Ghost Hunters And Psychic Detectives / Ghost Hunters and Psychic Detectives Part 9
“He is very far from well, I am certain,” I answered.
We stayed out for about half an hour and returned home by a path which led into the house through a side entrance. Phyllis was waiting for us in the hall.
“Where is my father?’ asked Allen, going up to her.
“He is tired and has gone to bed,” she answered. “Good night, Allen.”
“Won’t you come into the drawing-room?” he asked in some astonishment.
“No, I am tired!”
She nodded to him without touching his hand; her eyes, I could not help noticing, had a queer expression. She ran upstairs.
I saw that Allen was startled by her manner; but as he did not say anything, neither did I.
The next day at breakfast I was told that the Curzons had already left the Abbey. Allen was full of astonishment and, I could see, a good deal annoyed. He and I breakfasted alone in the old library. His father was too ill to come downstairs.
An hour later I was on my way back to London. Many things there engaged my immediate attention, and Allen, his engagement, Sir Henry and the old family curse, sank more or less into the background of my mind.
Three months afterwards, on the 7th of January, I saw to my sorrow in The Times the announcement of Sir Henry Clinton’s death.
From time to time in the interim I had heard from the son, saying that his father was failing fast. He further mentioned that his own wedding was fixed for the twenty-first of the present month. Now, of course, it must be postponed. I felt truly sorry for Allen, and wrote immediately a long letter of condolence.
On the following day I received a wire from him, imploring me to go down to the Abbey as soon as possible, saying that he was in great difficulty.
I packed a few things hastily, and arrived at Clinton Abbey at six in the evening. The house was silent and subdued a” the funeral was to take place the next day. Clinton came into the hall and gripped me warmly by the hand. I noticed at once how worn and worried he looked.
“This is good of you, Bell,” he said. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for coming. You are the one man who can help me, for I know you have had much experience in matters of this sort. Come into the library and I will tell you everything. We shall dine alone this evening, as my mother and the girls are keeping to their own apartments for tonight.”
As soon as we were seated, he plunged at once into his story.
“I must give you a sort of prelude to what has just occurred,” he began. “You remember, when you were last here, how abruptly Phyllis and her mother left the Abbey?”
I nodded. I remembered well.
“On the morning after you had left us I had a long letter from Phyllis,” continued Allen. “In it she told me of an extraordinary request my father had made to her during that moonlight walk a” nothing more nor less than an earnest wish that she would herself terminate our engagement. She spoke quite frankly, as she always does, assuring me of her unalterable love and devotion, but saying that under the circumstances it was absolutely necessary to have an explanation. Frantic with almost ungovernable rage, I sought my father in his study. I laid Phyllis’ letter before him and asked him what it meant. He looked at me with the most unutterable expression of weariness and pathos.
“‘Yes, my boy, I did it,” he said. “Phyllis is quite right. I did ask of her, as earnestly as a very old man could plead, that she would bring the engagement to an end.”
“But why?” I asked. “Why?”
“‘That I am unable to tell you,” he replied.
“I lost my temper and said some words to him which I now regret. He made no sort of reply, When I had done speaking he said slowly, “I make all allowance for your emotion, Allen; your feelings are no more than natural.”
“‘You have done me a very sore injury,” I retorted. “What can Phyllis think of this? She will never be the same again. I am going to see her today.”
“He did not utter another word, and I left him. I was absent from home for about a week. It took me nearly that time to induce Phyllis to overlook my father’s extraordinary request, and to let matters go on exactly as they had done before.
“After fixing our engagement, if possible, more firmly than ever, and also arranging the date of our wedding, I returned home. When I did so I told my father what I had done.
“As you will,” he replied, and then he sank into great gloom. From that moment, although I watched him day and night, and did everything that love and tenderness could suggest, he never seemed to rally. He scarcely spoke, and remained, whenever we were together, bowed in deep and painful reverie. A week ago he took to his bed!”
Here Allen paused.
“I now come to events up to date,” he said. “Of course, as you may suppose, I was with my father to the last. A few hours before he passed away he called me to his bedside, and to my astonishment began once more talking about my engagement. He implored me with the utmost earnestness even now at the eleventh hour to break it off. It was not too late, he said, and added further that nothing would give him ease in dying but the knowledge that I would promise him to remain single. Of course I tried to humor him. He took my hand, looked me in the eyes with an expression which I shall never forget and said, “Allen, make me a solemn promise that you will never marry.”
“This I naturally had to refuse, and then he told me that, expecting my obstinacy, he had written me a letter which I should find in his safe, but I was not to open it till after his death. I found it this morning. Bell, it is the most extraordinary communication, and either it is entirely a figment of his imagination, for his brain powers were failing very much at the last, or else it is the most awful thing I ever heard of. Here is the letter; read it for yourself.”
I took the paper from his hand and read the following matter in shaky, almost illegible writing: “My Dear Boy: When you read this I shall have passed away. For the last six months my life has been a living death. The horror began in the following way. You know what a deep interest I have always taken in the family history of our house, I have spent the latter years of my life in verifying each detail, and my intention was, had health been given me, to publish a great deal of it in a suitable volume.
“On the special night to which I am about to allude, I sat up late in my study reading the book which I saw you show to Bell a short time ago. In particular, I was much attracted by the terrible curse which the old abbot in the fourteenth century had bestowed upon the family. I read the awful words again and again. I knew that all the other details in the volume had been verified, but that the vault with the coffin had never yet been found. Presently I grew drowsy, and I suppose I must have fallen asleep. In my sleep I had a dream; I thought that someone came into the room, touched me on the shoulder and said, “Come.” I looked up; a tall figure beckoned to me. The voice and the figure belonged to my late father. In my dream I rose immediately, although I did not know why I went nor where I was going. The figure went on in front, it entered the hall. I took one of the candles from the table and the key of the chapel, unbolted the door and went out. Still the voice kept saying “Come, come,” and the figure of my father walked in front of me. I went across the quadrangle, unlocked the chapel door and entered.
“A death-like silence was around me. I crossed the nave to the north aisle; the figure still went in front of me; it entered the great pew which is said to be haunted, and walked straight up to the effigy of the old abbot who had pronounced the curse. This, as you know, is built into the opposite wall. Bending forward, the figure pressed the eyes of the old monk, and immediately a stone started out of its place, revealing a staircase behind. I was about to hurry forward, when I must have knocked against something. I felt a sensation of pain, and suddenly awoke. What was my amazement to find that I had acted on my dream, had crossed the quadrangle and was in the chapel; in fact, was standing in the old pew! Of course there was no figure of any sort visible, but the moonlight shed a cold radiance over all the place. I felt very much startled and impressed, but was just about to return to the house in some wonder at the curious vision which I had experienced, when, raising my startled eyes, I saw that part of it at least was real. The old monk seemed to grin at me from his marble effigy, and beside him was a blank open space. I hurried to it and saw a narrow flight of stairs. I cannot explain what my emotions were, but my keenest feeling at that moment was a strong and horrible curiosity. Holding the candle in my hand, I went down the steps. They terminated at the beginning of a long passage. This I quickly traversed, and at last found myself beside an iron door. It was not locked, but hasped, and was very hard to open; in fact, it required nearly all my strength; at last I pulled it open towards me, and there in a small cell lay the coffin, as the words of the curse said. I gazed at it in horror. I did not dare to enter. It was a wedged-shaped coffin studded with great nails. But as I looked my blood froze within me, for slowly, very slowly, as if pushed by some unseen hand, the great heavy door began to close, quicker and quicker, until with a crash that echoed and reechoed through the empty vault, it shut.
“Terror-stricken, I rushed from the vault and reached my room once more.
“Now I know that this great curse is true; that my father’s spirit is there to guard the door and close it, for I saw it with my own eyes, and while you read this know that I am there. I charge you, therefore, not to marry a” bring no child into the world to perpetuate this terrible curse. Let the family die out if you have the courage. It is much, I know, to ask; but whether you do or not, come to me there, and if by sign or word I can communicate with you I will do so, but hold the secret safe. Meet me there before my body is laid to rest, when body and soul are still not far from each other. Farewell. a”Your loving father, HENRY CLINTON.
I read this strange letter over carefully twice, and laid it down. For a moment I hardly knew what to say. It was certainly the most uncanny thing I had ever come across.
“What do you think of it?” asked Allen at last.
“Well, of course there are only two possible solutions,” I answered. “One is that your father not only dreamt the beginning of this story a” which, remember, he allows himself a” but the whole of it.”
“And the other?” asked Allen, seeing that I paused.
“The other,” I continued, “I hardly know what to say yet. Of course we will investigate the whole thing, that is our only chance of arriving at a solution. It is absurd to let matters rest as they are. We had better try tonight.” Clinton winced and hesitated.
“Something must be done, of course,” he answered; “but the worst of it is Phyllis and her mother are coming here early tomorrow in time for the funeral, and I cannot meet her a” no, I cannot, poor girl! a” while I feel as I do.”
“We will go to the vault tonight,” I said.
Clinton rose from his chair and looked at me.
“I don’t like this thing at all, Bell,” he continued. “I am not by nature in any sense of the word a superstitious man, but I tell you frankly nothing would induce me to go alone into that chapel tonight; if you come with me, that, of course, alters matters. I know the pew my father refers to well; it is beneath the window of St. Sebastian.”
Soon afterwards I went to my room and dressed; and Allen and I dined te-da-te in the great dining-room. The old butler waited on us with funereal solemnity, and I did all I could to lure Clinton’s thoughts into a more cheerful and healthier channel.
I cannot say that I was very successful. I further noticed that he scarcely ate anything, and seemed altogether to be in a state of nervous tension painful to witness.
After dinner we went into the smoking-room, and at eleven o’clock I proposed that we should make a start.
Clinton braced himself together and we went out. He got the chapel keys, and then going to the stables we borrowed a lantern, and a moment afterwards found ourselves in the sacred edifice. The moon was at her full, and by the pale light which was diffused through the south windows the architecture of the interior could be faintly seen. The Gothic arches that flanked the center aisle with their quaint pillars, each with a carved figure of one of the saints, were quite visible, and further in the darkness of the chancel the dim outlines of the choir and altar-table with its white marble reredos could be just discerned.
We closed the door softly and, Clinton leading the way with the lantern, we walked up the center aisle paved with the brasses of his dead ancestors. We trod gently on tiptoe as one instinctively does at night. Turning beneath the little pulpit we reached the north transept, and here Clinton stopped and turned round. He was very white, but his voice was quiet.
“This is the pew,” he whispered. “It has always been called the haunted pew of Sir Hugh Clinton.”
I took the lantern from him and we entered. I crossed the pew immediately and went up to the effigy of the old abbot.
“Let us examine him closely,” I said. I held up the lantern, getting it to shine on each part of the face, the vestments and the figure. The eyes, although vacant, as in all statuary, seemed to me at that moment to be uncanny and peculiar. Giving Allen the lantern to hold, I placed a finger firmly on each. The next moment I could not refrain from an exclamation; a stone at the side immediately rolled back, revealing the steps which were spoken of by the old man in his narrative.
“It is true! It is true!’ cried Clinton excitedly.
“It certainly looks like it,” I remarked: “but never mind, we have the chance now of investigating this matter thoroughly.”
“Are you going down?” asked Clinton.
“Certainly I am,” I replied. “Let us go together.” Immediately afterwards we crept through the opening and began to descend. There was only just room to do so in single file, and I went first with the lantern. In another moment we were in the long passage, and soon we were confronted by a door in an arched stone framework. Up till now Clinton had shown little sign of alarm, but here, at the trysting-place to which his father’s soul had summoned him, he seemed suddenly to lose his nerve. He leant against the wall and for a moment I thought he would have fallen. I held up the lantern and examined the door and walls carefully. Then, approaching, I lifted the iron latch of the heavy door. It was very hard to move, but at last by seizing the edge I dragged it open to its full width against the wall of the passage. Having done so I peered inside, holding the lantern above my head. As I did so I heard Clinton cry out, “Look, look,” he said, and turning I saw that the great door had swung back against me, almost shutting me within the cell.
Telling Clinton to hold it back by force, I stepped inside and saw at my feet the ghastly coffin. The legend then so far was true. I bent down and examined the queer, misshapen thing with great care. Its shape was that of an enormous wedge, and it was apparently made of some dark old wood, and was bound with iron at the corners. Having looked at it all round, I went out and, flinging back the door which Clinton had been holding open, stood aside to watch. Slowly, very slowly, as we both stood in the passage slowly, as if pushed by some invisible hand, the door commenced to swing round, and, increasing in velocity, shut with a noisy clang.
Seizing it once again, I dragged it open and, while Clinton held it in that Position, made a careful examination. Up to the present I saw nothing to be much alarmed about. There were fifty ways in which a door might shut of its own accord. There might be a hidden spring or tilted hinges; draught, of course, was out of the question. I looked at the hinges, they were of iron and set in the solid masonry. Nor could I discover any spring or hidden contrivance, as when the door was wide open there was an interval of several inches between it and the wall. We tried it again and again with the same result, and at last, as it was closing, I seized it to prevent it.
I now experienced a very odd sensation; I certainly felt as if I were resisting an unseen person who was pressing hard against the door at the other side. Directly it was released it continued its course. I allow I was quite unable to understand the mystery. Suddenly an idea struck me.
“What does the legend say?” I asked, turning to Clinton. “‘That the soul is to guard the door, to close it upon the coffin?”
“Those are the words,” answered Allen, speaking with some difficulty.
“Now if that is true,” I continued, ‘and we take the coffin out, the spirit won’t shut the door; if it does shut it, it disproves the whole thing at once, and shows it to be merely a clever mechanical contrivance. Come, Clinton, help me to get the coffin out.”
“I dare not, Bell,” he whispered hoarsely. ‘I daren’t go inside.”
“Nonsense, man,” I said, feeling now a little annoyed at the whole thing. “Here, put the lantern down and hold the door back.” I stepped in and, getting behind the coffin, put out all my strength and shoved it into the passage.
“Now, then,” I cried, “I’ll bet you fifty pounds to five the door will shut just the same.” I dragged the coffin clear of the door and told him to let go. Clinton had scarcely done so before, stepping back, he clutched my arm.
“Look,” he whispered; “do you see that it will not shut now? My father is waiting for the coffin to be put back.”
“This is awful!”
I gazed at the door in horror; it was perfectly true, it remained wide open, and quite still. I sprang forward, seized it and now endeavored to close it. It was as if someone was trying to hold it open; it required considerable force to stir it, and it was only with difficulty I could move it at all. At last I managed to shut it, but the moment I let it go it swung back open of its own accord and struck against the wall, where it remained just as before. In the dead silence that followed I could hear Clinton breathing, quickly behind me, and I knew he was holding himself for all he was worth.
At that moment there suddenly came over me a sensation which I had once experienced before, and which I was twice destined to experience again. It is impossible to describe it, but it seized me, laying siege to my brain till I felt like a child in its power. It was as if I were slowly drowning in the great ocean of silence that enveloped us. Time itself seemed to have disappeared. At my feet lay the misshapen thing, and the lantern behind it cast a fantastic shadow of its distorted outline on the cell wall before me.
“Speak; say something,” I cried to Clinton. The sharp sound of my voice broke the spell. I felt myself again, and smiled at the trick my nerves had played on me. I bent down and once more laid my hands on the coffin, but before I had time to push it back into its place Clinton had gone up the passage like a man who is flying to escape a hurled javelin.
Exerting all my force to prevent the door from swinging back by keeping my leg against it, I had just got the coffin into the cell and was going out, when I heard a shrill cry, and Clinton came tearing back down the passage.
“I can’t get out! The stone has sunk into its place! We are locked in!’ he screamed, and, wild with fear, he plunged headlong into the cell, upsetting me in his career before I could check him. I sprang back to the door as it was closing. I was too late. Before I could reach it, it had shut with a loud clang in obedience to the infernal witchcraft.
“You have done it now,” I cried angrily. ‘Do you see? Why, man, we are buried alive in this ghastly hole!”
The lantern I had placed just inside the door, and by its dim light, as I looked at him, I saw the terror of a madman creep into Clinton’s eyes.
“Buried alive!” he shouted, with a peal of hysterical laughter. “Yes, and, Bell, it’s your doing; you are a devil in human shape!” With a wild paroxysm of fury he flung himself upon me. There was the ferocity of a wild beast in his spring. He upset the lantern and left us in total darkness.
The struggle was short. We might be buried alive, but I was not going to die by his hand, and seizing him by the throat I pinned him against the wall.
“Keep quiet,” I shouted. “It is your thundering stupidity that has caused all this. Stay where you are until I strike a match.”
I luckily had some vestas in the little silver box which I always carry on my watch-chain, and striking one I relit the lantern. Clinton’s paroxysm was over, and sinking to the floor he lay there shivering and cowering.
It was a terrible situation, and I knew that our only hope was for me to keep my presence of mind. With a great effort I forced myself to think calmly over what could be done. To shout for help would have been but a useless waste of breath.
Suddenly an idea struck me. “Have you got your father’s letter?” I cried eagerly.
“I have,” he answered; “it is in my pocket.”
My last ray of hope vanished. Our only hope was that if he had left it at the house someone might discover the letter and come to our rescue by its instructions. It had been a faint hope, and it disappeared almost as quickly as it had come to me. Without it no one would ever find the way to the vault that had remained a secret for ages. I was determined, however, not to die without a struggle for freedom. Taking the lantern, I examined every nook and cranny of the cell for some other exit. It was a fruitless search. No sign of any way out could I find, and we had absolutely no means to unfasten the door from the inner side. Taking a few short steps, I flung myself again and again at the heavy door. It never budged an inch, and, bruised and sweating at every pore, I sat down on the coffin and tried to collect my faculties.
Clinton was silent, and seemed utterly stunned. He sat still, gazing with a vacant stare at the door.
The time dragged heavily, and there was nothing to do but to wait for a horrible death from starvation. It was more than likely, too, that Clinton would go mad; already his nerves were strained to the utmost. Altogether I had never found myself in a worse plight.
It seemed like an eternity that we sat there, neither of us speaking a word. Over and over again I repeated to myself the words of the terrible curse: “And whoso entereth into the cell shall be the prisoner of the soul that guardeth the door till it shall let him go.” When would the shapeless form that was inside the coffin let us go? Doubtless when our bones were dry.
I looked at my watch. It was half past eleven o’clock. Surely we had been more than ten minutes in this awful place! We had left the house at eleven. I glanced at the second hand. The watch had stopped.
“What is the time, Clinton?’ I asked. “My watch has stopped.”
“What does it matter?” he murmured. “What is time to us now? The sooner we die the better.”
He pulled out his watch as he spoke, and held it to the lantern.
“Twenty-five minutes past eleven,” he murmured dreamily.
“Good heavens!” I cried, starting up. “Has your watch stopped, too?”
Then, like the leap of a lightning flash, an idea struck me.
“I have got it; I have got it! My God! I believe I have got it!” I cried, seizing him by the arm.
“Got what?” he replied, staring wildly at me.
“Why, the secret a” the curse a” the door. Don’t you see?” I pulled out the large knife I always carry by a chain and swivel in my trouser pocket, and telling Clinton to hold the lantern, opened the little blade-saw and attacked the coffin with it.
“I believe the secret of our deliverance lies in this,” I panted, working away furiously.
In ten minutes I had sawn half through the wooden edge, then, handing my tool to Clinton, I told him to continue the work while I rested. After a few minutes I took the knife again, and at last, after nearly half an hour had gone by, succeeded in making a small hole in the lid. Inserting my two fingers, I felt some rough, uneven masses. I was now fearfully excited. Tearing at the opening like a madman, I enlarged it and extracted what looked like a large piece of coal. I knew in an instant what it was. It was magnetic iron-ore. Holding it down to my knife, the blade flew to it.
“Here is the mystery of the soul,” I cried; “now we can use it to open the door.”
I had known a great conjurer once, who had deceived and puzzled his audience with a box trick on similar lines: the man opening the box from the inside by drawing down the lock with a magnet. Would this do the same? I felt that our lives hung on the next moment. Taking the mass, I pressed it against the door just opposite the hasp, and slid it up against the wood. My heart leapt as I heard the hasp fly up outside, and with a push the door opened.