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   Chapter 7 THE ANSWER TO THE BELL.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 14464

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We stood transfixed with fear.

As I have said, we were on the second floor, and the sound which now filled us with apprehension proceeded from the lower part of the house. It was very faint, and I judged--though in such circumstances but small reliance could be placed upon any judgment I may have formed--that if human feet produced it they must have been encased in soft shoes or slippers. It has ever since been to me a matter for wonder how a sound so fine could have reached our ears from that distance. It must have been that our senses, refined instead of dulled by the despair which held us spellbound, were preternaturally sharpened to catch the note of warning which at any other time would have been inaudible.

At the moment, therefore, of my wife's frenzied exclamation I inferred that the feet had left the kitchen and were on the stairs leading from the basement to the hall. If my surmise was correct there were still two flights of stairs to ascend before the full horror of the incident would be revealed to us.

I have described the impression produced upon me when we first turned into Lamb's Terrace, of being, as it were, cut off from the world. There was not an inhabited house near us. We had not seen a human being in the thoroughfare, and, as the prospect, from the windows of the room in which we now stood, stretched across a bare and desolate waste of ground, there was absolutely no hope of any helpful response being made to our appeals for assistance.

The possibilities of the peril in which we had placed ourselves presented themselves vividly to my agitated mind. The house, having been for so many years deserted by its proper tenant, might have become the haunt of desperate characters who would shrink from no deed, however ruthless, to secure their safety; who might even hail with satisfaction the intrusion of respectable persons who had unconsciously put themselves in their power. Supposing that these evil-doers were concealed in the lower rooms when we entered, they could rob and murder us with little fear of discovery. But there was also the consoling reflection that they might be in the house with no sinister designs, and that their only anxiety now was to escape from a building into which they had made an unlawful entrance. This would soon be put to the proof. If, when they were on the landing of the ground floor, we heard the street door open and shut, the fears which oppressed us would be dispelled, and we should be able to breathe freely.

I perceived that my wife was animated by a similar hope, and we both strained our ears in the endeavor to follow with our terrified senses the progress of the sound.

It ceased awhile on the ground floor, and we listened in agonized suspense for the click of a latch and the harsh creak of rusty hinges, but no such comforting sounds reached our ears, and presently the dead silence was broken by the soft pit-pat of footsteps on the stairs leading to the first floor. My wife's hold upon me tightened.

"We are lost!" she moaned. "What shall we do--oh, what shall we do?"

I had no weapon about me with the exception of a small penknife, which was practically useless in such an encounter as that in which I expected soon to be engaged. A peaceful citizen like myself had no need to carry weapons. I looked around the room for one. There was not an article of furniture in it--not a stick. I would have given the world for an ax or a piece of iron with which I could have made some kind of defense. We were absolutely helpless and powerless, and it was my terror that made me certain that we were threatened by more than one enemy. To go from the room and meet the persons who were advancing toward us would be an act of madness, and would in all probability but hasten our fate. We must remain where we were, and wait for events; no reasonable alternative was open to us.

Pat, pat, pat, came the sound to our ears; nearer, nearer, nearer; not boldly, as if those from whom it proceeded were engaged upon an open and honest mission, but stealthily and covertly, as though they desired all knowledge of their movements to be concealed from their victims.

The footsteps had now reached the landing of the first floor and, after another deathlike pause, commenced to ascend the stairs which led directly to us.

"Can't you do something, Edward?" whispered my agonized wife, wringing her hands. "Can't you lock the door?"

It is strange that the fact of the door being unlocked had not occurred to me before. I rushed to it instantly, and a sigh of intense relief escaped me at finding the key in the lock. I turned it like lightning, and we were so far safe. Then my wife flew to the window, and, throwing it open, began to scream for help--that is to say, she would have screamed if she had had the power, but her voice was almost frozen in her throat, and the sounds that issued from her were of a ravenlike hoarseness, and could have traveled but a few yards; too short a distance in our lonely situation to be of any practical value. Soon I added my shouts to her hoarse scream. They were sent forth to a dead world; to our frantic appeals no answer was made.

Meanwhile, occupied as I was, I could still pay some attention to what was passing on the stairs that led to the room. I had indulged in a faint hope that our cries would alarm those without, and would induce them to forego their murderous attack upon us, but the stealthy pat, pat, pat of the footsteps continued, and were now in the middle of the staircase; there could be but a few more stairs to ascend. Still another hope remained--that when the footsteps reached the second landing they would proceed onward to the top of the house. This last hope, like those which had preceded it, was not fulfilled. Nearer, nearer, nearer they approached, until they were close to the door; then there was another pause; no further sounds were heard.

My impression now was that the villains who had a design against us--for by this time I entertained no doubt of their diabolical purpose, and that we were in the direst peril--were making preparations to carry it into effect. Presently they would try the handle of the door, and, discovering that it was locked, would burst it open and spring upon us.

A long and awful silence ensued, during which the agonizing question occupied my mind, what was being done outside the door? The torture of the suspense was maddening; the silence was more harrowing than the footsteps themselves had been. I was soon to receive an appalling answer to the question.

The door--notwithstanding my firm belief that I had securely locked it--slowly and noiselessly opened. My heart beat wildly, but I held myself ready, so far as lay in my poor power, to meet the attack with which we were threatened. And now the door stood wide open, and I saw no form of man or woman. But gradually there shaped itself in the air the outline of a female shape, a shadow, which as I gazed grew more distinct, and yet was never quite vivid to my sight. It was the figure of a young girl, poorly dressed, with carpet slippers on her feet. Her hair was hanging loose, and the tattered remnants of a cap attached to it was an

indication that her station in life was--or more properly speaking, had been--that of a domestic servant. Her face was white and wan, and her large gray eyes were fixed mournfully upon me. There was a dead beauty in their depths which seemed to speak of glowing hopes of youth prematurely blasted and destroyed, and, though the features of the apparition were but airy outlines, I could not fail to perceive that in a bygone time they had been comely and prepossessing.

More terrible than any form of living man or woman was this appalling spectacle as it stood, silent and still, upon the threshold. Had the bell I rang summoned it from the grave? For what purpose had it come? What did it require of me? It is probable that I should have mustered courage to ask some such questions as these, and indeed I was aware that my lips were moving, but no sound issued from them--my voice was gone; I could not utter an audible sound.

For several minutes, as it seemed to me, though it could not have been so long, did I continue to gaze upon the figure. I had directed a brief glance at its feet, but when my eyes traveled up to its face they became magnetized, as it were. The spell was broken by a movement on the ground, not proceeding from the apparition of the girl. I looked down, and there, gliding past the upright spectral figure, I saw creeping toward me a skeleton cat.

It was veritably a skeleton, and was to my sight as impalpable as the young girl. Through its skin, almost bare of hair, its bones were sharply outlined. It was black; its ears were pointed, its eyes were yellow, its mouth was open, showing its sharp teeth.

This second apparition added to my horror, which grew deeper and deeper as the cat, with gliding motion, approached me. Had its paws left upon the ground a bloody imprint I could not have been more awestricken. It paused a few inches from me, where it crouched motionless so long as I remained so. When I moved it accompanied me, and when I stopped it stopped, waiting for a mandate from me to set it in motion.

Raising my eyes to the door I discovered to my amazement that the figure of the girl had vanished. Nerving myself to the effort, I stepped softly into the passage and gazed along and at the staircases above and below me, but saw no movement of substance or shadow. Returning to the room I was irresistibly impelled by a desire to convince myself whether the cat which had accompanied me to and fro was as palpable to touch as to sight. Kneeling to put this to the test I found myself kneeling on my wife's dress. So engrossed had I been in the astounding apparitions that I had paid no attention to her, and now I saw that she had fainted. Before devoting myself to her I passed my hand over the cat and came in contact with nothing in the shape of substance. It was truly a specter, and I beheld it as clearly as I beheld the body of my wife lying at my side.

I took my flask from my pocket and bathed my wife's forehead, and poured a few drops of brandy and water down her throat, and I was presently relieved by seeing her eyes open. She closed them again immediately, and said, in a whisper:

"Is it gone?"

Anxious to learn what she had seen--for I inwardly argued that I might myself be the victim of a strange delusion--I met her inquiry by asking:

"Is what gone, Maria?"

"The girl," she murmured; "that dreadful figure that came into the room?"

"Look for yourself," I said.

It was not without apprehension that I made the request, and I nervously followed the direction of her eyes.

"It is not in the room," she sighed. "But, Edward, who opened the door?"

"The wind blew it open, most likely."

"You locked it, Edward! I heard you turn the key in the lock."

"I thought I did, but I must have been mistaken. Terrified as we were, how could we trust the evidence of our senses? And do you suppose there's a lock in the house in proper order?"

"It must have been my fancy. Did you see nothing?"

How should I answer her? Revive her terror by telling her that she was under no delusion, but that the spectral figure of the young girl had really presented itself; or, out of kindness to her, strive to banish her fears by a pardonable falsehood?

Before I decided how to act I felt it necessary to ascertain whether the cat lying in full view to me was visible to her.

"Maria," I said, "take the evidence of your senses. Look round the room--at the door, at the walls, at the ceiling, on the floor--and tell me what you see."

With timid eyes she obeyed, and glanced in every direction, not omitting the spot upon which the skeleton cat was lying.

"I don't see anything, Edward."

"Does not that prove that the figure you spoke of was a trick of the imagination?"

"You actually saw nothing?"

"Nothing."

All this time she had been sitting on the floor, keeping tight hold of me. I assisted her to her feet; she was so weak that she could hardly stand.

"For Heaven's sake!" she said "do not let us remain in the house another minute."

I was as anxious to leave as she was, and had I been alone I should have rushed downstairs in blind haste, but I had to attend to my wife. The power of rapid motion had deserted her, and when we were about to pass through the passage she shrunk back, fearing that the apparition of the young girl was lurking there. She experienced the same fear as we descended the stairs, and clung to me in terror when we approached an open door. I was grateful that the apparition of the cat--which followed us faithfully down to the hall--was invisible to her; if it had not been she would have lost her senses again, and it would have been hard work for me to carry her out, as she is by no means of a light weight.

The question which now agitated me was whether the cat would come into the streets with us, or would return to the resting place which should have been its last. It was soon and plainly answered.

I opened the street door, and stood upon the threshold. The cat stood there also. I paused to give it the opportunity of returning, but it evinced no desire to do so. I went down the stone steps to the front garden; the cat accompanied me. I walked through the front garden out of the gate, straight into Lamb's Terrace, and thence across the wretched wastes of ground into more cheerful thoroughfares; and the skeleton cat was by my side the whole of the time.

The evidence of civilized life by which we were now surrounded restored Maria's spirits; she found her tongue.

"Why did you stop on the doorstep, Edward?" she asked.

"I had to lock the street door," I answered.

"We will not take that house, my dear," she said.

"No, we will not take it."

Some unaccustomed note in my voice struck her as strange.

"Is anything the matter with you?" she asked.

"No," I replied, glancing at the cat, "nothing."

"What are you looking at? Why are your eyes wandering so?"

"My dear," I said, with an attempt to speak in a lively tone, and failing dismally, "I must be a bit unstrung, that is all."

She accepted my explanation as satisfactory.

"No wonder," she said; "I would not go through such another trial for all the money in the world."

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