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CHAPTER XIII.

A VISION OF THE NIGHT.

In a second Pollie was across the room, through the door, and on the landing. Before I could stop her she was tearing down the stairs, crying,

“Now we’ll see who that is!”

I was in a dreadful position, not wanting to descend and be murdered as a result of seeing “who that is,” nor daring to remain behind alone. I did not even venture to call out and try to stay her, not knowing who might hear my voice below. She had gone off with our only piece of candle and left me in the dark. All I could do was to steal after her as quickly as possible, keeping as close to her as I was able. Pollie was at the bottom almost before I started; she had gone down with a hop, skip, and a jump; I had to struggle with the darkness and the rats. Leaning over what was left of the banisters I could see the gleam of her candle in the passage. I expected to hear her shriek, and sounds of a struggle. The candle flickered, as if she were moving here and there in an endeavour to discover the cause of the commotion. Presently her voice came up to me.

“Emily!”

“Yes?”

I spoke in a much lower tone than she had done.

“No one’s murdered, unless it’s you up there. In case you’re not, you might come down.”

I went. She appeared disgusted, rather than otherwise, that she had not been murdered. She was stamping up and down the passage, banging at the closed door with her clenched fist, peering into the kitchen, making as much disturbance as was in her power.

“The only thing alive, barring rats, seems to be blackbeetles. We must have slaughtered thousands when we came in. The kitchen’s black with them. Come and look.” I declined. “But they can hardly have opened that door and shut it with a bang. There’s no evidence to show which door it was, but I believe it was one which leads into Bluebeard’s chamber.”

“Pollie! How can you tell?”

“I can’t tell, but I can believe. Can’t I believe, my dear? I shall, anyhow. It is my belief”—she spoke with an emphasis which was meant for me—“that the mystery it conceals peeped out, then, fearing discovery, popped back again. It was its hurry to pop back which caused the bang. I wonder, by the way, if it was anyone who made a bolt into the street.”

She tried to open the front door, against my wish, and failed. We had opened it from within easily enough before, when we had gone out to interview her Tom; but now it appeared to be as hermetically sealed as the door leading into what she called “Bluebeard’s Chamber.” It was no use reasoning with her. So soon as she found that it would not open she made up her mind that it should. For a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes she tried everything she could to force it. In vain. By the time we returned to the bedroom she was not in the best of tempers. And I had resolved that nothing should induce me to stay any longer alone with her beneath that roof than I could possibly help.

We had something like a quarrel. She said some very cruel things to me, and, when I told her she was unkind, and that there were aspects in which she reminded me of her Uncle Benjamin, she said crueller things still. I announced my intention to spend the night—what was left of it—upon a chair. She flung herself upon the bed and laughed.

Never shall I forget the remainder of that night, not if I live to be as old as Methuselah. To begin with, that chair was horribly uncomfortable, to speak of physical discomfort only. It was a small, very slippery, wooden Windsor chair; every time I tried to get into an easy position I began to slip off. I wondered more and more how I could ever have been so Quixotic as to have volunteered to become Pollie Blyth’s companion. For one thing I had never suspected that she could have been so callous, so careless of the feelings of others, so indifferent to what they suffered on her behalf. Although I was tired out and out I could see that there would be no sleep for me, and no rest either, while I continued where I was. So far as I could judge, so soon as she threw herself upon the bed Pollie was asleep.

It was with quite a sense of shock I realised that this was the case. It seemed so selfish. The feeling of solitude it conveyed was frightful. I could hear her gentle breathing coming from the bed; I myself hardly dared to breathe at all. Half an inch of candle was guttering on the mantelpiece. By its light I could see that she lay on her left side, looking towards the wall, and that she did not appear to have moved since she had first lain down. I called to her:

“Pollie! Pollie! Pollie!” uttering each repetition of her name a little louder.

My voice seemed to ring out with such uncanny clearness I did not venture to really raise it. In consequence my modest tones did not serve to rouse her from her childlike slumber. So sound was her sleep that, all at once, the noise of her breathing ceased. It faded away. She was still, strangely still. So still that in the overwrought condition of my nerves I began to wonder if she was dead. I wished that she would move, do anything, to show she was alive. I tried, once more, to call upon her name. But, this time, my throat was parched; it came as an inarticulate murmur from between my tremulous lips.

I would have given much to have got up and shaken her back to life, and me. But it was as though I was glued to the seat, and that although I was continually slipping off. My body was stiff, my limbs cramped; it was only with an effort I could move them; of that effort I was not capable. I was conscious that I was passing into a waking nightmare. I closed my eyes because I was afraid to keep them open; then opened them again because I was still more afraid to keep them shut.

The house was full of noises. Pollie had not shut the door. It was ajar perhaps an inch or two. I wanted to put a chair in front, to shut it close. Apart, however, from my incapacity to move, I was oppressed by an uncomfortable fancy that someone, something, was peering through the interstice. This fancy became, by rapid degrees, a certainty. That I was overlooked I was sure. By whom, by what, I did not dare to think. How I knew I could not have told. I did know.

My eyes were fixed upon the door. For a moment, now and then, I moved them, with a flicker, to the right or to the left. Only for a moment. Back they went to the door. Once I saw it tremble. I started. It was motionless again. Then I heard a pattering. The rats were audible everywhere—under the floor at my feet, in the walls about me, above the ceiling over my head. The house was full of their clamour. But the pattering I heard was distinct from all the other sounds. It approached the room from without, pausing over the threshold as if in doubt. The door gave a little jerk, ever such a little one, but I saw it. A rat came in.

So it was a rat after all.

It stopped, just inside the door, peering round, as if surprised at the illumination which the candle gave. As if satisfied by what it saw it came in a little further. Close behind it was a second. This was of a more impatient breed; as soon as it appeared, with a little spring it ranged itself beside the other. Immediately there came two more. The four indulged themselves with a feast of observation, as though they were smelling out the land. After a while their eyes seemed to concentrate themselves on me, as if they could not make me out. Perhaps they thought that I was dead, or sleeping. I did not move, because I could not.

On a sudden the four gave a little forward scamper, as if they had been hustled from behind. The door was opened another half-dozen inches. More than a score came in. All at once I became conscious that rats were peeping at me from all about the room; out of holes and crannies of whose existence I had not been aware; above, below, on every side. And I knew that an army waited on the landing, as if waiting for a signal to make a rush. On whom? On me? Or on Pollie, asleep upon the bed? I was paralysed. I wanted to shriek and warn Pollie of what was coming; to let her know that in a second’s time the room would be a pandemonium of rats, all of them in search of food. My tongue was tied. I could not speak. I could only wait and watch.

The house was not yet still. Not all had gathered without the door, many were observing me, with teeth sharp set, from hidden cavities. There was continually the clamour of their scurrying to and fro. But some instinct told me that their numbers increased upon the landing. I could hear their squeals, as if they snapped at each other in the press. Another score had harried the first score farther forward. They were so close that where they stood they hid the floor. It seemed so strange to see so many, all with their eyes on me. Yet what were they to those who were without? Something told me that those who watched me in the room had come further out of their holes! that in another instant they would spring down; and that then the rush would come. I think that my heart had nearly ceased to beat; that the blood had turned to water in my veins. I was cold; a chill sweat was on my face. The hand of death had come quite close.

I but waited for its actual touch; for whose approach the rushing of the rats should be the signal; when—what was it fell upon my ear? What sound, coming from below? Not rats? No, not rats. Mechanically I drew breath; I verily believe it was the first time I had breathed for I know not how long. The inflation of my lungs roused me. I listened with keener ears. I knew that what I had heard the rats had also heard; that it was because of it that the rush had not begun; that they attended what was next to come with a sense of expectancy; of doubt; of hesitation.

Moments passed; the sound was not repeated. Had it been a trick of our imagination; mine and the rats’? All was still, even the scurrying of their friends below. If I heard nothing, they did; they retreated. There were fewer within the room; I had not noticed their going, but they had gone. I felt that their unseen comrades, who were about me, had drawn back again into their holes. What was it caused that noise? There was a board that creaked. No rat’s foot had caused that. Again. Was that a step upon the stairs?

Someone, something, was ascending from below? Who—what—could it be? An inmate of the Bluebeard’s Chamber? What shape of horror would it take? Why did Pollie sleep so soundly? In my awful helplessness inwardly I raged. The rats heard; already they were flying for their lives. Why did she not hear? Would nothing rouse her from her slumbers? Danger, the danger she had herself foretold, was stealing on us. She had boasted of her courage. Why did she not come out of sleep to prove she was no braggart? What was it bound my limbs with chains, and kept me from stretching out my arm to touch her where she lay? What was the choking in my throat, so that when I tried to speak I seemed to strangle?

Silence again. This seemed to be a jest that someone played: the sound, then silence; still silence, long drawn out, then again the sound. If something came, why did it not come quickly? I should not be so fearful of a thing I saw as of a thing that I did not; I could not be.

The steps had reached the staircase which led directly to our room. There were fewer intervals of silence; though, yet, between each, there was a pause, as if to listen. They were very soft; as if someone walked velvet footed, being most unwilling to be heard. If I had sprung to my feet, roused Pollie, rushed to the door, defying all comers to come on, I wondered what would happen; and should have dearly liked to see.

But I was a craven through and through.

The footsteps gained the landing: moved towards the door; stayed without, while their owner listened. It might have been my fancy, but, so acutely was I listening, that I could have declared that I heard a hand placed gently against the panel. An interval. Pollie remained quiet on the bed. She had not moved since first she had lain down. What kind of sleep was this of hers? Did no warning come to her in dreams to tell her that there was something strange without? It was not fair that she should be so utterly at peace, while I had to bear the burden all alone. She was stronger than I. Why did she not wake up?

The door came a little forward; perhaps another half-dozen inches. Again a pause; as if to ascertain if the movement had been observed. Whoever was without was cautious. Then——

Then something appeared at the opening.

What I had expected to see I could not for the life of me have told. Some shape of horror, some monster born of the terror I was in; a diseased imagining of my mental, moral, physical paralysis; a creature, neither human nor inhuman, but wholly horrible, which should come stealing, resistless, in, to force me, in my agony, to welcome death.

What it was I actually saw, at first, I could not tell. It was not what I expected; that I knew. Something more commonplace; yet, considering the hour and the place, almost as strange.

When the mist had cleared from before my vision, I perceived it was a face. What kind of face even yet I could not see; the shock of the unexpected added to my confusion. It was only after it had remained quiescent for perhaps the better part of a minute that I realised it was a woman’s.

A woman’s face!

But not like any woman’s face that I had seen before. As I gazed my fear began to fade; a sense of wonder came instead. Was I asleep or waking? I asked myself the question. Were these things happening to me in a dream? Glancing at me through the partly open door was the kind of face one reads and dreams about; not the kind one meets in daily life. At least, in the daily life which I have led. I was vaguely conscious that it was beautiful; beautiful in so strange a sort; but most clearly present to my mind was the bewildering fact that it had a more wonderful pair of eyes than any I had supposed a woman could have had. It was not only that they were large, nor that they were lovely. They had in them so odd a lustre. It was as though some living thing were in them, which kept coming and going, breaking into light, fading into darkness. They were wild eyes; such as no Englishwoman ever could have had. This face was brown.

For at any rate some minutes it stayed motionless, watching me. Only by degrees did it dawn upon me that possibly its owner was nearly as much startled as I was; that whatever she had anticipated seeing she had not expected to find me sitting on that chair. She kept her glance fixed upon my features; only for a second did it wander towards Pollie sleeping on the bed. I fancy she was endeavouring to determine what it was that I was doing there; why I was on the chair instead of on the bed; whether I was asleep or waking, or even dead. I was so huddled up upon the chair, and remained so very still, that it was quite possible for her, taken unawares, to suppose that I was dead.

“You sleep?”

She spoke to me; in English, which had a quaintly foreign sound; in a bell-like whisper, it was so soft and yet so clear.

I did not answer; the knot in my tongue had not yet come untied. I felt that she did not understand my silence, or the cause of it; and wondered, hesitated too. Presently she ventured on an assertion, uttered with a little cadence of doubt, as if it were a question.

“You do not sleep.” Apparently as if still in doubt as to the correctness of the statement, she endeavoured to fortify herself with reasons. “Your eyes are open; you do not sleep. We do not sleep when our eyes are open. Speak to me. Are you afraid?”

Perhaps the suspicion increased in strength that, if I was not stupefied with fear, there was at least something curious in my condition. She opened the door nearly to the full, and she came into the room. I saw that she seemed but a girl, tall above the common, clad in a gown which, while it was loose and seemingly shapeless, and made in a fashion which was altogether strange to me, yet draped itself in graceful folds about her figure. It was made of some stuff which looked to me like silk alpaca; in colour a most assertive, and indeed trying, shade of electric blue. It positively warmed one’s eyes to look at it. And it was covered with what looked more like sequins than anything else I could think of; though, with every movement of her body, they gleamed and glittered like no sequins I had ever seen before. Her hair, of which there was an extraordinary quantity, as black as jet, was most beautifully done. Even in my condition of semi-stupor I wondered how she did it. It formed a perfect halo about her face. And on the top was stuck what seemed to be the very double of that queer little thing which Pollie said she found in the scrap of paper which the man had given her. Only, to me, the creature in her hair seemed alive. Its eyes gleamed its body inclined this way then that, as she stood in the open doorway.

She was covered with jewels; at least, I suppose they were jewels. Though, regarded as ornaments, they were as queer as everything else about her. Her fingers were loaded with rings; funny looking ones they seemed. She stood, bending slightly forward, with her hands in front, so that I could not help but notice them. Bracelets were twined about her arms; of the oddest design. A jewelled snake was about her throat. Another, not only a monster, but a monstrosity, was twisted, girdle fashion, three or four times around her waist. It looked as if it were alive.

When, having, apparently, sufficiently considered the situation, she began to advance towards me, to my amazement and abject horror this creature was set in motion too. It stretched out its evil-looking head in my direction, with an ugly glitter in its eyes; it opened its jaws; its fangs shot out. As they seemed to be extending themselves as far as possible, in order to reach my face, thank God, the guttering half-inch of candle went out upon the mantelpiece. With it my senses seemed to go out too. As they were leaving me I was conscious of the unpleasant odour of a smouldering wick.