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The Decoy

by Algernon Blackwood and Wilfred Wilson

 

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 three.”

“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 her husband.

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 his wife.

“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 arm.

“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 house listened.

“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 right there.”

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 himself.”

“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 objects rattling.

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.”

“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 left——”

It was an odd tale to tell in such company, but he told it well.

“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 window.

“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 here, too——”

“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 deal table.

“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 him, too.

“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, embarrassed, cold.

“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 in.”

“Nonsense! It passed us. He’s going out on to the lawn.”

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 gesture.

“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 cause it.

“It’s only that loose swinging thing,” he whispered thickly, a dreadful confusion blotting out clear thought and speech.

“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 arms.

“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 now——”

He broke off at the sight of her. The horror that fastened on her brain plastered her face with deathly whiteness.

“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 arms.

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.