As I made my way, ever so cautiously, with the candelabra in my hand and the Admiral on my heels, down the stairs and into the front hall, I did not breathe.
A chill draft, like the current I had felt in the bay room, circulated up the stairs from the foyer.
I could see little; I could feel only an apprehension that was like a hand round my heart, inhibiting its beat—for I was loath to make a sound, though each step creaked like a bough yielding to the wind.
Reluctantly, but by necessity—for I was compelled to unveil the source of the whimpering—I descended the last step. It was only then that my light illumined the startling fact that the door stood wide open.
The absence of the blockade was black and deep; it gaped like the mouth of a cavern. The sound of dry leaves rustling against the brick floor of the porch contrasted with the damp melody of rainwater dripping from the eaves.
“Mrs. Jameson?” I called softly.
There was no response.
Why was the door agape?
There was no indication of a human presence.
“Mrs. Jameson?” I called again, and again, there was no reply; no indication of the woman’s habitation. There were no candles lit in the parlor; no lamps glowed from the kitchen; no mortal sound emanated from any room.
But, to my alarm, suddenly I became aware that, close to the floor, in the corner between the hall and the parlor, two eyes—gleaming—were fixed on me.
My sodden boot squeaked as I instinctively retreated, and the whimpering recommenced. Its pitch was shrill, like a bleat. I gasped. The Admiral hissed.
Then a scratching sound ensued, and as the eyes rose in height, my heart pounded like the pistons of an engine. Boom-boom boom-boom, boom-boom boom-boom! Boom-boom boom-boom, boom-boom boom-boom!
The sound resounded in my earslike the beat of a drum. I could hear my pulse; I could feel the perspiration of my fear.
But then, to my relief, with the illumination of a minute turn of the candelabra, the realization struck, and I nearly sank to the floor at the comprehension that the eyes were the eyes of the dog who had been cowering not on the porch, evidentially, but here in the hall. The dog was rising now to smell me; the scratching sound was the sound of her claws sliding against the slick tile floor. I kneeled, and, with some reservation, as well as a determination to soothe the creature, if I could—I held out my hand, and she approached, revealing herself to be friendly, damp, and a youthful member of the spaniel breed.
“Good girl,” I said—for somehow I intuited that the dog was female—and then I rose, trod cautiously toward the entryway, and closed and bolted the door.
Perhaps Mrs. Jameson had opened it, I thought—perhaps Lumble had come for the rent and she had sent him away, as I had been asleep—and then she had neglected to close it and lock it again.
Certainly it had been closed—I had seen her bolt it when I arrived.
I did not entertain a more disconcerting surmise—that the poor woman had fled from some fear.
No, indeed—I would have heard a scream, and, in any case, there was nothing to the house that would so alarm the long-standing servant. Mrs. Jameson was perturbed by the bay room, yes, but her service had been quite faithful despite that aversion.
I myself was merely a stranger to the house and did not yet know the causes of its quirks—causes which, I had no doubt, were perfectly explicable.
But as I tried the knob to ensure that the door could not be opened from the outside, I recalled how the door to the bay room had been locked fast.
How had that door gotten locked, and how it had subsequently come unlocked? Had something indeed brushed past me and softly unfixed the lock?
The thought was chilling.
How could it have been done with such stealth? I had not heard a thing. Nay, indeed, I had been alone!
Equally disarming was the presumption that the door could not have been locked in the first place without a key.
“Mrs. Jameson?” I called, for I was determined to speak with the elusive woman.
With the animals in my wake, by the light of the candelabra, I moved through the rooms on the first floor, searching for a sign of the good matron in order to question her on the evening’s mysteries. I scoured the rooms also to be sure that no one unwelcome was in the house.
The furnishings in every room—indeed, in every room—were covered with cloths, and the air was quite motionless.
The house bore a lonely feeling, as though no one but myself inhabited it. Indeed it felt as if it were still closed up, as it had been for the last, I believed, forty years.
The stillness stirred me with unease. Simultaneously, however, it filled me, more or less, with confidence that, at least, there was no intruder.
But where was Mrs. Jameson?
I searched the kitchen, the scullery, the pantry, the porch; the parlor, the dining room, the library, the conservatory—every room and every passageway—all except the cellar, for I did not have the resolve—even in the company of the animals—to inspect that darkly stratum. I was indeed quite disconcerted at leaving a level unscanned—for I knew not for certain whether an intruder had in fact taken refuge below—but I had not the courage to explore such a deep and dankly space at night.
I merely satisfied myself with the fact that the door at the head of the stairs that descended to the lower realm was quite locked, and, when I turned the key, eased open the creaking door, and surveyed the blackness, there was no sign of any soul.
Once having re-locked the cellar door and secured its key in the pocket of my vest, I ascended to the second floor and explored both wings.
Throughout my survey, silence crept upon my skin, except when it was replaced with the creaking caused by my steps. Then, when I stood still and attempted to ascertain that the shapes beneath the cloths were indeed the forms of beds, tables, and chairs, a return to that hovering hush was a relief, like a break from pain.
I inspected—to the best of my ability—the breadth of the entire house, and the atmosphere in every room was the same: dark, still, and frozen in time.
There was, however, on the south wing a single apartment that I did not penetrate, for its door was shut. I paused before the portal and listened; there was silence, which I did not disturb, in case the chamber belonged to Mrs. Jameson.
Thus I uncovered nothing but eerie quietude—and a distressing profusion of recesses that I could not espy in mere candlelight.
In a last effort to summon Mrs. Jameson, I rang the bell in the sitting room she had prepared for me.
For several minutes I paced the room, believing it possible that the caretakeress would rouse and step softly to the sitting room in response to my call, but she did not appear.
I deemed it feasible that she slept soundly behind the closed door down the hall, oblivious to the distant ring of my bell, but it seemed more likely, given the closed-up feeling throughout the manor, that she did not reside in the house.
She was, indeed, quite elderly, and likely not up to the tasks required of a full-time housekeeper. Indeed, as the house had been vacant of a tenant until today, she was conceivably in the habit of coming but once a week to do her work. It was likely that she lived in a nearby cottage, with Mr. Jameson, perhaps, which would account for why the front door had been left agape. She probably forgot to close it when she left for the day. In the morning I would have to instill in her the importance of closing and locking the door.
It should be admitted that, having drawn the conclusion that Mrs. Jameson did not reside in the house, I did not return to the south wing to explore beyond the closed door. You may say, dear reader, that perhaps I should have, but I was tired; I was cold; I was overwhelmed with the evening’s events. Certainly I considered taking the Admiral back to Mrs. Vane’s, returning him to her sister, and resuming my prior mode of living. Such an act would have been seamless: In future this evening would have seemed like a strange interlude, a distant dream.
But when I eased into the armchair and gazed at the cheerful fire, the good Admiral took his place in my lap, and Emma (for so I had christened the spaniel) settled at my feet. I admired the leather-bound volume in my hand and was again filled with a sense of peace, which dissipated any anxiety I might otherwise have felt over the sound of gnarled branches scratching against the windowpanes.
I loved the house, and I would not abandon its beauty—or its mystery.