"What a charming little house!" said Brinton, as he was walking in from a round of golf at Ellesborough with Lander.
"Yes, from the outside," replied Lander.
"What's the matter with the inside–Eozoic plumbing?"
"No; the 'usual offices' are neat, if not gaudy. Spengler would probably describe them as 'contemporary with the death of Lincoln,' but it's not that–it's haunted."
"Is it, by Jove!" said Brinton, gazing up at it. "Fancy such a dear little Queen Anne piece having such a nasty reputation. I see it's unoccupied."
"It usually is," replied Lander.
"Tell me about it."
"During dinner I will. But you seem to find something of interest about those windows on the second floor."
Brinton gazed up for a moment or two longer, and then started to walk back in silence beside his host.
In a few minutes they reached Lander's cottage–it was rather more pretentious than that–an engaging two–storeyed structure added to and modernised from time to time, formerly known as 'The Old Vicarage,' and rechristened 'Laymer's.' Black and white and creeper-lined, with a trim little garden of rose-trees and mellow turf, two fine limes, and a great yew, impenetrable and secret. This little garden melted into an arable expanse, and there was a lovely view over to some high Chiltern spurs. The whole place just suited Lander, who was–or it might be more accurate to say, wanted to be–a novelist; a commonplace and ill–advised ambition, but he had money of his own and could afford to wait.
James Brinton, his guest for a week and a very old friend, occupied himself with a picture gallery in Mayfair. A very small gallery–one rather small room, to be exact–but he had admirable taste and made it pay.
Two hours later they sat down to dinner.
"Now then," said Brinton, as Mrs. Dunkley brought in the soup, "tell me about that house."
"Well," replied Lander, "I have had, as you know, much more experience of such places than most people, and I consider Pailton the worst or the best specimen I have heard or read of or experienced. For one thing, it is a 'killer.' The majority of haunted houses are harmless, the peculiar energy they have absorbed and radiate forth is not hostile to life. But in others the radiation is malignant and fatal. Pailton has been rented five times in the last twelve years; in each case the tenancy has been marked by a violent death within its walls. For my part, I have no two opinions concerning the morality of letting it at all. It should be razed to the ground."
"How long do its occupants stick it out as a rule?"
"Six weeks is the record, and that was made by some people called Pendexter. That was three years ago. I knew Pendexter pére, and he was a courageous and determined person. His daughter was hurled down the stairs one night and killed, and I shall never forget the mingled fury and grief with which he told me about it. Previous to that he had detected eighteen different examples of psychic action–appearances and sounds–several definitely malignant. The family had not enjoyed one single day of freedom from abnormal phenomena."
"How long since it was last occupied?" asked Brinton. "It has been empty for a year, and I am inclined to think it will remain so. Anyone who comes down to look at it is given a pretty straight tip by one or other of us to keep away."
"Does it affect you violently?"
"I have never set foot in it."
"What? You, of all people!"
"My dear Jim, just for that very reason. When I first discovered I was psychic I felt flattered and anxious to experience all I could. I soon changed my mind. I found I experienced quite enough without any need for making opportunities. I do to this day. Several times I have had a visitor in the study here after dinner, an uninvited guest. And it has always been so. I have many times heard and seen things which could not be explained in places with perfectly clean bills of psychic health. And one never gets quite used to it. Terror may pass, but some distress of mind is invariable. Any person gifted or afflicted like myself will tell you the same. It seems to me sometimes as if I actually assist in evoking and materialising these appearances, that I help to establish a connection between them and the place I inhabit, that I am a most unpleasant kind of lightning conductor."
"Is there any possible explanation for that?"
"Well, I have formed one, but it would take rather a long time to explain, and may be quite fallacious. Anyhow, there has never been any need for me to visit such places as Pailton, and I keep away from them if I can."
"Would you very much object to going in for a minute or two?"
"Well, I have been bothered all my life about this business of ghosts. I have never seen one; in a sense I 'don't believe in them,' yet I am convinced you have known many. It is a maddening dualism of mind. I feel if I could just once come in contact with something of the kind I should feel a sense of enormous relief."
"And you'd like me to conduct you over Pailton?"
"Not if it would really upset you. It would be at your own risk," said Lander, smiling.
"I'll risk it!"
"You mustn't imagine that you can go into a disturbed spot such as this and expect to see about ten ghosts in as many minutes. Even in the case of such a busy hive as Pailton there are many quiet periods, and some people simply cannot 'see ghosts.' The odds are very much against your desire being granted, though, if you are psychic, the atmosphere of the place would affect you at once."
"Well, you've often heard of people who know by some obscure but infallible instinct that there's a cat in the room. fust so. However, I'll certainly give you the chance. It won't seriously disturb me. I can get the key in the morning from the woman who looks after it, though I need hardly say she doesn't sleep there. There is no need for a caretaker. It was broken into once, but the burglar was found dead in the dining-room and since then the crooks have given it a wide berth."
"It really is dangerous, then?"
"Beginning to feel a bit prudent?"
"No, I shall feel safe with you."
"Very well then. After coming back from golf we'll pay it a visit. It will be dark by five, and we'll make the excursion about six. The chances of gratifying your curiosity will be better after dark. I'd better tell you something else. I never quite know how these places are going to affect me. Before now, I have gone off into a kind of trance and been decidedly weird, my dear Jim. My sense of time and space becomes distorted, though for your assurance I may say," he added smiling, "I am never dangerous when in this condition. Furthermore, you must be prepared to make acquaintance with a mode of existence in which the ordinary laws of existence which you have always known abdicate themselves. Bierce called his famous book of ghost stories, Can These Things Be? Assuredly they can. Now I'm sounding pompous and pontifical, but some such warning is necessary. When I touch that front door tomorrow I may become in a sense a stranger to you; once inside we shall cross a frontier into a region with its own laws of time and space, and where the seemingly impossible can happen...Do you understand what I mean and still want to go?"
"Yes," replied Brinton, "to all your questions."
"Very well then," said Lander, "I will now get out the chess-men and discover a complete answer to Reti's opening which you sprang on me last night; so you shall have the white pieces."
November 21st was a lazy, drowsy, cloudless day, starting with a sharp ground frost which, thawing unresistingly as the sun climbed, made the tees at Ellesborough like tiny slides. In consequence, neither Brinton nor Lander played very good golf. This upset Brinton not at all, for he was thinking much more of that which was beginning to impress him as a possible ordeal, the crossing of the threshold of Pailton a few hours later. As they finished their second round a mist, spreading like a gigantic spider's web, was beginning to raise the level of the Buckinghamshire fields. As they walked homewards it climbed with them, keeping pace with them like a dog; sometimes hurrying ahead, then dropping back, but always with them.
It was exactly five o'clock as they reached Laymer's. Tea was ready.
"Do you still want to go, Jim?" asked Lander abruptly.
"Sure, Bo!" replied Brinton lightly.
"Here's the key," said Lander, smiling, "the Open Sesame to the Chamber of Horrors. The electric light is turned off, so all the light we shall have will be produced by my torch. One last word of advice–if you want to get the best chance of a thrill, try to keep your mind quite empty–don't talk as I personally conduct this tour. Concentrate on not concentrating."
"I understand what you mean," said Brinton.
"Well, then, let's get a move on," said Lander.
An idea suddenly occurred to Brinton. "How will you be able to show me over it if you've never been inside it?"
"You needn't worry about that," replied Lander.
The fog was thick by now, and they wavered slightly as they groped their way down the lane, compressed by high hedges, which led to Pailton. When they reached it, Brinton's eyes turned up to observe the windows on the second floor. And then Lander stepped forward and placed the key in the lock.
As the door swung open the fog, which seemed to have been crouching at his heels, leapt forward and entered with him and inundated the passage down which he moved. The moment he was inside, something advanced to meet him. He opened a door on the left of the passage and flashed his torch round it. The fog was in there, too. Jim, he could feel, was at his elbow.
"This is where they found the burglar–it's the dining-room."
His voice was not quite under control. "Quite a pleasant room, smells a bit frowsty." The little beam wandered from chair to desk, settling for a moment here and there. Then he shut the door and stepped along the passage till the little beam revealed a flight of stairs which he began to climb. He still heard Brinton's steps coming up behind him. Up on the first floor he opened another door.
"This is the drawing-room," he said. "The Proctors' cook was found dead here in 1921."
Round swung the tiny beam, fastening on chairs, tables, desks, curtains. He shut the door and began to climb another flight of stairs. He could hear Jim's feet pattering up behind him. On the second floor he opened still another door.
"This, my dear Jim, is the nasty one; it was from here Amy Pendexter fell and broke her neck." His voice had risen slightly, and he was speaking quickly. Once again he flashed his torch over chairs, tables, curtains, and ahead.
"Well, Jim, do you get any reaction? Do you? You can speak now." As there was no answer, he turned, and swung the beam of his torch on to the person just behind him. But it wasn't Brinton who was standing at his elbow. . . .
"What's the matter, Willie?" asked Brinton, "can't you find the keyhole?"
The figure in front of him remained motionless.
"Can't you find the keyhole?" asked Brinton more urgently.
As the figure still remained motionless, Jim Brinton lit a match and peered forward. . . .And then he reeled back.
"Who, in God's name, are you?" he cried.