The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 12
THE SHUTTING OF A DOOR.
We went upstairs to get another candle. A pound had been left on the parlour mantelpiece wrapped up in a stout brown paper. The rats had climbed up on to the shelf, they alone knew how, torn the paper to shreds, and made a meal off the contents. Pieces of candle were left, but not one whole one. Other things had been on that mantelpiece—tea, butter, bread, sugar, bacon, eggs, all the food we had. Practically the whole of it was gone. More of the tea was left than anything; possibly they had not found it altogether to their palates. But the butter had been entirely consumed; of the bacon, only the rind remained, and of the eggs the shells. I had heard, and I had read, a good deal about the voracity of rats, but never had I seen an example of it before. Pollie seemed to look on it as quite a joke. She only hoped, she said, that the quality of the provisions was good, so that they would not give them indigestion. But I could not see the fun at all. If that was a sample of their appetite, who could doubt that they would at any rate try to make a meal of us. I had been told of their devouring people’s toes as if they were toothsome dainties. I did not want them to stay their stomachs with mine if I could help it. With such calmness as I could command I did my best to explain my views upon the matter. But Pollie only laughed. She would not be sensible. So I then and there made up my mind that, sleep or no sleep, I would not take off my clothes that night. If I was to be devoured they should eat their way through my garments before they could get at me.
Pollie lit one of the stumps of the candles. The rest she slipped into her pocket. If we left them there again, she remarked, they would probably vanish completely directly our backs were turned, and candles were precious, which was true enough; but there were other things which were precious as well as candles. I asked her what she was going to do.
“Investigate, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to find out what’s behind those two closed doors. If it’s something alive I’d like to know. Also, in that case, I’d like to know just what it is. I’m not partial to rats, but I’m still less partial to strangers, who may be up to all kinds of tricks for all that I can tell, roaming about my house while I’m wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, so if anyone’s going to roam I should like to make their acquaintance before they’re starting.”
There was something callous in her demeanour, a sort of bravado, which made me momentarily more uncomfortable. This was quite a new Pollie to me. She spoke as if we were enjoying ourselves, with an apparently entire unconsciousness of the frightful situation we actually were in. I was positively beginning to be afraid of her.
“Do let us go upstairs to the bedroom, Pollie, and lock ourselves in till the morning comes.”
She glanced at her watch.
“It’s morning now; the midnight chimes have sounded long ago. Would you like to have your throat cut in the silence of the night?”
“It wouldn’t be nice to wake up and find it slit from ear to ear, would it? So don’t be a goose. There’s a door locked downstairs and another up. Before I rest I’m going to do my best to find out why those two rooms are not open to me, their rightful owner. If it’s because they harbour cut-throats, it’s just as well that we should know as soon as we conveniently can. So I’m off on a voyage of discovery. You can go to bed if you like.”
Of course I went with her. It was a choice of two evils—frightful evils—but, under the circumstances, nothing would have induced me to go to bed by myself. I would far rather have had my throat cut with her than be eaten by rats alone. She began to hunt about the room.
“I’m looking for some useful little trifle which might come in handy in breaking down a solidly-constructed door or two. Here’s a poker, heavy make—there’s some smashing capacity in that; a pair of tongs; a fender—there’s a business end to a fender; furniture—I have heard of chairs being used as battering-rams before to-day. My mother used to tell of how once, when his landlady locked him out because he wouldn’t pay the rent of his rooms, my Uncle Benjamin burst his way into the house with the aid of a chair, snatched off a passing cart which was laden with somebody else’s goods, so I can’t see how he could object to my trying the same kind of thing in the house which was once his own. But I won’t—not yet. To begin with I’ll give the poker a trial, and you might take the tongs.”
I took the tongs, though the only thing against which I should be likely to use them would be rats, even if I ventured to touch them. Indeed, the mere idea of squelching a wriggling, writhing, squeaking rat between a pair of tongs made an icy shiver go all down my spine. Pollie whirled the poker round her head with a regular whoop. What had come to her I could not imagine. Her eyes flamed; her cheeks were flushed; she was transformed. I verily believe that if half-a-dozen men had rushed in at the door that very second, she would have flown at them with a shriek of triumph. I had always known that one of her worst faults was a fondness for what she called “a bit of a scrimmage,” and that in an argument very few people got the better of her; but I had never dreamed that she would go so far as she was going then. She seemed as if she were perfectly burning for someone to attack her.
Down the staircase she went, brandishing the poker over her head. I could not keep so close to her as I should have liked for fear of it. She stamped so as she descended that near the bottom she put her foot clean through one of the steps. No doubt the wood was rotten, but still she need not have insisted on treading as heavily as she possibly could. And as soon as she reached the passage, without giving me an opportunity to say a word, she dashed at the door of the room, which was locked, and hit it with all her might with the end of the poker. I expected to see her go right through it, but, instead of that, she gave a sort of groan, and down fell the poker with a clatter to the floor.
“Pollie, what is the matter? What have you done?”
The expression of her countenance had changed all in an instant. A startled look, a look almost of pain, had come upon her features. She was rubbing her arms and feeling her shoulder-blades.
“More than I intended. If you had exerted all your strength to drive a poker through what seemed a panel of ordinary wood, and discovered that it was sheet iron instead, you’d find that you’d done more than you intended—it sort of jars.”
She picked up the poker again, and tapped it, much more gingerly, against the door. It gave forth a metallic ring.
“Iron, real iron! Not a shadow of a doubt of it. Pity I was not aware of the fact before I dislocated both my arms. Inside there! Do you hear me calling? If anyone is inside there, perhaps you’ll be so good as to let me know. I’m Pollie! Pollie Blyth!”
Not a sound came from within, for which, personally, I was grateful. She hammered and hammered, but not the slightest notice was taken of the noise she made, except by the rats, who sounded to me as if they had gone stark mad. What we should have done if anyone had replied to her summons from within is more than I can tell. We certainly should have been no better off than before. We never could have got at them. Pollie tried all she could to get that door to open, without, so far as we could judge, producing the least impression of any sort or kind. She thought of forcing the lock, but when she endeavoured to insert the end of the poker into the keyhole, it turned out that it was such a tiny one that nothing very much thicker than a hatpin could be induced to enter.
“There’s a mystery behind that door. Mark my words, Emily Purvis! It may take the form of decaying corpses, with their brains dashed out, and their throats all cut, and their bones all broken, in which case they’ll haunt us while we slumber, pointing at us spectral fingers as we lie on our unquiet beds——”
“What’s the matter, my dear? They’ll be quite as cheerful anyhow as rats, and they won’t take bites at us. At least, it’s to be hoped they won’t Ugh! fancy murdered spectres making their teeth meet in your flesh!”
“Pollie, if you talk like that I shall be ill; I know I shall. It isn’t fair of you. I wish you wouldn’t. Don’t!”
“Very well, my love, I won’t. I’ve only this remark to make—if the mystery doesn’t take that form, it takes another, and probably a worse one. And let me tell you this. My Uncle Benjamin was a curiosity while he lived—my mother used to say that there never was such a devil’s limb as he was, and she was his only sister, and disposed to look upon his eccentricities—and they were eccentricities—with a lenient eye; and it’s my belief that he was quite as big a curiosity when he died. There were spots in his eventful life—uncommonly queer ones—which he would not wish revealed to the public eye. Unless I’m wrong, some of them are inside there; we’re almost standing in their presence now, and I wish that we were quite.”
She rattled the poker against the panels as a kind of parting salute. I had rather she had not. Every time she made a noise—and she kept on making one—it set my nerves all tingling. What with the things she said, and the way that she went on, and everything altogether, I was getting into such a state that I was beginning to hardly know whether I was standing on my head or heels. As for Pollie, she seemed in the highest possible spirits. It was incomprehensible to me how she dared. And the way she kept on talking!
“Before I’m very much older I will get the other side of you, or I’ll know the reason why; the idea of not being allowed the free run of my own premises is a trifle more than I can stand. If I have to blow you down, I’ll get you open.”
Bang, bang, she went at it again.
“It sounds hollow, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s meant by way of a suggestion, and is intended to let us understand that it’s only a hollow mystery after all. Well, we shall see—and you shall see too, if you have curiosity enough.”
I doubted if I had. I certainly had not just then. I wished, with all my heart, that she would come away from the horrid door, which presently she did, though not at all in the spirit I should have preferred, nor with the intentions I desired.
“There’s a second Bluebeard’s chamber upstairs. I may have better luck with that; perhaps it’s not guarded with sheet iron. Uncle Benjamin must have spent a fortune at the ironmonger’s if it is, which fortune should have been mine. We’ll go and see.”
I endeavoured to expostulate.
“Pollie, let’s leave it till to-morrow. What’s the use of making any more fuss to-night. I’m dying for want of sleep.”
“Are you?” She looked at me with what struck me as being suspicious eyes; though what there was to be suspicious about is more than I can pretend to say. “But don’t you see, my dear, that if you were to have that sleep for which you’re dying, before you wake from it you may be dead. That second Bluebeard’s chamber is next our bedroom. Suppose someone were to come out of it, while we were sunk in innocent repose, and——” She drew her thumb across her throat with a gesture which made me shudder. “That wouldn’t be nice, you know.”
“Pollie, if you keep on talking like that I’ll walk straight out of the house, I don’t care what time of the night it is, and whether you’ll come with me or whether you won’t.”
“I shouldn’t if I were you. It would seem so irregular for a young lady to be taking her solitary walks abroad during the small hours, don’t you know. Now up you go—up those stairs. We’ll continue this conversation at the top. You vowed to be my companion to the death, and my companion to the death you’re going to be.”
I had never done anything of the kind, as she was perfectly well aware. But she did not give me a chance to contradict her. She bundled me up the staircase as if I were a child, with such impetuosity that I was breathless when we reached the landing. She was laughing. We might have been enjoying a romp. As if that were the place or season for anything of the sort!
“I trod upon a rat. Did you hear it squeal? I think it was its tail. I believe the little beast turned and flew at me, it felt as if it did. I hope I scrunched its silly little tail. What is one rat’s tail among so many? Now for Bluebeard’s Chamber No. 2. This time we’ll beware of iron.”
She made a preliminary sounding, luckily for her. Even a slight tap with the poker produced the ring of metal.
“Iron again, so that’s all right. Now what shall we do? Shall we confess ourselves baffled after all, and leave a formal attack until the morning, or shall we try the effect of a little more poker smashing? What ho, within! Is anyone inside there, living or dead? If so, would you be so very obliging as to just step forth, and let us see what kind of gentleman you are.” There was no response, thank goodness. I took her by the arm.
“Pollie, do let’s leave it to the morning, and do let’s go to bed!”
“We’ll go to bed!”
We went; at least we went into the bedroom. I did not feel much happier when we were there. To begin with, after the way in which she had been talking, my first thought was to do as much as possible to keep anyone out who might try to enter. But there was no key in the lock, the handle was loose, the hasp a bad one, so that the door would not even keep closed without our propping something up against it. I wanted Pollie to help me pile up a sort of barricade, consisting of chairs, the washhandstand, chest of drawers, and everything, as I had read of people doing in books. She only laughed at me.
“What good will it do? Who do you suppose it will keep out? Spectres? My dear, spectres will walk through stone walls. They pay no heed to trivial obstacles. Creatures of flesh and blood? You may take my word for it that if there are any of that sort alive and kicking in this house to-night, and they mean to come in here, they’ll come in just when and how they choose, and they’ll treat your ingenious barricade as if it wasn’t there.”
“Do you really think that there’s anyone in the house beside ourselves?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I tell you what I do think, that if I’d known as much before as I do now, I’d have treated myself to a revolver, and you should have had one too.”
“A revolver! Whatever should I have done with a revolver?”
“I can’t say what you’d have done. I know what I’d have tried to do. I only wish that I had something loaded handy at this moment, there’s more persuasive power in bullets than in your barricade, my dear. If the worst does come to the worst, and we have to protect ourselves against goodness alone knows what, if I could only have had my grip upon a pistol I don’t fancy that all the scoring would have been upon the other side.”
Whether she talked like that simply to make my hair stand up on end, or whether she was really in earnest, was more than I was able to determine. But as I looked at her I felt a curious something creep all over me. There was an expression on her face, a smile on her lips, a light in her eyes, which made me think of her Uncle Benjamin, to whose peculiarities we owed our presence there, and wonder if not only his blood, but something of his spirit too, was in her veins. I was persuaded that she perceived something actually agreeable in a situation in which I saw nothing but horror. And it was I who had supposed myself to be romantic!
She began to bustle about the room.
“I thought you were dying for want of sleep. Aren’t you going to get between the sheets? There is a bed, and there are sheets, though I should hardly like to swear that they have been washed since someone slept between them last. When are you going to begin to undress?”
“Undress? Do you imagine that I intend to remove so much as a stitch of clothing while I remain beneath this roof?”
“Do you propose to sleep in your boots then?”
“If I am to sleep at all, and I am more than half disposed to hope that sleep may not visit my eyelids till I am out of this dreadful place, I propose to do so in what I stand up in. Pollie, have you ever heard of people’s hair turning white in the course of a single night? I shouldn’t be at all surprised if mine did. It feels as if it were changing colour now.”
She stared as if she could not make me out. I wondered if she was noting the transformation which was taking place in my hair; if it had already become so obvious. Then she broke into peal after peal of laughter. The tears started to my eyes. Just as I was about to really cry there came a crash which shook the house.
It sounded as if someone had opened a door in the passage and shut it with a bang.