As I made my way, ever so cautiously, with a 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 hall.
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 drawing room; 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 drawing room, 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.
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 ears like the beat of a drum.
I could hear my pulse; I could feel the perspiration of my fear.
But then, 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 she 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 she 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 seemed to have been 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 longed to believe, 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?
If so, 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 bay-room 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 matron in order to question her on the 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 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 forty years.
The stillness steeped me in unease. Simultaneously, however, it assured me that, at least, there was no intruder.
But where was Mrs. Jameson?
I searched the kitchen, the scullery, the pantry, the porch; the drawing room, 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 disconcerted at leaving that level unscanned — for I knew not for certain whether an intruder had 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 locked.
And, when I turned the key, eased open the creaking door, and surveyed the blackness, there was no sign of any soul.
So once having relocked the door and secured its key in the pocket of my vest, I ascended to the second floor to explore both wings.