By Algernon Blackwood
Chapter 1, scene 4
The threshold of an adventure, I reflected as I waited for the first words, is always the most thrilling moment—until the climax comes.
But Colonel Wragge hesitated—mentally—a long time before he began. He talked briefly of our journey, the weather, the country, and other comparatively trivial topics, while he sought about in his mind for an appropriate entry into the subject that was uppermost in the thoughts of all of us. The fact was he found it a difficult matter to speak of at all, and it was Dr. Silence who finally showed him the way over the hedge.
“Mr Hubbard will take a few notes when you are ready—you won’t object,” he suggested; “I can give my undivided attention in this way.”
“By all means,” turning to reach some of the loose sheets on the writing table, and glancing at me. He still hesitated a little, I thought. “The fact is,” he said apologetically, “I wondered if it was quite fair to trouble you so soon. The daylight might suit you better to hear what I have to tell. Your sleep, I mean, might be less disturbed, perhaps.”
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” John Silence replied with his gentle smile, taking command as it were from that moment, “but really we are both quite immune. There is nothing, I think, that could prevent either of us sleeping, except—an outbreak of fire, or some such very physical disturbance.”
Colonel Wragge raised his eyes and looked fixedly at him. This reference to an outbreak of fire I felt sure was made with a purpose. It certainly had the desired effect of removing from our host’s manner the last signs of hesitancy.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Of course, I know nothing of your methods in matters of this kind—so, perhaps, you would like me to begin at once and give you an outline of the situation?”
Dr. Silence bowed his agreement. “I can then take my precautions accordingly,” he added calmly.
The soldier looked up for a moment as though he did not quite gather the meaning of these words; but he made no further comment and turned at once to tackle a subject on which he evidently talked with diffidence and unwillingness.
“It’s all so utterly out of my line of things,” he began, puffing out clouds of cigar smoke between his words, “and there’s so little to tell with any real evidence behind it, that it’s almost impossible to make a consecutive story for you. It’s the total cumulative effect that is so—so disquieting.” He chose his words with care, as though determined not to travel one hair’s breadth beyond the truth.
“I came into this place twenty years ago when my elder brother died,” he continued, “but could not afford to live here then. My sister, whom you met at dinner, kept house for him till the end, and during all these years, while I was seeing service abroad, she had an eye to the place—for we never got a satisfactory tenant—and saw that it was not allowed to go to ruin. I myself took possession, however, only a year ago.
“My brother,” he went on, after a perceptible pause, “spent much of his time away, too. He was a great traveller, and filled the house with stuff he brought home from all over the world. The laundry—a small detached building beyond the servants’ quarters—he turned into a regular little museum. The curios and things I have cleared away—they collected dust and were always getting broken—but the laundry-house you shall see tomorrow.”
Colonel Wragge spoke with such deliberation and with so many pauses that this beginning took him a long time. But at this point he came to a full stop altogether. Evidently there was something he wished to say that cost him considerable effort. At length he looked up steadily into my companion’s face.
“May I ask you—that is, if you won’t think it strange,” he said, and a sort of hush came over his voice and manner, “whether you have noticed anything at all unusual—anything queer, since you came into the house?”
Dr. Silence answered without a moment’s hesitation.
“I have,” he said. “There is a curious sensation of heat in the place.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the other, with a slight start. “You have noticed it. This unaccountable heat——”
“But its cause, I gather, is not in the house itself—but outside,” I was astonished to hear the doctor add.
Colonel Wragge rose from his chair and turned to unhook a framed map that hung upon the wall. I got the impression that the movement was made with the deliberate purpose of concealing his face.
“Your diagnosis, I believe, is amazingly accurate,” he said after a moment, turning round with the map in his hands. “Though, of course, I can have no idea how you should guess——”
John Silence shrugged his shoulders expressively. “Merely my impression,” he said. “If you pay attention to impressions, and do not allow them to be confused by deductions of the intellect, you will often find them surprisingly, uncannily, accurate.”
Colonel Wragge resumed his seat and laid the map upon his knees. His face was very thoughtful as he plunged abruptly again into his story.
“On coming into possession,” he said, looking us alternately in the face, “I found a crop of stories of the most extraordinary and impossible kind I had ever heard—stories which at first I treated with amused indifference, but later was forced to regard seriously, if only to keep my servants. These stories I thought I traced to the fact of my brother’s death—and, in a way, I think so still.”
He leant forward and handed the map to Dr. Silence.
“It’s an old plan of the estate,” he explained, “but accurate enough for our purpose, and I wish you would note the position of the plantations marked upon it, especially those near the house. That one,” indicating the spot with his finger, “is called the Twelve Acre Plantation. It was just there, on the side nearest the house, that my brother and the head keeper met their deaths.”
He spoke as a man forced to recognise facts that he deplored, and would have preferred to leave untouched—things he personally would rather have treated with ridicule if possible. It made his words peculiarly dignified and impressive, and I listened with an increasing uneasiness as to the sort of help the doctor would look to me for later. It seemed as though I were a spectator of some drama of mystery in which any moment I might be summoned to play a part.
“It was twenty years ago,” continued the Colonel, “but there was much talk about it at the time, unfortunately, and you may, perhaps, have heard of the affair. Stride, the keeper, was a passionate, hot-tempered man, but I regret to say, so was my brother, and quarrels between them seem to have been frequent.”
“I do not recall the affair,” said the doctor. “May I ask what was the cause of death?” Something in his voice made me prick up my ears for the reply.
“The keeper, it was said, from suffocation. And at the inquest the doctors averred that both men had been dead the same length of time when found.”
“And your brother?” asked John Silence, noticing the omission, and listening intently.
“Equally mysterious,” said our host, speaking in a low voice with effort. “But there was one distressing feature I think I ought to mention. For those who saw the face—I did not see it myself—and though Stride carried a gun its chambers were undischarged——” He stammered and hesitated with confusion. Again that sense of terror moved between his words. He stuck.
“Yes,” said the chief listener sympathetically.
“My brother’s face, they said, looked as though it had been scorched. It had been swept, as it were, by something that burned—blasted. It was, I am told, quite dreadful. The bodies were found lying side by side, faces downwards, both pointing away from the wood, as though they had been in the act of running, and not more than a dozen yards from its edge.”
Dr. Silence made no comment. He appeared to be studying the map attentively.
“I did not see the face myself,” repeated the other, his manner somehow expressing the sense of awe he contrived to keep out of his voice, “but my sister unfortunately did, and her present state I believe to be entirely due to the shock it gave to her nerves. She never can be brought to refer to it, naturally, and I am even inclined to think that the memory has mercifully been permitted to vanish from her mind. But she spoke of it at the time as a face swept by flame—blasted.”