It belonged to the category of unlovely houses about
which an ugly superstition clings, one reason being,
perhaps, its inability to inspire interest in itself without
assistance. It seemed too ordinary to possess individuality,
much less to exert an influence. Solid and ungainly,
its huge bulk dwarfing the park timber, its best claim to
notice was a negative one—it was unpretentious.
From the little hill its expressionless windows stared
across the Kentish Weald, indifferent to weather, dreary
in winter, bleak in spring, unblessed in summer. Some
colossal hand had tossed it down, then let it starve to
death, a country mansion that might well strain the adjectives
of advertisers and find inheritors with difficulty. Its
soul had fled, said some; it had committed suicide, thought
others; and it was an inheritor, before he killed himself in
the library, who thought this latter, yielding, apparently,
to an hereditary taint in the family. For two other inheritors
followed suit, with an interval of twenty years
between them, and there was no clear reason to explain
the three disasters. Only the first owner, indeed, lived
permanently in the house, the others using it in the summer
months and then deserting it with relief. Hence,
when John Burley, present inheritor, assumed possession,
he entered a house about which clung an ugly superstition,
based, nevertheless, upon a series of undeniably ugly facts.
This century deals harshly with superstitious folk,
deeming them fools or charlatans; but John Burley, robust,
contemptuous of half lights, did not deal harshly
with them, because he did not deal with them at all. He
was hardly aware of their existence. He ignored them
as he ignored, say, the Esquimaux, poets, and other human
aspects that did not touch his scheme of life. A successful
business man, he concentrated on what was real; he
dealt with business people. His philanthropy, on a big
scale, was also real; yet, though he would have denied it
vehemently, he had his superstition as well. No man
exists without some taint of superstition in his blood; the
racial heritage is too rich to be escaped entirely. Burley’s
took this form—that unless he gave his tithe to the
poor he would not prosper. This ugly mansion, he decided,
would make an ideal Convalescent Home.
“Only cowards or lunatics kill themselves,” he declared
flatly, when his use of the house was criticized.
“I’m neither one nor t’other.” He let out his gusty,
boisterous laugh. In his invigorating atmosphere such
weakness seemed contemptible, just as superstition in his
presence seemed feeblest ignorance. Even its picturesqueness
faded. “I can’t conceive,” he boomed, “can’t even
imagine to myself,” he added emphatically, “the state of
mind in which a man can think of suicide, much less do
it.” He threw his chest out with a challenging air. “I tell
you, Nancy, it’s either cowardice or mania. And I’ve no
use for either.”
Yet he was easy-going and good-humoured in his denunciation.
He admitted his limitations with a hearty
laugh his wife called noisy. Thus he made allowances for
the fairy fears of sailorfolk, and had even been known to
mention haunted ships his companies owned. But he did
so in the terms of tonnage and £ s. d. His scope was big;
details were made for clerks.
His consent to pass a night in the mansion was the
consent of a practical business man and philanthropist who
dealt condescendingly with foolish human nature. It was
based on the common-sense of tonnage and £ s. d. The
local newspapers had revived the silly story of the suicides,
calling attention to the effect of the superstition upon the
fortunes of the house, and so, possibly, upon the fortunes of
its present owner. But the mansion, otherwise a white elephant,
was precisely ideal for his purpose, and so trivial
a matter as spending a night in it should not stand in the
way. “We must take people as we find them, Nancy.”
His young wife had her motive, of course, in making
the proposal, and, if she was amused by what she called
“spook-hunting,” he saw no reason to refuse her the indulgence.
He loved her, and took her as he found her—late
in life. To allay the superstitions of prospective staff and
patients and supporters, all, in fact, whose goodwill was
necessary to success, he faced this boredom of a night in
the building before its opening was announced. “You see,
John, if you, the owner, do this, it will nip damaging talk
in the bud. If anything went wrong later it would only
be put down to this suicide idea, this haunting influence.
The Home will have a bad name from the start. There’ll
be endless trouble. It will be a failure.”
“You think my spending a night there will stop the
nonsense?” he inquired.
“According to the old legend it breaks the spell,” she
replied. “That’s the condition, anyhow.”
“But somebody’s sure to die there sooner or later,” he
objected. “We can’t prevent that.”
“We can prevent people whispering that they died unnaturally.”
She explained the working of the public mind.
“I see,” he replied, his lip curling, yet quick to gauge
the truth of what she told him about collective instinct.
“Unless you take poison in the hall,” she added laughingly,
“or elect to hang yourself with your braces from
the hat peg.”
“I’ll do it,” he agreed, after a moment’s thought. “I’ll
sit up with you. It will be like a honeymoon over again,
you and I on the spree—eh?” He was even interested
now; the boyish side of him was touched perhaps; but his
enthusiasm was less when she explained that three was a
better number than two on such an expedition.
“I’ve often done it before, John. We were always
“Who?” he asked bluntly. He looked wonderingly at
her, but she answered that if anything went wrong a party
of three provided a better margin for help. It was sufficiently
obvious. He listened and agreed. “I’ll get young
Mortimer,” he suggested. “Will he do?”
She hesitated. “Well—he’s cheery; he’ll be interested,
too. Yes, he’s as good as another.” She seemed indifferent.
“And he’ll make the time pass with his stories,” added
So Captain Mortimer, late officer on a T.B.D., a
“cheery lad,” afraid of nothing, cousin of Mrs. Burley,
and now filling a good post in the company’s London
offices, was engaged as third hand in the expedition. But
Captain Mortimer was young and ardent, and Mrs. Burley
was young and pretty and ill-mated, and John Burley was
a neglectful, and self-satisfied husband.
Fate laid the trap with cunning, and John Burley,
blind-eyed, careless of detail, floundered into it. He also
floundered out again, though in a fashion none could have
expected of him.
The night agreed upon eventually was as near to the
shortest in the year as John Burley could contrive—June
18th—when the sun set at 8:18 and rose about a quarter
to four. There would be barely three hours of true darkness.
“You’re the expert,” he admitted, as she explained
that sitting through the actual darkness only was required,
not necessarily from sunset to sunrise. “We’ll do the thing
properly. Mortimer’s not very keen, he had a dance or
something,” he added, noticing the look of annoyance that
flashed swiftly in her eyes; “but he got out of it. He’s
coming.” The pouting expression of the spoilt woman
amused him. “Oh, no, he didn’t need much persuading
really,” he assured her. “Some girl or other, of course.
He’s young, remember.” To which no comment was forthcoming,
though the implied comparison made her flush.
They motored from South Audley Street after an early
tea, in due course passing Sevenoaks and entering the
Kentish Weald; and, in order that the necessary advertisement
should be given, the chauffeur, warned strictly
to keep their purpose quiet, was to put up at the country
inn and fetch them an hour after sunrise; they would
breakfast in London. “He’ll tell everybody,” said his
practical and cynical master; “the local newspaper will
have it all next day. A few hours’ discomfort is worth
while if it ends the nonsense. We’ll read and smoke, and
Mortimer shall tell us yarns about the sea.” He went
with the driver into the house to superintend the arrangement
of the room, the lights, the hampers of food, and
so forth, leaving the pair upon the lawn.
“Four hours isn’t much, but it’s something,” whispered
Mortimer, alone with her for the first time since they
started. “It’s simply ripping of you to have got me in.
You look divine to-night. You’re the most wonderful
woman in the world.” His blue eyes shone with the hungry
desire he mistook for love. He looked as if he had blown
in from the sea, for his skin was tanned and his light hair
bleached a little by the sun. He took her hand, drawing
her out of the slanting sunlight towards the rhododendrons.
“I didn’t, you silly boy. It was John suggested your
coming.” She released her hand with an affected effort.
“Besides, you overdid it—pretending you had a dance.”
“You could have objected,” he said eagerly, “and didn’t.
Oh, you’re too lovely, you’re delicious!” He kissed her
suddenly with passion. There was a tiny struggle, in
which she yielded too easily, he thought.
“Harry, you’re an idiot!” she cried breathlessly, when
he let her go. “I really don’t know how you dare! And
John’s your friend. Besides, you know”—she glanced
round quickly—“it isn’t safe here.” Her eyes shone happily,
her cheeks were flaming. She looked what she was, a
pretty, young, lustful animal, false to ideals, true to selfish
passion only. “Luckily,” she added, “he trusts me too
fully to think anything.”
The young man, worship in his eyes, laughed gaily.
“There’s no harm in a kiss,” he said. “You’re a child
to him, he never thinks of you as a woman. Anyhow, his
head’s full of ships and kings and sealing-wax,” he comforted
her, while respecting her sudden instinct which
warned him not to touch her again, “and he never sees anything.
Why, even at ten yards——”
From twenty yards away a big voice interrupted him,
as John Burley came round a corner of the house and
across the lawn towards them. The chauffeur, he announced,
had left the hampers in the room on the first
floor and gone back to the inn. “Let’s take a walk
round,” he added, joining them, “and see the garden. Five
minutes before sunset we’ll go in and feed.” He laughed.
“We must do the thing faithfully, you know, mustn’t we,
Nancy? Dark to dark, remember. Come on, Mortimer”—he
took the young man’s arm—“a last look round before
we go in and hang ourselves from adjoining hooks in
the matron’s room!” He reached out his free hand towards
“Oh, hush, John!” she said quickly. “I don’t like—especially
now the dusk is coming.” She shivered, as
though it were a genuine little shiver, pursing her lips
deliciously as she did so; whereupon he drew her forcibly
to him, saying he was sorry, and kissed her exactly where
she had been kissed two minutes before, while young Mortimer
looked on. “We’ll take care of you between us,”
he said. Behind a broad back the pair exchanged a swift
but meaning glance, for there was that in his tone which
enjoined wariness, and perhaps after all he was not so blind
as he appeared. They had their code, these two. “All’s
well,” was signalled; “but another time be more careful!”
There still remained some minutes’ sunlight before the
huge red ball of fire would sink behind the wooded hills,
and the trio, talking idly, a flutter of excitement in two
hearts certainly, walked among the roses. It was a perfect
evening, windless, perfumed, warm. Headless shadows
preceded them gigantically across the lawn as they moved,
and one side of the great building lay already dark; bats
were flitting, moths darted to and fro above the azalea and
rhododendron clumps. The talk turned chiefly on the uses
of the mansion as a Convalescent Home, its probable running
cost, suitable staff, and so forth.
“Come along,” John Burley said presently, breaking
off and turning abruptly, “we must be inside, actually inside,
before the sun’s gone. We must fulfil the conditions
faithfully,” he repeated, as though fond of the phrase. He
was in earnest over everything in life, big or little, once
he set his hand to it.
They entered, this incongruous trio of ghost-hunters,
no one of them really intent upon the business in hand,
and went slowly upstairs to the great room where the
hampers lay. Already in the hall it was dark enough for
three electric torches to flash usefully and help their steps
as they moved with caution, lighting one corner after
another. The air inside was chill and damp. “Like an
unused museum,” said Mortimer. “I can smell the specimens.”
They looked about them, sniffing. “That’s humanity,”
declared his host, employer, friend, “with cement
and whitewash to flavour it”; and all three laughed as
Mrs. Burley said she wished they had picked some roses
and brought them in. Her husband was again in front
on the broad staircase, Mortimer just behind him, when
she called out. “I don’t like being last,” she exclaimed.
It’s so black behind me in the hall. I’ll come between you
two,” and the sailor took her outstretched hand, squeezing
it, as he passed her up. “There’s a figure, remember,” she
said hurriedly, turning to gain her husband’s attention, as
when she touched wood at home. “A figure is seen; that’s
part of the story. The figure of a man.” She gave a tiny
shiver of pleasurable, half-imagined alarm as she took his
“I hope we shall see it,” he mentioned prosaically.
“I hope we shan’t,” she replied with emphasis. “It’s
only seen before—something happens.” Her husband said
nothing, while Mortimer remarked facetiously that it
would be a pity if they had their trouble for nothing.
“Something can hardly happen to all three of us,” he
said lightly, as they entered a large room where the paper-hangers
had conveniently left a rough table of bare planks.
Mrs. Burley, busy with her own thoughts, began to unpack
the sandwiches and wine. Her husband strolled over
to the window. He seemed restless.
“So this,” his deep voice startled her, “is where one
of us”—he looked round him—“is to——”
“John!” She stopped him sharply, with impatience.
“Several times already I’ve begged you.” Her voice rang
rather shrill and querulous in the empty room, a new note
in it. She was beginning to feel the atmosphere of the
place, perhaps. On the sunny lawn it had not touched her,
but now, with the fall of night, she was aware of it, as
shadow called to shadow and the kingdom of darkness
gathered power. Like a great whispering gallery, the whole
“Upon my word, Nancy,” he said with contrition, as
he came and sat down beside her, “I quite forgot again.
Only I cannot take it seriously. It’s so utterly unthinkable
to me that a man——”
“But why evoke the idea at all?” she insisted in a
lowered voice, that snapped despite its faintness. “Men,
after all, don’t do such things for nothing.”
“We don’t know everything in the universe, do we?”
Mortimer put in, trying clumsily to support her. “All I
know just now is that I’m famished and this veal and
ham pie is delicious.” He was very busy with his knife
and fork. His foot rested lightly on her own beneath the
table; he could not keep his eyes off her face; he was
continually passing new edibles to her.
“No,” agreed John Burley, “not everything. You’re
She kicked the younger man gently, flashing a warning
with her eyes as well, while her husband, emptying
his glass, his head thrown back, looked straight at them
over the rim, apparently seeing nothing. They smoked
their cigarettes round the table, Burley lighting a big cigar.
“Tell us about the figure, Nancy?” he inquired. “At least
there’s no harm in that. It’s new to me. I hadn’t heard
about a figure.” And she did so willingly, turning her
chair sideways from the dangerous, reckless feet. Mortimer
could now no longer touch her. “I know very little,”
she confessed; “only what the paper said. It’s a man....
And he changes.”
“How changes?” asked her husband. “Clothes, you
mean, or what?”
Mrs. Burley laughed, as though she was glad to laugh.
Then she answered: “According to the story, he shows
himself each time to the man——”
“The man who——?”
“Yes, yes, of course. He appears to the man who dies—as
“H’m,” grunted her husband, naturally puzzled. He
stared at her.
“Each time the chap saw his own double”—Mortimer
came this time usefully to the rescue—“before he did it.”
Considerable explanation followed, involving much
psychic jargon from Mrs. Burley, which fascinated and
impressed the sailor, who thought her as wonderful as she
was lovely, showing it in his eyes for all to see. John Burley’s
attention wandered. He moved over to the window,
leaving them to finish the discussion between them; he
took no part in it, made no comment even, merely listening
idly and watching them with an air of absent-mindedness
through the cloud of cigar smoke round his head. He
moved from window to window, ensconcing himself in turn
in each deep embrasure, examining the fastenings, measuring
the thickness of the stonework with his handkerchief.
He seemed restless, bored, obviously out of place in this
ridiculous expedition. On his big massive face lay a quiet,
resigned expression his wife had never seen before. She
noticed it now as, the discussion ended, the pair tidied
away the débris of dinner, lit the spirit lamp for coffee and
laid out a supper which would be very welcome with the
dawn. A draught passed through the room, making the
papers flutter on the table. Mortimer turned down the
smoking lamps with care.
“Wind’s getting up a bit—from the south,” observed
Burley from his niche, closing one-half of the casement
window as he said it. To do this, he turned his back a
moment, fumbling for several seconds with the latch, while
Mortimer, noting it, seized his sudden opportunity with
the foolish abandon of his age and temperament. Neither
he nor his victim perceived that, against the outside darkness,
the interior of the room was plainly reflected in the
window-pane. One reckless, the other terrified, they
snatched the fearful joy, which might, after all, have been
lengthened by another full half-minute, for the head they
feared, followed by the shoulders, pushed through the side
of the casement still open, and remained outside, taking
in the night.
“A grand air,” said his deep voice, as the head drew
in again, “I’d like to be at sea a night like this.” He
left the casement open and came across the room towards
them. “Now,” he said cheerfully, arranging a seat for
himself, “let’s get comfortable for the night. Mortimer,
we expect stories from you without ceasing, until dawn or
the ghost arrives. Horrible stories of chains and headless
men, remember. Make it a night we shan’t forget in a
hurry.” He produced his gust of laughter.
They arranged their chairs, with other chairs to put
their feet on, and Mortimer contrived a footstool by means
of a hamper for the smallest feet; the air grew thick with
tobacco smoke; eyes flashed and answered, watched perhaps
as well; ears listened and perhaps grew wise; occasionally,
as a window shook, they started and looked round;
there were sounds about the house from time to time, when
the entering wind, using broken or open windows, set loose
But Mrs. Burley vetoed horrible stories with decision.
A big, empty mansion, lonely in the country, and even
with the comfort of John Burley and a lover in it, has
its atmosphere. Furnished rooms are far less ghostly.
This atmosphere now came creeping everywhere, through
spacious halls and sighing corridors, silent, invisible, but
all-pervading, John Burley alone impervious to it, unaware
of its soft attack upon the nerves. It entered possibly
with the summer night wind, but possibly it was
always there.... And Mrs. Burley looked often at her
husband, sitting near her at an angle; the light fell on
his fine strong face; she felt that, though apparently so
calm and quiet, he was really very restless; something
about him was a little different; she could not define it;
his mouth seemed set as with an effort; he looked, she
thought curiously to herself, patient and very dignified;
he was rather a dear after all. Why did she think the face
inscrutable? Her thoughts wandered vaguely, unease, discomfort
among them somewhere, while the heated blood—she
had taken her share of wine—seethed in her.
Burley turned to the sailor for more stories. “Sea
and wind in them,” he asked. “No horrors, remember!”
and Mortimer told a tale about the shortage of rooms at
a Welsh seaside place where spare rooms fetched fabulous
prices, and one man alone refused to let—a retired captain
of a South Seas trader, very poor, a bit crazy apparently.
He had two furnished rooms in his house worth twenty
guineas a week. The rooms faced south; he kept them full
of flowers; but he would not let. An explanation of his
unworldly obstinacy was not forthcoming until Mortimer—they
fished together—gained his confidence. “The South
Wind lives in them,” the old fellow told him. “I keep
them free for her.”
“It was on the South Wind my love came to me,” said
the other softly; “and it was on the South Wind that she
It was an odd tale to tell in such company, but he told
“Beautiful,” thought Mrs. Burley. Aloud she said a
quiet, “Thank you. By ‘left,’ I suppose he meant she
died or ran away?”
John Burley looked up with a certain surprise. “We
ask for a story,” he said, “and you give us a poem.” He
laughed. “You’re in love, Mortimer,” he informed him,
“and with my wife probably.”
“Of course I am, sir,” replied the young man gallantly.
“A sailor’s heart, you know,” while the face of
the woman turned pink, then white. She knew her husband
more intimately than Mortimer did, and there was
something in his tone, his eyes, his words, she did not
like. Harry was an idiot to choose such a tale. An irritated
annoyance stirred in her, close upon dislike. “Anyhow,
it’s better than horrors,” she said hurriedly.
“Well,” put in her husband, letting forth a minor gust
of laughter, “it’s possible, at any rate. Though one’s as
crazy as the other.” His meaning was not wholly clear.
“If a man really loved,” he added in his blunt fashion,
“and was tricked by her, I could almost conceive his——”
“Oh, don’t preach, John, for Heaven’s sake. You’re
so dull in the pulpit.” But the interruption only served
to emphasize the sentence which, otherwise, might have
been passed over.
“Could conceive his finding life so worthless,” persisted
the other, “that——” He hesitated. “But there, now, I
promised I wouldn’t,” he went on, laughing good-humouredly.
Then, suddenly, as though in spite of himself,
driven it seemed: “Still, under such conditions, he might
show his contempt for human nature and for life by——”
It was a tiny stifled scream that stopped him this time.
“John, I hate, I loathe you, when you talk like that.
And you’ve broken your word again.” She was more than
petulant; a nervous anger sounded in her voice. It was
the way he had said it, looking from them towards the
window, that made her quiver. She felt him suddenly as a
man; she felt afraid of him.
Her husband made no reply; he rose and looked at
his watch, leaning sideways towards the lamp, so that the
expression of his face was shaded. “Two o’clock,” he
remarked. “I think I’ll take a turn through the house.
I may find a workman asleep or something. Anyhow, the
light will soon come now.” He laughed; the expression
of his face, his tone of voice, relieved her momentarily.
He went out. They heard his heavy tread echoing down
the carpetless long corridor.
Mortimer began at once. “Did he mean anything?”
he asked breathlessly. “He doesn’t love you the least little
bit, anyhow. He never did. I do. You’re wasted on
him. You belong to me.” The words poured out. He
covered her face with kisses. “Oh, I didn’t mean that,”
he caught between the kisses.
The sailor released her, staring. “What then?” he
whispered. “Do you think he saw us on the lawn?” He
paused a moment, as she made no reply. The steps were
audible in the distance still. “I know!” he exclaimed suddenly.
“It’s the blessed house he feels. That’s what it is.
He doesn’t like it.”
A wind sighed through the room, making the papers
flutter; something rattled; and Mrs. Burley started. A
loose end of rope swinging from the paperhanger’s ladder
caught her eye. She shivered slightly.
“He’s different,” she replied in a low voice, nestling
very close again, “and so restless. Didn’t you notice what
he said just now—that under certain conditions he could
understand a man”—she hesitated—“doing it,” she concluded,
a sudden drop in her voice. “Harry,” she looked
full into his eyes, “that’s not like him. He didn’t say
that for nothing.”
“Nonsense! He’s bored to tears, that’s all. And the
house is getting on your nerves, too.” He kissed her tenderly.
Then, as she responded, he drew her nearer still
and held her passionately, mumbling incoherent words,
among which “nothing to be afraid of” was distinguishable.
Meanwhile, the steps were coming nearer. She
pushed him away. “You must behave yourself. I insist.
You shall, Harry,” then buried herself in his arms, her face
hidden against his neck—only to disentangle herself the
next instant and stand clear of him. “I hate you, Harry,”
she exclaimed sharply, a look of angry annoyance flashing
across her face. “And I hate myself. Why do you
treat me——?” She broke off as the steps came closer,
patted her hair straight, and stalked over to the open
“I believe after all you’re only playing with me,” he
said viciously. He stared in surprised disappointment,
watching her. “It’s him you really love,” he added jealously.
He looked and spoke like a petulant spoilt boy.
She did not turn her head. “He’s always been fair to
me, kind and generous. He never blames me for anything.
Give me a cigarette and don’t play the stage hero.
My nerves are on edge, to tell you the truth.” Her voice
jarred harshly, and as he lit her cigarette he noticed that
her lips were trembling; his own hand trembled too. He
was still holding the match, standing beside her at the
window-sill, when the steps crossed the threshold and John
Burley came into the room. He went straight up to the
table and turned the lamp down. “It was smoking,” he
remarked. “Didn’t you see?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” and Mortimer sprang forward, too
late to help him. “It was the draught as you pushed
the door open.” The big man said, “Ah!” and drew a
chair over, facing them. “It’s just the very house,” he
told them. “I’ve been through every room on this floor.
It will make a splendid Home, with very little alteration,
too.” He turned round in his creaking wicker chair and
looked up at his wife, who sat swinging her legs and
smoking in the window embrasure. “Lives will be saved
inside these old walls. It’s a good investment,” he went
on, talking rather to himself it seemed. “People will die
“Hark!” Mrs. Burley interrupted him. “That noise—what
is it?” A faint thudding sound in the corridor
or in the adjoining room was audible, making all three
look round quickly, listening for a repetition, which did
not come. The papers fluttered on the table, the lamps
smoked an instant.
“Wind,” observed Burley calmly, “our little friend, the
South Wind. Something blown over again, that’s all.”
But, curiously, the three of them stood up. “I’ll go and
see,” he continued. “Doors and windows are all open
to let the paint dry.” Yet he did not move; he stood
there watching a white moth that dashed round and round
the lamp, flopping heavily now and again upon the bare
“Let me go, sir,” put in Mortimer eagerly. He was
glad of the chance; for the first time he, too, felt uncomfortable.
But there was another who, apparently,
suffered a discomfort greater than his own and was accordingly
even more glad to get away. “I’ll go,” Mrs. Burley
announced, with decision. “I’d like to. I haven’t been
out of this room since we came. I’m not an atom afraid.”
It was strange that for a moment she did not make a
move either; it seemed as if she waited for something.
For perhaps fifteen seconds no one stirred or spoke. She
knew by the look in her lover’s eyes that he had now
become aware of the slight, indefinite change in her husband’s
manner, and was alarmed by it. The fear in him
woke her contempt; she suddenly despised the youth, and
was conscious of a new, strange yearning towards her
husband; against her worked nameless pressures, troubling
her being. There was an alteration in the room, she
thought; something had come in. The trio stood listening
to the gentle wind outside, waiting for the sound to
be repeated; two careless, passionate young lovers and a
man stood waiting, listening, watching in that room; yet
it seemed there were five persons altogether and not three,
for two guilty consciences stood apart and separate from
their owners. John Burley broke the silence.
“Yes, you go, Nancy. Nothing to be afraid of—there.
It’s only wind.” He spoke as though he meant it.
Mortimer bit his lips. “I’ll come with you,” he said
instantly. He was confused. “Let’s all three go. I don’t
think we ought to be separated.” But Mrs. Burley was
already at the door. “I insist,” she said, with a forced
laugh. “I’ll call if I’m frightened,” while her husband,
saying nothing, watched her from the table.
“Take this,” said the sailor, flashing his electric torch
as he went over to her. “Two are better than one.” He
saw her figure exquisitely silhouetted against the black
corridor beyond; it was clear she wanted to go; any nervousness
in her was mastered by a stronger emotion still;
she was glad to be out of their presence for a bit. He
had hoped to snatch a word of explanation in the corridor,
but her manner stopped him. Something else stopped
“First door on the left,” he called out, his voice echoing
down the empty length. “That’s the room where the
noise came from. Shout if you want us.”
He watched her moving away, the light held steadily
in front of her, but she made no answer, and he turned
back to see John Burley lighting his cigar at the lamp
chimney, his face thrust forward as he did so. He stood
a second, watching him, as the lips sucked hard at the
cigar to make it draw; the strength of the features was
emphasized to sternness. He had meant to stand by the
door and listen for the least sound from the adjoining
room, but now found his whole attention focused on the
face above the lamp. In that minute he realized that Burley
had wished—had meant—his wife to go. In that minute
also he forgot his love, his shameless, selfish little
mistress, his worthless, caddish little self. For John Burley
looked up. He straightened slowly, puffing hard and
quickly to make sure his cigar was lit, and faced him.
Mortimer moved forward into the room, self-conscious,
“Of course it was only wind,” he said lightly, his one
desire being to fill the interval while they were alone with
commonplaces. He did not wish the other to speak,
“Dawn wind, probably.” He glanced at his wrist-watch.
“It’s half-past two already, and the sun gets up at a
quarter to four. It’s light by now, I expect. The shortest
night is never quite dark.” He rambled on confusedly,
for the other’s steady, silent stare embarrassed him. A
faint sound of Mrs. Burley moving in the next room made
him stop a moment. He turned instinctively to the door,
eager for an excuse to go.
“That’s nothing,” said Burley, speaking at last and in
a firm quiet voice. “Only my wife, glad to be alone—my
young and pretty wife. She’s all right. I know her
better than you do. Come in and shut the door.”
Mortimer obeyed. He closed the door and came close
to the table, facing the other, who at once continued.
“If I thought,” he said, in that quiet deep voice, “that
you two were serious”—he uttered his words very slowly,
with emphasis, with intense severity—“do you know what
I should do? I will tell you, Mortimer. I should like one
of us two—you or myself—to remain in this house, dead.”
His teeth gripped his cigar tightly; his hands were
clenched; he went on through a half-closed mouth. His
eyes blazed steadily.
“I trust her so absolutely—understand me?—that my
belief in women, in human beings, would go. And with
it the desire to live. Understand me?”
Each word to the young careless fool was a blow in
the face, yet it was the softest blow, the flash of a big
deep heart, that hurt the most. A dozen answers—denial,
explanation, confession, taking all guilt upon himself—crowded
his mind, only to be dismissed. He stood motionless
and silent, staring hard into the other’s eyes. No
word passed his lips; there was no time in any case. It
was in this position that Mrs. Burley, entering at that
moment, found them. She saw her husband’s face; the
other man stood with his back to her. She came in with
a little nervous laugh. “A bell-rope swinging in the wind
and hitting a sheet of metal before the fireplace,” she
informed them. And all three laughed together then,
though each laugh had a different sound. “But I hate
this house,” she added. “I wish we had never come.”
“The moment there’s light in the sky,” remarked her
husband quietly, “we can leave. That’s the contract; let’s
see it through. Another half-hour will do it. Sit down,
Nancy, and have a bite of something.” He got up and
placed a chair for her. “I think I’ll take another look
round.” He moved slowly to the door. “I may go out
on to the lawn a bit and see what the sky is doing.”
It did not take half a minute to say the words, yet
to Mortimer it seemed as though the voice would never end.
His mind was confused and troubled. He loathed himself,
he loathed the woman through whom he had got into
this awkward mess.
The situation had suddenly become extremely painful;
he had never imagined such a thing; the man he had
thought blind had after all seen everything—known it all
along, watched them, waited. And the woman, he was
now certain, loved her husband; she had fooled him, Mortimer,
all along, amusing herself.
“I’ll come with you, sir. Do let me,” he said suddenly.
Mrs. Burley stood pale and uncertain between them. She
looked scared. What has happened, she was clearly wondering.
“No, no, Harry”—he called him “Harry” for the first
time—“I’ll be back in five minutes at most. My wife
mustn’t be alone either.” And he went out.
The young man waited till the footsteps sounded some
distance down the corridor, then turned, but he did not
move forward; for the first time he let pass unused what
he called “an opportunity.” His passion had left him;
his love, as he once thought it, was gone. He looked at
the pretty woman near him, wondering blankly what he
had ever seen there to attract him so wildly. He wished
to Heaven he was out of it all. He wished he were dead.
John Burley’s words suddenly appalled him.
One thing he saw plainly—she was frightened. This
opened his lips.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, and his hushed voice
shirked the familiar Christian name. “Did you see anything?”
He nodded his head in the direction of the adjoining
room. It was the sound of his own voice addressing
her coldly that made him abruptly see himself as he
really was, but it was her reply, honestly given, in a faint
even voice, that told him she saw her own self too with
similar clarity. God, he thought, how revealing a tone, a
single word can be!
“I saw—nothing. Only I feel uneasy—dear.” That
“dear” was a call for help.
“Look here,” he cried, so loud that she held up a warning
finger, “I’m—I’ve been a damned fool, a cad! I’m
most frightfully ashamed. I’ll do anything—anything to
get it right.” He felt cold, naked, his worthlessness laid
bare; she felt, he knew, the same. Each revolted suddenly
from the other. Yet he knew not quite how or wherefore
this great change had thus abruptly come about, especially
on her side. He felt that a bigger, deeper emotion than
he could understand was working on them, making mere
physical relationships seem empty, trivial, cheap and vulgar.
His cold increased in face of this utter ignorance.
“Uneasy?” he repeated, perhaps hardly knowing exactly
why he said it. “Good Lord, but he can take care of himself——”
“Oh, he is a man,” she interrupted; “yes.”
Steps were heard, firm, heavy steps, coming back along
the corridor. It seemed to Mortimer that he had listened
to this sound of steps all night, and would listen to them
till he died. He crossed to the lamp and lit a cigarette,
carefully this time, turning the wick down afterwards.
Mrs. Burley also rose, moving over towards the door, away
from him. They listened a moment to these firm and
heavy steps, the tread of a man, John Burley. A man ...
and a philanderer, flashed across Mortimer’s brain like
fire, contrasting the two with fierce contempt for himself.
The tread became less audible. There was distance in it.
It had turned in somewhere.
“There!” she exclaimed in a hushed tone. “He’s gone
“Nonsense! It passed us. He’s going out on to the
The pair listened breathlessly for a moment, when the
sound of steps came distinctly from the adjoining room,
walking across the boards, apparently towards the window.
“There!” she repeated. “He did go in.” Silence of
perhaps a minute followed, in which they heard each
other’s breathing. “I don’t like his being alone—in
there,” Mrs. Burley said in a thin faltering voice, and
moved as though to go out. Her hand was already on the
knob of the door, when Mortimer stopped her with a violent
“Don’t! For God’s sake, don’t!” he cried, before she
could turn it. He darted forward. As he laid a hand
upon her arm a thud was audible through the wall. It
was a heavy sound, and this time there was no wind to
“It’s only that loose swinging thing,” he whispered
thickly, a dreadful confusion blotting out clear thought
“There was no loose swaying thing at all,” she said
in a failing voice, then reeled and swayed against him.
“I invented that. There was nothing.” As he caught her,
staring helplessly, it seemed to him that a face with lifted
lids rushed up at him. He saw two terrified eyes in a
patch of ghastly white. Her whisper followed, as she sank
into his arms. “It’s John. He’s——”
At which instant, with terror at its climax, the sound
of steps suddenly became audible once more—the firm
and heavy tread of John Burley coming out again into
the corridor. Such was their amazement and relief that
they neither moved nor spoke. The steps drew nearer.
The pair seemed petrified; Mortimer did not remove his
arms, nor did Mrs. Burley attempt to release herself. They
stared at the door and waited. It was pushed wider the
next second, and John Burley stood beside them. He was
so close he almost touched them—there in each other’s
“Jack, dear!” cried his wife, with a searching tenderness
that made her voice seem strange.
He gazed a second at each in turn. “I’m going out
on to the lawn for a moment,” he said quietly. There
was no expression on his face; he did not smile, he did not
frown; he showed no feeling, no emotion—just looked into
their eyes, and then withdrew round the edge of the door
before either could utter a word in answer. The door
swung to behind him. He was gone.
“He’s going to the lawn. He said so.” It was Mortimer
speaking, but his voice shook and stammered. Mrs.
Burley had released herself. She stood now by the table,
silent, gazing with fixed eyes at nothing, her lips parted,
her expression vacant. Again she was aware of an alteration
in the room; something had gone out.... He
watched her a second, uncertain what to say or do. It
was the face of a drowned person, occurred to him. Something
intangible, yet almost visible stood between them in
that narrow space. Something had ended, there before his
eyes, definitely ended. The barrier between them rose
higher, denser. Through this barrier her words came to
him with an odd whispering remoteness.
“Harry.... You saw? You noticed?”
“What d’you mean?” he said gruffly. He tried to feel
angry, contemptuous, but his breath caught absurdly.
“Harry—he was different. The eyes, the hair, the”—her
face grew like death—“the twist in his face——”
“What on earth are you saying? Pull yourself together.”
He saw that she was trembling down the whole
length of her body, as she leaned against the table for
support. His own legs shook. He stared hard at her.
“Altered, Harry ... altered.” Her horrified whisper
came at him like a knife. For it was true. He, too, had
noticed something about the husband’s appearance that was
not quite normal. Yet, even while they talked, they heard
him going down the carpetless stairs; the sounds ceased as
he crossed the hall; then came the noise of the front door
banging, the reverberation even shaking the room a little
where they stood.
Mortimer went over to her side. He walked unevenly.
“My dear! For God’s sake—this is sheer nonsense.
Don’t let yourself go like this. I’ll put it straight with
him—it’s all my fault.” He saw by her face that she
did not understand his words; he was saying the wrong
thing altogether; her mind was utterly elsewhere. “He’s
all right,” he went on hurriedly. “He’s out on the lawn
He broke off at the sight of her. The horror that
fastened on her brain plastered her face with deathly
“That was not John at all!” she cried, a wail of misery
and terror in her voice. She rushed to the window and he
followed. To his immense relief a figure moving below
was plainly visible. It was John Burley. They saw him
in the faint grey of the dawn, as he crossed the lawn, going
away from the house. He disappeared.
“There you are! See?” whispered Mortimer reassuringly.
“He’ll be back in——” when a sound in the adjoining
room, heavier, louder than before, cut appallingly
across his words, and Mrs. Burley, with that wailing
scream, fell back into his arms. He caught her only just
in time, for she stiffened into ice, daft with the uncomprehended
terror of it all, and helpless as a child.
“Darling, my darling—oh, God!” He bent, kissing
her face wildly. He was utterly distraught.
“Harry! Jack—oh, oh!” she wailed in her anguish.
“It took on his likeness. It deceived us ... to give him
time. He’s done it.”
She sat up suddenly. “Go,” she said, pointing to the
room beyond, then sank fainting, a dead weight in his
He carried her unconscious body to a chair, then entering
the adjoining room he flashed his torch upon the body
of her husband hanging from a bracket in the wall. He
cut it down five minutes too late.