Touch and Go :
The fair-haired man in the corner had taken no part in the conversation. He made the fifth of the group that had gathered itself together in the corner of the smoking-room, and I don’t think any of us even knew his name. He had come on board the day before at Marseilles with his wife, and it was she who had attracted my attention at dinner to such an extent that I had remarked on her to Sturgis of the Gunners, who was sitting next me.
A pretty woman — extremely pretty, and judging by her face somewhere about thirty. Certainly not more, for there was not a wrinkle to be seen, and her arms and neck were those of a young woman. It was her hair that surprised one, and made one wonder if the age estimated was wrong. For though there was a lot of it, it was snow white.
“Some newfangled fashion,” grunted Sturgis in answer to my comment. “Next year it will be pea-green. I’ll bet you that woman is not out of the twenties yet.”
But somehow she didn’t look in the least of the type who go in for freak fancies of that sort. And her husband seemed to be the last man in the world who would marry one of the type. A more prosaic, matter-of-fact-looking Englishman I have seldom seen, and he was quiet to the point of dullness.
It was his first trip out East, we gathered, whereas we calculated that between the rest of us we had just topped the half-century. Which quite possibly accounted for his silence: we were talking of seas and places that, to him, were merely names out of an atlas. And also, as the evening grew older and tongues grew looser, some pretty tall stories began to fly around. Some were perfectly true; some—however, I will not labour the point.
I forget who it was who first started the discussion on tight corners and terrifying experiences generally. Cartwright spun a fairly useful one about three days in the company of some Chinese pirates waiting for a ransom he knew would never come; Sturgis specialised on a singularly unpleasant sect of priests somewhere up in Tibet. In fact, none of us disgraced ourselves, and I think we all had a comfortable feeling that our fair-haired friend was suitably impressed with the perils that lay in wait for the unwary.
“Of course,” said Cartwright reassuringly, “it’s only when you get off the beaten track that there’s any danger. Otherwise you’re as safe as you are in England.”
The fair-haired man smiled a little thoughtfully. “What age would you put my wife at, gentlemen?” was his somewhat astounding remark.
“Well, really,” said Sturgis, after a slightly embarrassed silence, “I—er—”
“I think you noticed her at dinner,” went on the other quietly. “And I have a reason for my apparently strange question.”
“Twenty-five,” I said, determined to err on the right side.
“My wife will be twenty next July,” he answered. “And seven months ago, when she was just nineteen, her hair was as dark as yours. Not illness, gentlemen: nothing of that sort. But when you made use of the phrase ‘as safe as you are in England,’ I couldn’t help thinking of that change of colour.”
“You mean she had some terrible shock?” said someone.
“Nothing to compare, of course, with that sect of priests in Tibet,” he answered mildly, and Sturgis became engrossed in the bowl of his pipe. “Yes, she had a terrible shock.”
“Which turned her hair white?” Cartwright looked at him with interest. “I’ve heard of such cases second-hand, but—Is it a matter which you can pass on, sir?”
The fair-haired man was silent for a moment or two. “Well, gentlemen,” he said at length, “you will understand that it’s not a thing which I care to talk about as a general rule. But on the condition that it goes no farther, and above all on the condition that no allusion should ever be made to it in front of my wife, I have no objection to telling you what happened.
“You will understand, of course, that much of it has been pieced together by me from what she told me after it happened: I was not there at the time. If I had been—”
His fists clenched suddenly, and a strained look came into his eyes.
“We had been married three months when it took place. Our honeymoon was over—I couldn’t afford the time for a very long one—and we were settling into the house I had managed to get not far from Sunningdale.
“It was a nice little house—ten bedrooms sort of size, with a well-laid-out garden and about a couple of acres of rough ground in which my predecessor had planted a whole lot of prize rhododendrons. It had a tennis court and a garage, and the marvel to me was that it hadn’t been snapped up the instant it came on the market. We found it by mere chance when we were motoring to look at another place, and the instant we saw it we knew that it would do us, and further that we meant to have it. An old caretaker—a strange-looking old woman—showed us over it, and we found that the inside was in just as good condition as the exterior. Which was not to be wondered at, seeing that she told us it had only been unoccupied about nine months.
“How comes it that it has remained empty all this time?” I asked her, for nine months in that locality is more than nine years elsewhere.
“She shrugged her shoulders and looked more bovine than before. Yes—the drains were all right, and the house wasn’t damp and there weren’t any rats—she could assure us of that. And the house agents could give us all other particulars.
“So off we went to the house agent. The rent was eminently satisfactory, and since he seemed a very decent sort of fellow I decided to put the matter to him point-blank. ‘Look here,’ I said, as man to man, ‘is there a catch somewhere? I know it’s your job to let the house, but this lady and I are shortly going to get married, and we don’t want to be let down. And from what I know of the housing problem it’s a mighty strange thing that a house of that type, in this locality, should have remained empty for nearly a year.’
“He didn’t answer for a bit, but just sat at his desk fingering the plans. ‘Are you a stranger to these parts?’ he said at length.
“‘Complete,’ I answered.
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s unprofessional, I suppose, but in view of the circumstances I’ll tell you. Mark you, personally I think it’s the most hopeless rot. It’s a first-class property in first-class order; of its type and size it’s out and away the best value I have on my books. But three years ago a singularly brutal murder was committed there.’
“‘Three years!’ I cried. ‘But it’s only been empty nine months!’
“‘The next party that had it after the crime took place moved to a larger house,’ he answered.
“‘And you promise me that that is all there is against it?’ I said.
“‘Absolutely all’, he assured me. ‘You may have any tests you like carried out And then he looked at my fiancee and rubbed his chin. ‘Dash it all,’ he burst out, ‘I got married myself once upon a time. The real trouble is—servants. There—I’ve let the cat out of the bag. You know what they are: difficult at the best of times these days. But that is where the rub comes. The party I told you of certainly did move to a larger house, but I don’t think they would have if they had been able to keep a servant. Silly, hysterical girls—swearing that they saw things and heard noises: you know the sort of thing.’
“We thanked him warmly for having been so frank with us, and told him we’d think it over.
“‘If I can do anything for you,’ were his parting words, ‘let me know. I’ve got a few possibles on my books, though none of them compares with that one. But if you do decide to take it, I would not, if I were you, get your servants locally.’
“Well, we went away, and we thought it over. It may sound perhaps a small point to some of you fellows—this servant question—but it isn’t a small point to us stay-at-homes. And there was no doubt about it—the drawback was a very serious one. So serious that for a week we tried to find something else. But nothing that we saw approached the house at Sunningdale, either for comfort or convenience. And finally, to cut a long story short, we made up our minds to chance it.
“So I wrote and told the house agent of our decision, and in the stress and bustle of getting married, the matter more or less passed from my mind. Furniture I had in plenty, and it was not until the house had been completely repapered and fixed-up generally that I went down again.
“I went alone, I remember, as my fiancee was busy that day. It was principally to get some measurements, and I took down a sandwich lunch with me. The old caretaker was there, and I thought she eyed me a bit strangely as she opened the door, though she said nothing. In fact, I don’t think I saw her again until just before I was going, when she came into the hall and stood looking at me.
“‘What is it, Mrs. Gulliver?’ I said. ‘Do you want to ask me anything?
“‘So you’ve taken the house’, she remarked quietly.
“‘I certainly have,’ I answered. ‘And a very charming little house it is.’
“She nodded her head once or twice, and her eyes never left my face.
“‘What’s the matter?’ I cried irritably. ‘Have you got something at the back of your mind about it? If so, please tell me.’
“‘I’ve nothing at the back of my mind that you would be paying attention to,’ she said. ‘But that’s not saying that I haven’t got something there.’
“‘Well, what is it?’ I said. ‘I shall certainly pay attention to it if it’s anything serious.’
“‘There’s death in this house, Mr. Morgan,’ she answered gravely. ‘It’s hanging over us: I can feel it.’
“Well, gentlemen, I can tell you I was furious. Just the sort of damned silly fatuous remark which would scare the average servant stiff and send her flying from the house. At least, that’s how it struck me at the time. Now—well, now I’m not so certain. Looking back on the little interview I favoured Mrs. Gulliver with in that sunny, fresh-painted hall, there is one thing that stands out very clearly in my mind. And that was her impassive demeanour. She never raised her voice, even when I became thoroughly annoyed. She just stood there listening to what I had to say, and her quiet, steady eyes never wavered.
“‘It’s ridiculous,’ I cried. ‘Perfectly ridiculous. It’s remarks like that which make it impossible to keep servants.’
“‘Better that,’ she said, ‘than the other. For it will be a terrible death.’
“‘But what earthly reason have you for making such a statement?’ I fumed.
“‘Maybe it’s not earthly,’ she answered.
“‘Just because a murder was committed here,’ I grunted. And then her last remark struck me. ‘What do you mean—not earthly?’
“‘There are things, Mr. Morgan, beyond our ken.’ she said gravely. ‘It was my mother’s gift, and my grandmother’s before her, and in turn it has come to me. Second sight, I believe they call it. But sometimes we know what is going to happen. And we are never wrong.’
“‘And who, might I ask, is going to die?’ I said facetiously.
“‘Don’t mock me, sir,’ she said. ‘No good ever came of that. I cannot tell you who is going to be killed, or when it is going to happen. But it is written.’
“‘Be killed?’ I repeated. ‘Do you mean another murder?’
“‘Aye,’ she said gravely. ‘Another murder. The thoughts come thronging into my mind sometimes, till I have to get up from my chair and go out of doors. Then they leave me. But I tell you there is evil threatening this house and they who live in it. Where it comes from I know not; but always it is the same thing—death. Death by violence.’
“There was no good saying anything or trying to argue about it. The woman was firmly convinced that what she said was right, and I had to leave it at that. The only thing I did do was to extract a promise from her that she would not mention the matter to the servants when they came.
“‘I’ll not mention it,’ she said quietly, ‘but for all that you won’t keep them.’
“‘And why not?’ I snapped.
“‘The tradesmen,’ she answered.. ‘When they call of a morning—they’ll talk. They’ll tell the cook what happened here three years ago. They’ll tell her that you may hear strange sounds and see strange things in this house, and she will believe them.’
“‘Exactly,’ I said bitterly. ‘And then they promptly will begin to hear strange sounds. Whereas if nothing was said to them they wouldn’t.’
“‘Maybe,’ she answered. ‘Maybe not.’
“She took a step towards me, almost her first movement since the interview had started. ‘There’s something, Mr. Morgan, that threatens this house. Don’t ask me what it is, for that I can’t tell you. I don’t know myself. But it’s there—it’s always there. That I do know.’
“And the next instant she was gone, and I was alone in the cheerful sunlight. Now, what would any of you have done in my place? Probably just what I did—cursed furiously. While she had been with me her strange personality had impressed me in spite of myself; now that she had gone I merely remembered the stupid vapourings of a silly woman. And a servantless future. She wouldn’t be able to hold her tongue, for all her promise to the contrary, when she met the servants. Not she; she wasn’t the type. And there and then I determined that whatever else happened there should be no overlap. Mrs. Gulliver should be out of the house before the servants came in, even if it did mean some inconvenience to us. In ordinary circumstances, of course, we should have had the house open, with the servants installed, all ready for us on our return from our honeymoon. Now I decided that we would keep on Mrs. Gulliver until we came back, and then get rid of her one morning and bring the servants in in the afternoon. I felt that tradesmen’s boys were, at any rate, less likely to unsettle the staff than that sombre-eyed woman.”
The fair-haired man took a sip of his drink and knocked out his pipe.
“Well,” he continued, “we returned. Two months ago, almost to a day, we returned.”
Mrs. Gulliver was at the door to meet us, and we spent the afternoon in exploring the house. Everything was perfectly charming, and my wife was delighted. In fact, the only fly in the ointment was Mrs. Gulliver’s cooking. I hadn’t told my wife of the conversation I had had with the woman, and I had taken the first opportunity—when I saw Mrs. Gulliver alone—of telling her that if she said one word to my wife of what she had said to me a death by violence would occur in the house and her prophecy would be fulfilled. Because my wife thought that my idea of not having any overlap was merely due to my wish to prevent Mrs. Gulliver giving gruesome details of the murder to the servants, which might unsettle them.
“That, then, was the position when we arrived back at the house. The servants were due in three days, and until then we should have to put up with the cooking.
“Well, as I’ve said before, it was a charming little place. I spent the next day pottering around with my wife, planning out improvements in the garden, and the more I saw of it the less I thought of Mrs. Gulliver’s strange words to me a few weeks previously. She had said nothing more, but then, save for one brief interview when I had sworn her to silence, I had not seen her alone. Her face was expressionless, and she performed her work—save the cooking—quietly and efficiently.
“The following day I had to go up to London. There were a lot of arrears of work waiting for me in the office, and I only just got back in time for dinner. And the first thing I noticed was that my wife seemed a little thoughtful and preoccupied.
“‘Marjorie Thurston came to see me this afternoon,’ she said as we sat down.
“Mrs. Thurston was a pal of hers who lived at Ascot.
“‘And what had she got to say for herself?’ I asked.
“‘Jack,’ she said, ‘I rather wish we hadn’t taken this house.’
“I swore under my breath, and consigned Mrs. Thurston elsewhere. I could guess what she had been saying.
“‘She gave me the details of the murder,” went on my wife. Perfectly horrible. A brute of a man who lived here and killed his wife. He—and I could see that she was looking a bit white—’he cut off her head.’
“‘Well, my dear,’ I said prosaically, ‘it seems to me that if you’re going to murder someone it doesn’t much matter how you do it. The result is much the same.’
“‘Oh, I know that,’ she cried. ‘But it all seems so horrible. And they say that he haunts the place.’
“‘Confound Marjorie Thurston,’ I said angrily. ‘She’d got no right to fill you up with a cock-and-bull story of that sort. You don’t believe it, of course?’
“‘No, of course not,’ she answered, but it wasn’t a very convincing No. ‘It’s the servants I’m thinking of. They’re bound to hear of it.’
“‘Let’s leave that trouble till it comes,’ I said.
“And on the surface, at any rate, we did leave it. We discussed the moving of furniture to different places, and what particular car we were going to buy, and a hundred and one other things, till it was time to go to bed. In fact, I thought she had forgotten about it, until I noticed her glance over her shoulder suddenly as we went upstairs. The hall was in darkness, and she clutched my arm.
“‘Jack,’ she whispered, ‘Jack—don’t you feel it?’
“‘Feel what?’ I said, impressed in spite of myself.
“‘Something evil,’ she said, and her voice was shaking. ‘Horrible and black. It’s gone now, but—’
“With a little shiver she went on up the stairs, and I followed her. And you can take it from me that for the first time in my life I was annoyed with her. I had felt absolutely nothing, and I put it down to imagination. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t see that there was any good to be gained by doing so. But the thing annoyed me. If she was going to give way to these hysterical fears, there certainly would be no chance of keeping any servants.
“However, she said nothing more, and when the next morning dawned bright and sunny she seemed to be her normal self again. Which was a relief, seeing that I had to go up to London again.
“But before I went I asked Mrs. Gulliver if she had said anything to my wife. She absolutely denied it, and denied it so quietly and convincingly that I believed her. And in view of what happened, gentlemen, that fact is an interesting one. Mark you, I advance no explanation, and yet it seems clear to me that two people—my wife and Mrs. Gulliver—both experienced the same sensation in that house. I have since asked my wife if she thought she saw or heard anything in the hall, and her answer is that she did not. In fact, the nearest that I can get to her sensation is that she suddenly felt herself opposed by a dreadful malign influence—one that wished her harm. She is positive that it was not imagination: she says that the sudden sensation was so marked as to be almost physical. Now, if her experience on the stairs had been due to what Mrs. Thurston had told her that afternoon, my contention is that she would have been affected differently. If it indeed had been imagination, as I thought at the time, it would have taken a more material form. In fact, I believe that Mrs. Thurston represented—if I may put it that way—the errand-boy school of thought, which grew out of idle tittle-tattle. And I believe that my wife’s experience that night was a manifestation of what Mrs. Gulliver had told me. In short, that the house was, in the accepted sense of the word, not haunted, but that there was a sinister influence present—which, if we knew more of the things that lie on the borderline, should have warned us of the terrible danger we were in.”
The sweat was gleaming in beads on the fair-haired man’s forehead, and his neglected pipe lay beside him on the table.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I still find it difficult to talk calmly of that next night. I was unavoidably detained in London till the last train, and what happened has been told me disjointedly by that poor child. God! when I think of it, it almost drives me mad!
“I’d telephoned through to her to say that I couldn’t get down till late. I asked her how she was, and she assured me she was quite all right. She was going to bed early, and she was going to have a fire lit in her bedroom to make it more cosy. Sandwiches and whisky would be left for me in the dining-room. Mrs. Gulliver was there, and she didn’t feel in the least uneasy. It must have been just imagination the night before, and anyway I wasn’t to dream of coming down early. And with that I left it, and went back to a business dinner with a quiet mind.
“I’ve got the rest of it out of her a bit here and a bit there, and I’ll piece it together for you in the telling. She had her dinner at eight o’clock, and at ten o’clock she went to bed. I had a latchkey, of course, so she locked the front door, but left the light on in the hall. Then she went upstairs, and of one thing she is very positive: there was no repetition of the strange feeling she had experienced the night before.
“The fire was burning brightly in her bedroom, and after she had read for a bit she began to feel sleepy. So she switched off the light, having first glanced at the time to see how much longer I should be. It was eleven o’clock, and twelve-fifteen was the earliest at which I could be back. Then she dozed off.
“She seemed, she told me, hardly to have been asleep at all when she found herself wide awake again. Something had disturbed her, but she doesn’t know what. And the time was a quarter to twelve. The fire had died down a bit and was throwing that flickerings jumping light about the room which makes it difficult to see clearly.
“She lay there in bed motionless and rigid, conscious only of one thing—that something was going to happen. And then she heard an unmistakable creak on the stairs, followed by a strange muttering noise. Again the stairs creaked and yet again, and she realised that someone was coming up.
“She knew it couldn’t be me: she knew Mrs. Gulliver had gone to bed hours ago. Who was it—what was it—that was coming up the stairs? Well, it’s easy to sit here in a well-lit smoking-room and ask why she didn’t get out and lock the door. I asked her the same thing myself. The kid was just too pulverised with terror to move, gentlemen: she lay there in bed listening to those footsteps coming closer and her legs simply refused to act.
“And at last the footsteps ceased outside her door. Clear as anything she could hear the thing—whatever it was—muttering and chuckling to itself, and she just lay there rigid and sick with fear, staring at the door—waiting. After a moment or two the handle was cautiously turned and the door commenced to open. Inch by inch it was pushed back, but since it didn’t open on to the bed she couldn’t see who was on the other side. And then quite suddenly there came a hoarse chuckle.
“She almost screamed; may Heaven be praised that it was only almost! For the next instant a man came into the room, carrying a bundle in his hands. He walked slowly past the bed and sat down in a chair by the fire with his back to my wife. And she realised he hadn’t seen her. He was muttering to himself and laughing, and after a while he deposited the bundle on the hearth-rug at his feet. It was about the size of a football, and it was wrapped up in what looked like a towel. And there he remained for three or four minutes whilst my wife, not daring to move, watched him from the bed. She tried to make out what he was saying to himself, but the few words she caught were just meaningless gibberish.
“At last a thought struck her. By the side of the bed was a push which rang a bell just outside Mrs. Gulliver’s room. She glanced at the clock; it was still twenty minutes before I could hope to be back. And she felt that she would go mad if she had to endure this any longer. So with infinite care she stretched out her arm and rang the bell. She knew she couldn’t hear it—it was too far away; but she also knew that it had been working that evening. So she waited—but nothing happened. She rang again and again—still nothing. And all the time the man sat there muttering and chuckling away to himself, whilst every now and then he lifted the bundle in his hands and held it in front of him.
“Another five minutes passed, and then the strain became too great. She must have given a little cry or made some sound, for the man swung round suddenly and stared at her. He stared at her in absolute silence; then he placed his bundle carefully on the floor and stood up. And I suppose utter despair and terror gave her the strength to move. For even as the man took a step towards her she flung the bedclothes off and darted through the door, banging it behind her. Then she fled downstairs and into the drawing-room. Behind her pounded the man, and by a second only did she get the door locked. There were French windows leading into the garden, and anything—anything to escape from the house.”
The fair-haired man mopped his forehead, and his hand was shaking uncontrollably. “You’ve seen the fantastic shadows cast by moonlight, haven’t you? Well, there was a moon that night, shining fitfully through the clouds—and on the windows through which she meant to escape two great shadows were dancing. There were men there—more men, and, clear above the mad pounding on the door behind her, she could hear them trying to force the window. And at that moment she gave up hope. The door was creaking on its hinges; she could hear the man on the other side hurling himself against it. And the crash of broken glass and the splintering of the door came simultaneously. She had a fleeting vision of the man who had been in her bedroom rushing in with something in his hand that gleamed, just as the other two men dashed aside the curtains and sprang into the room also. And the two of them hurled themselves at him savagely. One took him round the legs and brought him crashing to the floor; the other hit him a fearful blow behind the head with a loaded stick. And the man who had been upstairs lay still.
“‘Good God, man!’ said one of the newcomers, ‘that was touch and go.’
“‘Who is he?’ said my wife faintly. ‘He’s been in my bedroom for twenty minutes.’
“The two men looked at one another significantly.
“‘Are you all alone in the house, mum?’ said the other.
“‘My husband ought to be back at any moment.’ she answered.
“‘Well, I guess we’ll stop with you anyway till he comes. Because we’ll have to get a conveyance of some sort to take this bloke away in.’
“And it was just about then that I walked in.
“‘A marvellous escape, sir,’ said one of them to me when I’d heard briefly what had happened. ‘He’s a homicidal maniac, and he gave us the slip this evening.’
“‘You followed him here, I suppose?’
“‘Not exactly, sir. We guessed he’d come here. You see, he’s the man that did the murder in this house three years ago. And if we hadn’t come in time there would have been another done to-night.”
The fair-haired man paused, and for a while no one spoke.
“What a ghastly experience!” said Sturgis. “I don’t wonder your wife’s hair turned white.”
The other smiled grimly. “It wasn’t that that did it. I was talking to the two warders below, when I heard scream after scream from my wife’s bedroom. You see, the warders hadn’t come in time to prevent a murder. For when I got to her, I found her staring at something that lay on the hearth-rug—something from which the coverings had slipped—something about the size of a football. Mrs. Thurston had been right as to how the original murder had been committed. He’d cut off his victim’s head. And the only thing that had saved my wife was that the maniac had been to Mrs. Gulliver’s room first. That was why the bell had not been answered.”
“Great Scott!” muttered Cartwright. “Great Scott!”
“The psychology of the thing, gentlemen, is beyond me. The foolish talk about the house being haunted in the accepted sense of the word may be dismissed. But I do believe firmly that in some way or other beyond our ken the poor demented mind of that madman was able to project itself through space and make itself felt by certain personalities at its destination. How else can you account for the unfortunate housekeeper’s feeling of impending evil—for my wife’s sudden vivid li impression as she went up the stairs? They told me that sometimes he used to lie in a sort of coma for hours at a time. Was it then that his tortured spirit fled from his body, going always to the spot which drew it like a magnet? I know not. But thing I do know. If any of you require a nice unfurnished house in the Sunningdale district—”
“Holy smoke!” said Sturgis. “I’d sooner have my monastery in Tibet.”