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A Strange Visitor by Maud Heighington


The Priory was a fine, rambling old house, which had recently come into Jack Cheriton's possession through the death of a parsimonious relative.

Part of the building only had been kept in repair, while the remainder had fallen into decay, and was, in fact, only a picturesque ruin.

The Cheritons' first visit to their newly acquired property was a sort of reconnoitre visit. They had come from Town for a month's holiday, bringing with them Thatcher—little Mollie's nurse—as general factotum.

They had barely been in the house an hour when a telegram summoned Thatcher to her mother's deathbed, and a day or two later urgent business recalled Jack to Town.

“I'll just call at the Lodge and get Mrs. Somers to come up as early as she can this morning, and stay the night with you, so you will not be alone long,” he called as he hurried off.

His wife and Mollie watched him out of sight, and then returned to the breakfast-room—the little one amusing herself with her doll, while her mother put the breakfast things together.

Millicent Cheriton was no coward, but an undefinable sense of uneasiness was stealing over her. The Priory was fully half an hour's walk from the Lodge, which was the nearest house. Still further off, in the opposite direction, stood a large building, the nature of which they had not yet discovered.

Jack had never left her even for one night since their marriage—and now she had not even Thatcher left to bear her company.

“Mrs. Somers will soon be here,” she said in a comforting tone to Mollie, who, however, was too intent upon her doll to notice, and certainly did not share her mother's uneasiness.

Meanwhile, Jack had reached the Lodge and made his request to Somers, the gamekeeper.

“I'm main sorry, sir, but the missus thought as you would want her at eleven—as usual, so she started off early to get her marketing done first. I'll be sure and tell her to take her things up for the night as soon as she gets home.”

“Ten o'clock! No Mrs. Somers yet!”

Mrs. Cheriton picked up her little daughter and carried her upstairs.

“We'll make the beds, Mollie, you and I,” she said, tossing the little maid into the middle of the shaken-up feather bed.

This was fine fun, and Mollie begged for a repetition of it.

“Hark! That must be Mrs. Somers,” as a footstep sounded on the gravel path.

“That's right, Mrs. Somers, I am glad you have come,” called Millicent, but as she heard no reply, she thought she had been mistaken, and finished making the bed, then tying a sun-bonnet over Mollie's golden curls, took her downstairs, intending to take her into the garden to play.

What was it that came over Millicent as she reached the hall? Again that strange uneasiness, and a feeling that some third person was near her. She grasped Mollie's hand more firmly, with an impatient exclamation to herself, for what she thought was silly nervousness, and walked into the dining-room.

There, in the large armchair, lately occupied by her husband, sat a tall, gentlemanly looking man.

He had already removed his hat, and was about to unlock a brown leather bag, which he held on his knee. He rose and bowed as Mrs. Cheriton entered the room.

“I must apologise for intruding upon you, madam, but I do so in the cause of science, so I am sure you will pardon me.”

The words were fair enough, but something in the manner made Millicent's heart seem to stand still. Something also told her that she must not show her fear.

“May I know to whom I am speaking?” she said, “and in what branch of science you take a special interest?”

“Certainly, madam. My name is Wharton. I am a surgeon, and am greatly interested in vivisection.”

“Indeed!” said Millicent, summoning all her presence of mind, for as he spoke his manner grew more excitable, and he began to open his bag.

“I called here,” he said, “to make known a new discovery, which, however, I should like to demonstrate,” and he fixed his restless eye on little Mollie, who was clinging shyly to her mother's gown.

“I am sure it is very kind of you to take an interest in us—but it is so early, perhaps you have not breakfasted? May I get you some breakfast?”

Would Mrs. Somers never come? and if she did, what could she do? for by this time Millicent had no doubt that she was talking to a madman.

“Thank you, I do not need any,” replied her visitor, as he began to take from his bag all kinds of terrible looking surgical instruments, and laid them on the table.

In spite of the terror within her, Millicent tried to turn his attention from his bag, speaking of all kinds of general subjects as fast as they came to her mind, but though he answered her politely, it was with evident irritation, and he seemed to get more excitable every minute.

“This will never do,” she thought, “I must humour him,” and with sinking heart she ventured on her next question.

“What is this wonderful discovery, Mr. Wharton? if I may ask.”

“Certainly, madam. It is a permanent cure for deafness.”

Millicent began to breathe more freely as the thought passed through her mind “then it can't affect Mollie,” for she forgot for a moment that her guest was not a sane man. Again his eye rested on Mollie, and he rose from his chair.

“The cure is a certain one,” he said, “the right ear must be amputated, and the passages thoroughly scraped, but I will show you,” and he took a step towards Mollie.

Millicent's face blanched.

“But Mollie is not deaf,” she said; “it will hardly do to operate on her.”

“It will prevent her ever becoming so, madam, and prevention is better than cure,” and he stepped back to the table to select an instrument.

The mother's presence of mind did not desert her—though her legs trembled so violently that she feared her visitor would see her terror.

“It would be a very good thing to feel sure of that,” she said. “You will want a firm table, of course, and good light. You might be interrupted here. I will show you a better room for the operation.”

“Thank you, madam, and I shall require plenty of hot water and towels.”

“Certainly,” said Millicent, and leading him to the hall, she directed him to a room which had at one time been fitted as a laundry, and in which was an ironing bench.

With sinking heart, she followed him to the top of the house—pointing the way through two attics into a third.

“I will just leave you to arrange your things while I get hot water and towels, and put on Mollie's nightdress,” she said, and closing the door, turned the key. It grated noisily, but the visitor was too much occupied to notice it, and rushing through the other rooms, Millicent locked both doors, and fled downstairs.

Snatching her little one in her arms, she hurried through the garden—pausing at the gate to shift Mollie from her arms on to her back.

She had barely left the gate when a horrible yell of baffled rage rent the air, making her turn and glance up at the window of the attic.

The maniac had just discovered that the door was locked, and rushing to the window caught sight of his hostess and desired patient fleeing from the house.

One glance showed Millicent that he was about to get out of the window, but whether he intended to clamber down by the ivy, or creep in at the next attic, she did not stop to ascertain; only praying that she might have strength to gain a place of safety she sped on, staggering under the weight of her little one, who clung to her neck in wonder.

On and on, still with the wild yells of rage ringing in her ears, until she had put three fields between herself and the house, when she stopped for breath in a shady lane.

Hark! Surely it was the sound of wheels coming towards her. “Help! oh, help!” she shouted. “Help! help! help!”

In another moment a brougham, drawn by two horses, appeared, coming slowly up the hill towards her.

The coachman at a word from his master drew up, and Millicent, now nearly fainting from terror and exhaustion, was helped into the carriage.

Giving directions to the coachman to drive home as quickly as possible, Dr. Shielding, for it was the medical superintendent of the Lunatic Asylum, the long building already referred to, drew from her between sobs and gasps the story of her fright.

At length they drew up before the doctor's house, in the grounds of the asylum, and with a hasty word of introduction, Dr. Shielding left Millicent and Mollie with his wife and daughter.

Summoning two burly-looking keepers, he stepped into his brougham again.

“To the Priory,” he said, and then related the story to the men, describing the position of the attic as told him by Millicent, adding that he had just returned from a distant village, where he had been called for consultation about a case of rapidly developed homicidal mania of a local medical man, but the patient had eluded his caretaker, the previous day, and could not be found.

“I have no doubt it is the same man,” he said, “and there he is!” he added, as they stopped before the Priory gate, to find the strange visitor was trying to descend from the window by the ivy.

There he clung, bag in hand, still five-and-twenty feet from the ground. When hearing their voices, he turned to look at them, and in so doing lost his hold, falling heavily to the ground.

They hastened to the spot, just in time to see a spasmodic quiver of the limbs as he drew his last breath. He had struck his head violently against a huge stone and broken his neck.

The body was removed to the mortuary of the asylum, with all speed, and the relatives of the poor man telegraphed for, and when Dr. Shielding returned home he found that his wife had insisted upon keeping Mollie and Millicent as their guests until Jack's return, to which arrangement he heartily assented.

       * * * * *

Jack's face blanched as he read a paragraph describing the adventure in his morning paper the following day, and when his letters were brought in, he hastily broke the seal of one in his wife's handwriting, and read the story in her own words, finishing with, “Oh, Jack, dear, I never, never can go back there again; do come and fetch us home.”

They never did return to the Priory, for on his way to the station, Jack put it into the hands of an agent for sale, and when he reached Beechcroft, he begged Mrs. Somers to go and pack up all their personal belongings and send them back to Town.

It was with feelings of deep thankfulness that he clasped his wife and little one in his arms once more, inwardly vowing that come what might, he would never again leave them without protection, even for an hour.


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