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Algernon Blackwood.

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THE EMPTY HOUSE

AND OTHER GHOST STORIES


BY

ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

AUTHOR OF

"JOHN SILENCE" "THE LOST VALLEY" ETC.


LONDON
EVELEIGH NASH COMPANY
LIMITED

1916


First Printed 1906
Uniform Edition 1915
Reprinted 1916





CONTENTS


THE EMPTY HOUSE

A HAUNTED ISLAND

A CASE OF EAVESDROPPING

KEEPING HIS PROMISE

WITH INTENT TO STEAL

THE WOOD OF THE DEAD

SMITH: AN EPISODE IN A LODGING-HOUSE

A SUSPICIOUS GIFT

THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY IN NEW YORK

SKELETON LAKE: AN EPISODE IN CAMP




THE EMPTY HOUSE


Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once
their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular
feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an
ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the
unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with
their being: that they are evil. Willy nilly, they seem to communicate
an atmosphere of secret and wicked thoughts which makes those in their
immediate neighbourhood shrink from them as from a thing diseased.

And, perhaps, with houses the same principle is operative, and it is the
aroma of evil deeds committed under a particular roof, long after the
actual doers have passed away, that makes the gooseflesh come and the
hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of
the horror felt by his victim, enters the heart of the innocent watcher,
and he becomes suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin,
and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent
cause.

There was manifestly nothing in the external appearance of this
particular house to bear out the tales of the horror that was said to
reign within. It was neither lonely nor unkempt. It stood, crowded into
a corner of the square, and looked exactly like the houses on either
side of it. It had the same number of windows as its neighbours; the
same balcony overlooking the gardens; the same white steps leading up to
the heavy black front door; and, in the rear, there was the same narrow
strip of green, with neat box borders, running up to the wall that
divided it from the backs of the adjoining houses. Apparently, too, the
number of chimney pots on the roof was the same; the breadth and angle
of the eaves; and even the height of the dirty area railings.

And yet this house in the square, that seemed precisely similar to its
fifty ugly neighbours, was as a matter of fact entirely
different - horribly different.

Wherein lay this marked, invisible difference is impossible to say. It
cannot be ascribed wholly to the imagination, because persons who had
spent some time in the house, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared
positively that certain rooms were so disagreeable they would rather die
than enter them again, and that the atmosphere of the whole house
produced in them symptoms of a genuine terror; while the series of
innocent tenants who had tried to live in it and been forced to decamp
at the shortest possible notice, was indeed little less than a scandal
in the town.

When Shorthouse arrived to pay a "week-end" visit to his Aunt Julia in
her little house on the sea-front at the other end of the town, he found
her charged to the brim with mystery and excitement. He had only
received her telegram that morning, and he had come anticipating
boredom; but the moment he touched her hand and kissed her apple-skin
wrinkled cheek, he caught the first wave of her electrical condition.
The impression deepened when he learned that there were to be no other
visitors, and that he had been telegraphed for with a very special
object.

Something was in the wind, and the "something" would doubtless bear
fruit; for this elderly spinster aunt, with a mania for psychical
research, had brains as well as will power, and by hook or by crook she
usually managed to accomplish her ends. The revelation was made soon
after tea, when she sidled close up to him as they paced slowly along
the sea-front in the dusk.

"I've got the keys," she announced in a delighted, yet half awesome
voice. "Got them till Monday!"

"The keys of the bathing-machine, or - ?" he asked innocently, looking
from the sea to the town. Nothing brought her so quickly to the point as
feigning stupidity.

"Neither," she whispered. "I've got the keys of the haunted house in the
square - and I'm going there to-night."

Shorthouse was conscious of the slightest possible tremor down his back.
He dropped his teasing tone. Something in her voice and manner thrilled
him. She was in earnest.

"But you can't go alone - " he began.

"That's why I wired for you," she said with decision.

He turned to look at her. The ugly, lined, enigmatical face was alive
with excitement. There was the glow of genuine enthusiasm round it like
a halo. The eyes shone. He caught another wave of her excitement, and a
second tremor, more marked than the first, accompanied it.

"Thanks, Aunt Julia," he said politely; "thanks awfully."

"I should not dare to go quite alone," she went on, raising her voice;
"but with you I should enjoy it immensely. You're afraid of nothing, I
know."

"Thanks _so_ much," he said again. "Er - is anything likely to happen?"

"A great deal _has_ happened," she whispered, "though it's been most
cleverly hushed up. Three tenants have come and gone in the last few
months, and the house is said to be empty for good now."

In spite of himself Shorthouse became interested. His aunt was so very
much in earnest.

"The house is very old indeed," she went on, "and the story - an
unpleasant one - dates a long way back. It has to do with a murder
committed by a jealous stableman who had some affair with a servant in
the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and
when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants' quarters,
chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come
to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below."

"And the stableman - ?"

"Was caught, I believe, and hanged for murder; but it all happened a
century ago, and I've not been able to get more details of the story."

Shorthouse now felt his interest thoroughly aroused; but, though he was
not particularly nervous for himself, he hesitated a little on his
aunt's account.

"On one condition," he said at length.

"Nothing will prevent my going," she said firmly; "but I may as well
hear your condition."

"That you guarantee your power of self-control if anything really
horrible happens. I mean - that you are sure you won't get too
frightened."

"Jim," she said scornfully, "I'm not young, I know, nor are my nerves;
but _with you_ I should be afraid of nothing in the world!"

This, of course, settled it, for Shorthouse had no pretensions to being
other than a very ordinary young man, and an appeal to his vanity was
irresistible. He agreed to go.

Instinctively, by a sort of sub-conscious preparation, he kept himself
and his forces well in hand the whole evening, compelling an
accumulative reserve of control by that nameless inward process of
gradually putting all the emotions away and turning the key upon them - a
process difficult to describe, but wonderfully effective, as all men who
have lived through severe trials of the inner man well understand.
Later, it stood him in good stead.

But it was not until half-past ten, when they stood in the hall, well in
the glare of friendly lamps and still surrounded by comforting human
influences, that he had to make the first call upon this store of
collected strength. For, once the door was closed, and he saw the
deserted silent street stretching away white in the moonlight before
them, it came to him clearly that the real test that night would be in
dealing with _two fears_ instead of one. He would have to carry his
aunt's fear as well as his own. And, as he glanced down at her
sphinx-like countenance and realised that it might assume no pleasant
aspect in a rush of real terror, he felt satisfied with only one thing
in the whole adventure - that he had confidence in his own will and power
to stand against any shock that might come.

Slowly they walked along the empty streets of the town; a bright autumn
moon silvered the roofs, casting deep shadows; there was no breath of
wind; and the trees in the formal gardens by the sea-front watched them
silently as they passed along. To his aunt's occasional remarks
Shorthouse made no reply, realising that she was simply surrounding
herself with mental buffers - saying ordinary things to prevent herself
thinking of extra-ordinary things. Few windows showed lights, and from
scarcely a single chimney came smoke or sparks. Shorthouse had already
begun to notice everything, even the smallest details. Presently they
stopped at the street corner and looked up at the name on the side of
the house full in the moonlight, and with one accord, but without
remark, turned into the square and crossed over to the side of it that
lay in shadow.

"The number of the house is thirteen," whispered a voice at his side;
and neither of them made the obvious reference, but passed across the
broad sheet of moonlight and began to march up the pavement in silence.

It was about half-way up the square that Shorthouse felt an arm slipped
quietly but significantly into his own, and knew then that their
adventure had begun in earnest, and that his companion was already
yielding imperceptibly to the influences against them. She needed
support.

A few minutes later they stopped before a tall, narrow house that rose
before them into the night, ugly in shape and painted a dingy white.
Shutterless windows, without blinds, stared down upon them, shining here
and there in the moonlight. There were weather streaks in the wall and
cracks in the paint, and the balcony bulged out from the first floor a
little unnaturally. But, beyond this generally forlorn appearance of an
unoccupied house, there was nothing at first sight to single out this
particular mansion for the evil character it had most certainly
acquired.

Taking a look over their shoulders to make sure they had not been
followed, they went boldly up the steps and stood against the huge black
door that fronted them forbiddingly. But the first wave of nervousness
was now upon them, and Shorthouse fumbled a long time with the key
before he could fit it into the lock at all. For a moment, if truth were
told, they both hoped it would not open, for they were a prey to various
unpleasant emotions as they stood there on the threshold of their
ghostly adventure. Shorthouse, shuffling with the key and hampered by
the steady weight on his arm, certainly felt the solemnity of the
moment. It was as if the whole world - for all experience seemed at that
instant concentrated in his own consciousness - were listening to the
grating noise of that key. A stray puff of wind wandering down the empty
street woke a momentary rustling in the trees behind them, but otherwise
this rattling of the key was the only sound audible; and at last it
turned in the lock and the heavy door swung open and revealed a yawning
gulf of darkness beyond.

With a last glance at the moonlit square, they passed quickly in, and
the door slammed behind them with a roar that echoed prodigiously
through empty halls and passages. But, instantly, with the echoes,
another sound made itself heard, and Aunt Julia leaned suddenly so
heavily upon him that he had to take a step backwards to save himself
from falling.

A man had coughed close beside them - so close that it seemed they must
have been actually by his side in the darkness.

With the possibility of practical jokes in his mind, Shorthouse at once
swung his heavy stick in the direction of the sound; but it met nothing
more solid than air. He heard his aunt give a little gasp beside him.

"There's someone here," she whispered; "I heard him."

"Be quiet!" he said sternly. "It was nothing but the noise of the front
door."

"Oh! get a light - quick!" she added, as her nephew, fumbling with a box
of matches, opened it upside down and let them all fall with a rattle on
to the stone floor.

The sound, however, was not repeated; and there was no evidence of
retreating footsteps. In another minute they had a candle burning, using
an empty end of a cigar case as a holder; and when the first flare had
died down he held the impromptu lamp aloft and surveyed the scene. And
it was dreary enough in all conscience, for there is nothing more
desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit,
silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by rumour with the memories of
evil and violent histories.

They were standing in a wide hall-way; on their left was the open door
of a spacious dining-room, and in front the hall ran, ever narrowing,
into a long, dark passage that led apparently to the top of the kitchen
stairs. The broad uncarpeted staircase rose in a sweep before them,
everywhere draped in shadows, except for a single spot about half-way up
where the moonlight came in through the window and fell on a bright
patch on the boards. This shaft of light shed a faint radiance above and
below it, lending to the objects within its reach a misty outline that
was infinitely more suggestive and ghostly than complete darkness.
Filtered moonlight always seems to paint faces on the surrounding gloom,
and as Shorthouse peered up into the well of darkness and thought of the
countless empty rooms and passages in the upper part of the old house,
he caught himself longing again for the safety of the moonlit square, or
the cosy, bright drawing-room they had left an hour before. Then
realising that these thoughts were dangerous, he thrust them away again
and summoned all his energy for concentration on the present.

"Aunt Julia," he said aloud, severely, "we must now go through the house
from top to bottom and make a thorough search."

The echoes of his voice died away slowly all over the building, and in
the intense silence that followed he turned to look at her. In the
candle-light he saw that her face was already ghastly pale; but she
dropped his arm for a moment and said in a whisper, stepping close in
front of him -

"I agree. We must be sure there's no one hiding. That's the first
thing."

She spoke with evident effort, and he looked at her with admiration.

"You feel quite sure of yourself? It's not too late - "

"I think so," she whispered, her eyes shifting nervously toward the
shadows behind. "Quite sure, only one thing - "

"What's that?"

"You must never leave me alone for an instant."

"As long as you understand that any sound or appearance must be
investigated at once, for to hesitate means to admit fear. That is
fatal."

"Agreed," she said, a little shakily, after a moment's hesitation. "I'll
try - "

Arm in arm, Shorthouse holding the dripping candle and the stick, while
his aunt carried the cloak over her shoulders, figures of utter comedy
to all but themselves, they began a systematic search.

Stealthily, walking on tip-toe and shading the candle lest it should
betray their presence through the shutterless windows, they went first
into the big dining-room. There was not a stick of furniture to be
seen. Bare walls, ugly mantel-pieces and empty grates stared at them.
Everything, they felt, resented their intrusion, watching them, as it
were, with veiled eyes; whispers followed them; shadows flitted
noiselessly to right and left; something seemed ever at their back,
watching, waiting an opportunity to do them injury. There was the
inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty
had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again.
The whole dark interior of the old building seemed to become a malignant
Presence that rose up, warning them to desist and mind their own
business; every moment the strain on the nerves increased.

Out of the gloomy dining-room they passed through large folding doors
into a sort of library or smoking-room, wrapt equally in silence,
darkness, and dust; and from this they regained the hall near the top of
the back stairs.

Here a pitch black tunnel opened before them into the lower regions,
and - it must be confessed - they hesitated. But only for a minute. With
the worst of the night still to come it was essential to turn from
nothing. Aunt Julia stumbled at the top step of the dark descent, ill
lit by the flickering candle, and even Shorthouse felt at least half
the decision go out of his legs.

"Come on!" he said peremptorily, and his voice ran on and lost itself in
the dark, empty spaces below.

"I'm coming," she faltered, catching his arm with unnecessary violence.

They went a little unsteadily down the stone steps, a cold, damp air
meeting them in the face, close and mal-odorous. The kitchen, into which
the stairs led along a narrow passage, was large, with a lofty ceiling.
Several doors opened out of it - some into cupboards with empty jars
still standing on the shelves, and others into horrible little ghostly
back offices, each colder and less inviting than the last. Black beetles
scurried over the floor, and once, when they knocked against a deal
table standing in a corner, something about the size of a cat jumped
down with a rush and fled, scampering across the stone floor into the
darkness. Everywhere there was a sense of recent occupation, an
impression of sadness and gloom.

Leaving the main kitchen, they next went towards the scullery. The door
was standing ajar, and as they pushed it open to its full extent Aunt
Julia uttered a piercing scream, which she instantly tried to stifle by
placing her hand over her mouth. For a second Shorthouse stood
stock-still, catching his breath. He felt as if his spine had suddenly
become hollow and someone had filled it with particles of ice.

Facing them, directly in their way between the doorposts, stood the
figure of a woman. She had dishevelled hair and wildly staring eyes, and
her face was terrified and white as death.

She stood there motionless for the space of a single second. Then the
candle flickered and she was gone - gone utterly - and the door framed
nothing but empty darkness.

"Only the beastly jumping candle-light," he said quickly, in a voice
that sounded like someone else's and was only half under control. "Come
on, aunt. There's nothing there."

He dragged her forward. With a clattering of feet and a great appearance
of boldness they went on, but over his body the skin moved as if
crawling ants covered it, and he knew by the weight on his arm that he
was supplying the force of locomotion for two. The scullery was cold,
bare, and empty; more like a large prison cell than anything else. They
went round it, tried the door into the yard, and the windows, but found
them all fastened securely. His aunt moved beside him like a person in
a dream. Her eyes were tightly shut, and she seemed merely to follow the
pressure of his arm. Her courage filled him with amazement. At the same
time he noticed that a certain odd change had come over her face, a
change which somehow evaded his power of analysis.

"There's nothing here, aunty," he repeated aloud quickly. "Let's go
upstairs and see the rest of the house. Then we'll choose a room to wait
up in."

She followed him obediently, keeping close to his side, and they locked
the kitchen door behind them. It was a relief to get up again. In the
hall there was more light than before, for the moon had travelled a
little further down the stairs. Cautiously they began to go up into the
dark vault of the upper house, the boards creaking under their weight.

On the first floor they found the large double drawing-rooms, a search
of which revealed nothing. Here also was no sign of furniture or recent
occupancy; nothing but dust and neglect and shadows. They opened the big
folding doors between front and back drawing-rooms and then came out
again to the landing and went on upstairs.

They had not gone up more than a dozen steps when they both
simultaneously stopped to listen, looking into each other's eyes with a
new apprehension across the flickering candle flame. From the room they
had left hardly ten seconds before came the sound of doors quietly
closing. It was beyond all question; they heard the booming noise that
accompanies the shutting of heavy doors, followed by the sharp catching
of the latch.

"We must go back and see," said Shorthouse briefly, in a low tone, and
turning to go downstairs again.

Somehow she managed to drag after him, her feet catching in her dress,
her face livid.

When they entered the front drawing-room it was plain that the folding
doors had been closed - half a minute before. Without hesitation
Shorthouse opened them. He almost expected to see someone facing him in
the back room; but only darkness and cold air met him. They went through
both rooms, finding nothing unusual. They tried in every way to make the
doors close of themselves, but there was not wind enough even to set the
candle flame flickering. The doors would not move without strong
pressure. All was silent as the grave. Undeniably the rooms were utterly
empty, and the house utterly still.

"It's beginning," whispered a voice at his elbow which he hardly
recognised as his aunt's.

He nodded acquiescence, taking out his watch to note the time. It was
fifteen minutes before midnight; he made the entry of exactly what had
occurred in his notebook, setting the candle in its case upon the floor
in order to do so. It took a moment or two to balance it safely against
the wall.

Aunt Julia always declared that at this moment she was not actually
watching him, but had turned her head towards the inner room, where she
fancied she heard something moving; but, at any rate, both positively
agreed that there came a sound of rushing feet, heavy and very
swift - and the next instant the candle was out!

But to Shorthouse himself had come more than this, and he has always
thanked his fortunate stars that it came to him alone and not to his
aunt too. For, as he rose from the stooping position of balancing the
candle, and before it was actually extinguished, a face thrust itself
forward so close to his own that he could almost have touched it with
his lips. It was a face working with passion; a man's face, dark, with
thick features, and angry, savage eyes. It belonged to a common man, and
it was evil in its ordinary normal expression, no doubt, but as he saw
it, alive with intense, aggressive emotion, it was a malignant and
terrible human countenance.

There was no movement of the air; nothing but the sound of rushing
feet - stockinged or muffled feet; the apparition of the face; and the
almost simultaneous extinguishing of the candle.

In spite of himself, Shorthouse uttered a little cry, nearly losing his
balance as his aunt clung to him with her whole weight in one moment of
real, uncontrollable terror. She made no sound, but simply seized him
bodily. Fortunately, however, she had seen nothing, but had only heard
the rushing feet, for her control returned almost at once, and he was
able to disentangle himself and strike a match.

The shadows ran away on all sides before the glare, and his aunt stooped
down and groped for the cigar case with the precious candle. Then they
discovered that the candle had not been _blown_ out at all; it had been
_crushed_ out. The wick was pressed down into the wax, which was
flattened as if by some smooth, heavy instrument.

How his companion so quickly overcame her terror, Shorthouse never
properly understood; but his admiration for her self-control increased
tenfold, and at the same time served to feed his own dying flame - for
which he was undeniably grateful. Equally inexplicable to him was the
evidence of physical force they had just witnessed. He at once
suppressed the memory of stories he had heard of "physical mediums" and
their dangerous phenomena; for if these were true, and either his aunt
or himself was unwittingly a physical medium, it meant that they were
simply aiding to focus the forces of a haunted house already charged to
the brim. It was like walking with unprotected lamps among uncovered
stores of gun-powder.

So, with as little reflection as possible, he simply relit the candle
and went up to the next floor. The arm in his trembled, it is true, and
his own tread was often uncertain, but they went on with thoroughness,
and after a search revealing nothing they climbed the last flight of


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