Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/The deserted house on the landes

Page:Once a Week Jun to Dec 1864.pdf/52 Page:Once a Week Jun to Dec 1864.pdf/53 till such times as the storm blew over. The light-hearted, merry larks were silent, and the sandy grass plain was only enlivened by some poverty-stricken looking cows, who were disconsolately wandering through it to the music of their unmelodious bells. At first I tried to induce the old Methusélah on which I was mounted to hurry on, but soon gave that up as useless, the brown hardening himself utterly against persuasions of all kinds; the more striking my arguments grew, the slower he went—so, finally I resigned myself to his will, and we jogged dreamily along, both of us I suspect in a brown study. We had left Cazeaux, I dare say, about an hour, when the big drops of rain slowly plashed down, and an ominous distant rumble told that something else was coming.

A minute or two of perfect stillness, then suddenly a tremendous clap of thunder roared deafeningly over my head, preceded by a flash of lightning so vivid that it felt quite to blind me, and the horse started violently from terror. An inch or two farther and we should have been bodily in the canal, and this veracious history might never have been written. It was a very close thing; but Methusélah only nearly lost his footing. One leg indeed slid down the steep bank, but a sharp dig of the spurs made him recover him self, and scramble up tant bien que mal. The rain now poured down in a great sheet of water. As to shelter, there was simply none, on the open grassy plain. None, did I say? I forgot the existence of the deserted house, till, on looking round, I saw it standing with invitingly open door some distance on our left. Never was sight more welcome. With considerable difficulty, and indeed, only by tying my handkerchief over the eyes of the unfortunate brown, whom the thunder and lightning caused quite to lose his head—I managed that we should both reach our haven of refuge before getting quite soaked through. The door lay partially open, as I have said, there was more than enough space for me to enter, but as there was not sufficient for the admission of the horse, I gave it a push, expecting it to yield at once. But I found that it was uncommonly stiff, and it was with much difficulty I succeeded in moving it sufficiently to enable the old brown to drag himself through.

We went into the empty front room, which was just as I had seen it three weeks before; and as I stood in the window I congratulated myself immensely that we had a roof over our heads. But time wore on, darkness slowly crept nearer and nearer, and at last I began to wish the pelting rain would cease; but it didn't seem to have the slightest idea of doing anything of the kind. The lightning, if possible, became more vivid than ever; and the window-frames rattled again amid the great crashing of the thunder. It was evident that the elements intended to make a night of it now they had the chance, and as I did not the least fancy a two hours' jog to La Teste through the storm, I determined to migrate to the next room, and make myself as comfortable as circumstances would permit on the big sofa. Taking off the horse's bridle, I therefore first, as a precautionary measure, hobbled his forelegs, that if the fancy should seize that valuable animal to make his way out during the night, he might not be able to wander far enough to get lost in the forest. This done, I turned my steps to the next room.

With the help of a box of matches and a newspaper that I happened to have in my pocket, I set to work at the half-burned logs on the hearth, got up a feeble fire, lit my pipe, and drawing one of the chairs up in front of the fireplace, under the combined soothing influences of the fire and the 'baccy,' fell into a reverie, and finally, I suspect, a sleep. How long it lasted I don't the least know, but I suddenly became aware that the fire had died out, and that thick darkness was all around me. The thunder and rain appeared to have ceased, for not a sound broke the complete silence, which came to feel so oppressive that at last I got up, and groped my way into the passage to look out on the night.

Feeling my way by the wall I slowly progressed along till I reached the hall door, but it was shut. Shut? How odd! I had certainly left it open. Perhaps I was at the wrong door. But I soon convinced myself that was not the case by striking a match—my last, I was sorry to perceive.

"Very odd," I said to myself, "the door was so firmly driven back by the passage of the horse, it couldn't have been shut without considerable force and noise. I wonder I didn't hear it clap, but at all events I'll go out for a bit." That was easier said than done. I put out my right hand as a matter of course, but it was very strange, I couldn't grasp the handle. I saw well enough where it was by the match, yet somehow my fingers couldn't take hold of it. "What nonsense," I said to myself, as I perforce dropped the burning end of the match on the floor; "what can have come over me?" and I put out my left hand. A strange twinge ran through it the moment it touched the handle, and it dropped numb and powerless to my side; I felt I couldn't raise it, couldn't move a muscle of it. A light mocking laugh sounded suddenly behind me, and I am afraid I lost my temper. "Confound you!" I involuntarily burst out, "what do you mean by that idiotic titter? Open the door." Dead silence. Perfect unbroken silence, and the darkness seemed to wrap round me and envelope me in a thick fog. There was an oppression, a weight in the atmosphere, and I felt an indescribable something that seemed to make it an impossibility either to speak or move. Yet my senses seemed at the same time strained to an unnatural degree of expectation, I felt as if my hearing, for example, was become unnaturally acute; and yet, God knows, there was nothing to hear. Utter complete silence, silence indeed that "could be felt."

With a strong effort I raised myself from the wall against which I had been leaning, and determined to make my way back to my sofa. Instantly I felt I had regained power over my arms, and I made a dash at the door. Quite in vain. Again my hands trembled and fell powerless to my side, and again that aggravating laugh was heard, as if mocking my puny efforts. Restraining my auger, I got up a laugh myself not to be out of the fashion, but I could not help knowing that it sounded forced and strange. "How charmingly hospitable you are!" I exclaimed, in French. "Really your affection for my company is quite touching, what a pity I can't reciprocate it.—Oh!" I thought involuntarily as the jibing titter again sounded close to my ear, "if I had but a light." The thought had hardly crossed my mind before I felt a curious conviction that there was a light in the room I had not long since left. By some irresistible impulse I felt myself attracted thither. I turned round. Why, I could see a light shining through the doorway from where I stood—there was no doubt about that. I strided rapidly down the hall, and rushed into the room. No wonder I had seen a light, for an immense wood fire burned brightly on the hearth. I could hardly believe my senses. Where had the great pile of wood come from? How was it I had heard no signs of fire-kindling through the open door? It was certainly very strange. Decidedly comfortable, though, all the same; for it made the dusty old room look wonderfully cheery, so I felt quite grateful for the attention, and mentally revoked all the abuse I had levelled at my invisible companions.

Drawing my chair again in front of the fire, I sat for some time enjoying the warmth and gazing on the blazing logs; then I tried the old piano, a wonderful instrument frightfully out of tune, that would have made Thalberg shiver; and finally stretched myself on the vast sofa, which protested against my weight by many internal groans. Turning my face from the glare of the fire, I lay for some time in a dreamy reverie, till a slight stir made me involuntarily turn my head. What was that? A living form or a shapeless mass, that the leaping flickering flames showed me in the arm-chair opposite? Certainly there was something there, a greyish thing, huddled up rather back in the shadow of the chimneypiece. Stay, it moves, a head with the long dishevelled dark hair of a woman emerges gradually from under the grey wrapping. "Was this the nymph who laughed in the hall, and noiselessly lighted the fire, I wonder?" thought I to myself, as I watched the silent surging of the drapery. "I think I ought to thank her for the fire at all events." So with a preliminary hem to attract the attention of my Phyllis, I began a polite speech. Rapidly and noiselessly, as I spoke, the contents of the chair glided shapelessly out of sight, melted gradually and imperceptibly away, dissolving before my stupefied gaze into nothingness. There stood the empty arm chair, the firelight playing on its faded chintz cover. I could hardly believe my eyes. Could it have been a dream? A titter seemed to come from under the sofa. I snatched one of the burning logs from the hearth and peered underneath. Of course there was nothing there except dust, of that there was any amount. Surprised and bewildered I stood for a moment log in baud. "There's not much chance of finding anyone, I suppose," I thought to myself; "but at any rate I'll search the house." So, taking a flaming stick in each hand to light me as torches on my way, I set out on my travels.

First, I explored the nest of rooms opposite. They were all perfectly empty except the kitchen, where I found my old Rosinante, who had apparently betaken himself there in the vain hope that a kitchen might furnish food, and now looked more woe-begone and out of sorts than ever, from his disappointment. Upstairs I tramped, looked into every room, curiously examined the turned-up bedstead in the small room, and came to the conclusion that it was a decidedly disreputable old relic; discovered an unlocked wall press, which, however, contained nothing but a horribly damp mouldy smell, and returned to my fire as wise as I set out. No living thing, no sign of life was to be seen in the house, and pitching my improvised torches back on the hearth, I threw myself in disgust on the sofa and revolved the mysterious riddle in my mind. I always was immensely worried by difficult problems, and this one I couldn't solve, try as I would. I leant back on the sofa still pondering, and as I lay there I felt a consciousness creeping over me that there was something coming stealthily behind my back. Involuntarily I turned my head. Close to me, the soft brown-bearded chin leaning on the back of the sofa, was a man's head. I felt his breath on my cheek as I turned my face, and his strange sad grey eyes seemed to look me through and through. I started up and faced him—he was gone. Gone. Utterly vanished. Where had he gone to? Ah, that was the mystery; unless he had sank down through the floor, which seemed as firm as strong boards could make it.

"Well," I thought to myself, "certainly this is a house of odd inmates. If the fellow had only told me his story before he disappeared in that absurd way—" and, rousing up the fire, which was beginning to get low, I half expected to see him back again when I had completed a scientific arrangement of the logs. But there was nothing. I went over to the window. The night was dark and cloudy, and the wind sighed a plaintive lament now and then. I tried to open the sash, but I found that it had been nailed down, so, as it was but stupid work staring out at the elements, I sauntered presently back to my sofa, my hands in my pockets, determined to woo old Morpheus as the last resource of ennui.

"If it were only morning," I thought, "I would make another trial at that confounded hall door." "Ah, you will never leave this house," slowly whispered a low sad voice in startling proximity to my ear. "Indeed!" I said, not eating this time to take the trouble to move (you see I had got to consider the unusual quite as a matter of course), "may I ask why?" But there was no answer. As I lay there on the sofa, with closed eyes, I knew there was a form close to me, that if I looked I should see some shape, but a strange reluctance seemed to prevent my doing so—a presentiment of evil, an indefinable horror, thrilled strangely through me, but I struggled against it and forced myself to look. For an instant I got a glimpse of the bearded face and sad grey eyes I had seen before leaning over me; then, I felt stifling, powerless; I knew that pitiless torso was slowly, surely, smotheringly, crushing down upon me, and that there was no escape. Closer and closer still it came stealthily on, and gasping for breath I——awoke from my dream, to find myself lying on my back on the sofa, the old brown snuffing at my face, and the bright May sun shining in through the opposite window.

Didn't I tell you that I "suspected I fell asleep" in front of the fire? O.