I mounted the stairs slowly, feeling the soft curve of the banister in my hand, listening to the creaking of the steps, taking in the illumination of the candlelight upon the walls, and gazing at the shadows in the recesses that the light did not penetrate.
On the landing I called a belated thank-you and good-night to Mrs. Jameson, but received no response. I looked down on the hall below for a sign of the elusive personage, but it was too dark to discern even the middle stair.
I lowered the crate to the floor and removed the candlestick that had been balancing atop it. I opened the crate, allowing the Admiral, an old black cat I had obtained from my former landlady’s sister, to lumber out and lead the way to the bay room. He stood cautiously on the threshold and watched me explore the beautiful, vacant space.
Crown molding and wainscoting decorated the walls, and the only piece of furniture was a wardrobe, I discovered, upon removing the cloths that covered it–a wardrobe that was richly adorned with carvings of fruit and leaves. It stood next to the hearth. I folded the cloths and put them in one of the drawers, for I intended to admire the craftsmanship of the appointment anytime I was not immersed in my manuscript or inspired by the glimmering lake.
Mrs. Jameson had been mistaken: There was no table in the room, but that would be easily remedied by bringing in a table from another chamber. The room was exceptionally cold, but I was confident that the fireplace was in good repair and that the row of bay windows on the east wall would stream in the mornings with warm light.
Now rain pattered against the windows and all was thick with fog beyond them. I anticipated an astonishing view of the lake once the storm passed. Presently, however, both the sight and the sound of the rain were soothing.
The Admiral followed me to the sitting room, where the fire was cheery indeed. The meal Mrs. Jameson had laid out was still hot, and I enjoyed a fine repast of roast beef, whipped potatoes, and cake and tea.
After supper I reclined in the armchair with a pipe and watched the flames flicker in the fire. Periodically I turned my attention to my favorite novel, but my heart was more invested in absorbing the atmosphere of the room with its rich tapestries, its copious bookshelves, and the pleasing semicircle of its corner turret.
Soon the meal, the sound of the rain, and the comfort of the Admiral purring in my lap conspired to lull me into a repose that enveloped me like the warmth of the fire.
It was a roaring peal of thunder that awoke me.
The rain sounded like a thousand drums. The fire had burned low, and the flame of my candle wavered weakly in its pool of melted wax.
I rose, shifting the Admiral from my lap to the chair, and obtained a new candle from the supply on the mantelpiece. I stirred the fire. Beneath the din of rain I discerned the sound of a dog barking, which seemed to cause the Admiral some distress. His ears turned backward and his eyes widened in horror not at the crashing booms of thunder, but at the piercing eruptions of barks and yelps.
I surmised that the dog was cowering on the porch, attempting to seek relief from the wet and the wind that roared against the glass panes. I determined to bring the poor pup inside, give her some meat, and let her dry herself beside the fire. Thus resolved, I shuffled through the dark hallway with a solitary candle that provided inadequate light.
The barking got louder as I approached the stairway, but it was surpassed in volume by the nearness of the low, hollow sound of water on wood.
There were banging sounds as well. I paused in the hall and listened.
Suddenly, on my left, the door to the bay room slammed shut.
Like a slap I felt the gust of wind that blew it closed. I opened the door and determined that the banging sounds were the sounds of the windows slamming against one another. They had evidently blown open in the storm. I crossed the creaking floorboards to close the windows and was immersed to my ankles in water. Then a fresh gust of wind blew through the windows and snuffed out my candle in the same instant that it slammed the door shut again.
The wild rain was flooding the room, and I tried to close the windows, but the wind was too violent and it blew them open again. I considered removing shelves from the wardrobe and using them to barricade the windows shut, but darkness prevented me from ascertaining whether the wardrobe contained shelves.
I stepped cautiously toward the door to seek a candelabra from the sitting room, and I was seized with panic when my fingers touched the doorknob and it would not turn. I tried the knob again, and then again—with both hands this time—to no avail. The door was locked fast.
Suddenly the distant barking was replaced by whimpering, and I heard the Admiral hiss on the other side of the door. With a chill I recalled Mrs. Jameson’s fear of this room.
Then the creaking began.
My imagination fueled the fire of my fear, until logic doused the flames and I supposed that the creaking was caused by the age of the floorboards. But creeps coursed through my blood as instinct insisted that the noises were caused by a force unseen.
I called for Mrs. Jameson, but received no response. The house was so large, and the storm was so loud, that it was unlikely she could hear me from the kitchen or her quarters, wherever they were.
Periodic peals of thunder struck my bones with fear. Rain continued pelting through the open windows. Flashes of lightning intermittently lit the room like daylight, and I used the breaks of light to gauge my path to the wardrobe. There were no obstructions—the room was sparse indeed—and I made my way across the room without trouble.
But when I reached the wardrobe, there emerged a closer creaking.
Then I felt a strange sensation.
Something grazed against my elbow.
It grazed, I say—nimbly, lightly, airily, like something made of gauze.
It was like being brushed by the wrap of a hurried lady. A current of cold air followed the thing that touched me—like the breeze that follows a passing person. It was as if someone had dashed in a path opposite mine toward the door. It was, of course, impossible, as I was certain that I was alone: The lightning revealed the presence of no one and nothing other than myself and the wardrobe.
So certain was I of the sensation, however, that weakly I cried, “Mrs. Jameson?”
There was silence, but for the sound of creaking.
“Lumble?” I cried.
There was no answer.
The wind answered this time, with a whine and a gust—and, reminded of my task, I abandoned such futile queries, resolved to set aside the unsettling sensation and my resulting feeling of faintness, and determined to set my mind on barricading the windows with the wardrobe itself. But I was disturbed by the draft that had followed the mysterious passage. It produced a chill that iced my veins.
The wardrobe was heavy, and wider than the width of my arms, but with much exertion I succeeded in inching it in the direction of the windows by pushing it and pulling it left and right in increments.
When I got it close enough to the windows, the rain began to cease.
It sounded, now, light as a gentle afternoon shower yielding to the sun. Its mellowing, quieting sound was like an orchestra letting up after a crescendo. It brought a tremendous sense of relief as I became aware of how oppressively loud and overwhelming the tempest had become.
I leaned against the wardrobe and took a breath. I tried to push away the sensation of something brushing against my elbow and passing toward the door. But the feeling was imprinted on my corporeal memory like the fracture of a bone. I tried to convince myself that I was frightened merely because it was so dark and I was alone. I tried not to remember Mr. Griffin’s words: My demons are not yours, Mr. Morgan.
Fearing, simultaneously, that the flood of rainwater would damage the wardrobe, I began inching it back to its place against the north wall. The physicality of the action engaged my mind and calmed my nerves.
When at last I succeeded in that task, I closed the windows, locked them, and turned my attention to unlocking the door. But ingenuity was unnecessary: The doorknob turned easily, and I stepped without difficulty into the dark hall.