the occultists
19 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: sensitive
20 In 1972 ed. this sentence and next sentence are in reverse order
21 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: circumstances
22 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: thought
23 In 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 6, this sentence is a direct speeh
24 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: me
25 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: slept
26 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: I am
27 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: country
28 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: outsider
29 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: even if supposing
30 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: If you
31 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: we go
32 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: Stephen
33 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: Mme.
34 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: with the
35 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: quite easily
36 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: was so growing
37 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: Nothing
38 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: though
39 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: but a
40 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: the
41 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: on
42 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: be
43 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: further
44 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: what an unavowable
45 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: of the heart
46 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: lashed
47 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: rose
48 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: yellow
49 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: simply
50 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: Eastern
51 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: would
52 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: thought
53 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: moved
54 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: was
55 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: And almost
56 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: candle
57 1972 ed. SABCL, volume 7: would not