Authors: Eleanor Scott
“What exactly happened to Job Harcott no one will ever know. He was missed after dusk. A crony of his, one Ezra Minshull, then remembered a conversation he had had with the miserable man. He reports it thus:
“’This Minshull remember’d him that Harcott whyl he was yet with us had sayd that he was but litel astonied that ye Playt was contrefeyt: for (quoth he) when a Mann lusteth after Golde (as I haue herd this Hierime didd) he leaueth not his Luste, but hathe it euer in his Presence. Soe that when aftre longe seekyng we cou’d by noe means find Harcott, Minshull perswayding us, we return’d to ye Manour to see what shou’d be in Sir Hierime’s room where he abode.’”
“Well?” interjected the American.
Mr. Molyneux looked up, arrested by the tone of his visitor.
“They found Harcott. His body was lying in the passage that leads from the priest’s room: he seemed to have been running away from the room down the passage. He was quite dead.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then the Vicar continued:
“Sir, I am an old man. I have read many curious books and seen many curious things. I ask you with all the earnestness of which I am capable not to pry into this matter. Buy the house if you will – you will be doing a kindness to my old friend Godfrey Langtre and taking a step that you will not, I think, regret: but, as you value your life and your sanity, avoid that accursed room.”
He paused, flushed with the embarrassment of a shy man who interferes in another’s affairs.
“Sir, I’m grateful, real grateful, to you,” said the American, “and I’ll bear in mind what you’ve said. You’ve impressed me. But I’m interested, and I’ll buy that house right now, lock, stock and barrel. And I hope, sir, that you’ll do me the great kindness to come and see me sometimes. I won’t trespass on your time any more now. Goodbye, sir, and thank you.”
So Mr. Matthews became the owner of Barton Cross Manor.
If the house was not quite as attractive seen in the dusk of a drizzling October afternoon as it had appeared in the mellow sunshine of September, certainly Mr. Gibson could not be blamed for the fact. Nor could Mr. Langtre. Yet Mr. Matthews felt that he wanted to blame someone for the discomfort of the chill rooms with their stiff and unwelcoming air and suspicious atmosphere. Presently he put it down to the attitude of a couple, mother and son, who had been caretakers at the Manor, and who no doubt objected to having to do a little work, besides opening windows and airing rooms, in exchange for the wages the Langtre family allowed them. In fact, thought the American, sniffing the close air of the passages, they didn’t seem really keen on doing even that.
He ordered a fire in the library and another in his bedroom, and, when these were well alight and snapping and blazing cheerily, he opened the windows wide and let in waves of cool rainy air, laden with faint scents of late roses and dying leaves and wet earth. The panelled walls shone in the warm firelight; the well–filled bookcases invited him. He began to feel really comfortable and at home, and went for a little psycho–analytic speculation on the subject of Atmosphere and its Influence on Human Sensation. Mr. Matthews was the type of man who likes such phrases, especially when written with capital letters. They made him feel profound.
This comfortable mood lasted him until ten the next morning, when, warm and contented after a “real English” breakfast followed by an indisputable cigar, he decided to spend the morning in a survey of the house.
The morning was dark, with a threatening sky; though the rain was not actually falling, it looked as though the lowering clouds were only allowing a respite to the garden battered by yesterday’s downpour, and might stream again at any minute. It seemed a most suitable day to re-examine his property, which, like many Tudor manor-houses, needed much exploration before its plan was really known.
Mr. Matthews wandered about over the ground floor, very contentedly losing his way in passages and communicating rooms, until he knew it thoroughly. He then proceeded to the next. This was easier, since it had suffered less from later incongruous additions. It was roughly in the shape of a cross, the arms of which were composed of four passages running north, south, east and west, and radiating from a square well which looked down to the hall below. The south passage was so short as hardly to be a passage at all, and the north corridor was correspondingly long. Mr. Matthews’ own bedroom was at the junction of the north and west corridors, with a door leading into each; and by the door in the north passage there was a kind of small shrine – a large crucifix, a priedieu chair, some candles and flowers. The whole house, in fact, bore signs of the religion of its late owners: Mr. Matthews had never before seen so many holy water stoups, for instance. There was one outside every door, and even one on the wall opposite the shrine – a blank wall with no door in it.
Going along the north passage, Mr. Matthews soon discovered the reason for the absence of doors in the east wall. It was the wall of the old chapel, which ran the whole length of the corridor, and whose door was in the northern end of the east wall. It was dismantled now, and all the decorations gone; and the American thought he could still see traces of the scars left by the soldiers who had ransacked the chapel for the lost treasure. He stood at the door, picturing the scene to himself; and then, as the whole story filtered back into his mind, he realised that he must be standing near, if not on, the very spot where the returning band had found the body of Job Harcott.
That door, at the end of the passage, must lead into the priest’s room. Mr. Matthews felt quite a thrill as he thought of the lonely chemist, labouring in that remote chamber at his terrible experiments, abandoned and feared by his neighbours, dying at last, desolate even in his death. Mr. Matthews was not an imaginative man; but somehow, standing there in the dim passage, the melancholy rain pattering faintly outside, he could enter into the mind of the long–dead priest, fanatical with his dreadful enthusiasms, his mad, soul–destroying experiments, renouncing all happiness in this world or a possible next in exchange for that power which it is unlawful to possess. And the modern American thought he could understand some of the ambition, the horror, the enthusiasm, the desolation and despair, which had made up that man’s soul.
Closing the door of the chapel, he continued his investigations. The door at the end of the north passage was locked, and he made a mental note to ask Mrs. Sharpe, the caretaker, for the key. The other doors in the passage, that is those in the west wall, led to rooms whose close air and antique style of furnishing led him to the conclusion that they had not been used for many years; in fact the first room that gave signs of recent use was his own bedroom at the corner of the square well.
“That’s queer,” thought the American. “It’s not as if that set of rooms faced north, for naturally they face west. I’d have understood it if the rooms in the west corridor, now, had been neglected; but they’re quite fresh. Guess they’re odd folk, these Langtres.” And with that he dismissed the matter from his mind. He remembered, however, to ask for the missing key of the locked door; and, meeting Sharpe himself on the stairs, he mentioned it there and then.
Sharpe changed colour, apparently confused at having been discovered remiss in his duty, and insisted on accompanying the new tenant back to the north passage.
“This room ain’t much used, sir, ’aving a north aspeck,” he said apologetically as he turned the key. It squealed rustily in the lock, and Matthews, happening to glance at the man’s face, was startled to see it white and wet with sweat.
“Why, man, what’s wrong?” he cried.
The colour crept back to Sharpe’s face.
“It’s me ’eart, sir,” he panted. “Any effort’ll make me go all any’ow for a minute. But it goes off, sir, straight away. It don’t last.” He glanced anxiously in the direction of his employer. Mr. Matthews grunted and said no more.
The locked room was indeed in need of airing. A whiff of dank air with a curiously mouldy smell greeted them: so earthy a smell that the American looked instinctively at the walls for traces of damp.
“I suppose it’s because of the damp that they don’t use the room,” he said with a glance around him.
It was very obviously unused. It had very little furniture, and what there was looked old. There was an oak chair, a heavy table, and a kind of desk or cabinet, with a cupboard rising from a flat tabletop. The walls, however, showed no signs of damp: the panels were not warped or cracked, nor were the rather odd carvings on them at all defaced.
“I believe, if it were regularly warmed and aired, it would be as good a room as any, and most interesting,” declared the American. “Anyway, we’ll try. It’s a real unique room. Do as you did with the other rooms, Sharpe – light a real good fire and open the windows and door to get a through draught. I’ve regularly taken to this room,” he went on as he examined the panelling more closely. “Shouldn’t wonder if I move in here when you get it fixed right.”
“The fam’ly don’t consider it ’ealthy, sir, not this room,” muttered Sharpe.
He had to clear his throat before he could make his voice sound at all; and Mr. Matthews, struck by the man’s agitation, was suddenly seized by a suspicion. Why were the Sharpes so keen to keep him out of the room? Had they some motive for wishing to deny access to it to anyone but themselves?
“You do as I say,” he said, not peremptorily, but quite firmly. “I don’t take back my orders without a good reason,” he added.
Halfway down the corridor, he heard the grating of the key in the rusty lock of the closed door.
“Here, Sharpe! I said that room was to be left open and aired,” he said, turning sharply.
“Beg pardon, sir… I thought, seein’ as it was wet, I’d best leave it shut till I got a fire goin, sir,” muttered the servant.
“Well… But, hang it, man, why lock the door when it’s so stiff? Go back and – No, never mind. Give me the key.”
Taking it from the man’s shaking hand, Mr. Matthews went back down the corridor, and, with some difficulty, opened the door.
“There,” he said as he rejoined Sharpe. “Get a fire on in there when you’ve time, and leave it open all day. I bet we’ll get rid of that rank smell… ” He stopped short, startled by the extraordinary expression in Sharpe’s eyes. “Why, Sharpe!” he began; but even as he spoke the man dropped his eyes and with an effort regained his composure.
“Very good, sir,” he murmured; and the baffled American went back to the library.
The rain lifted in the afternoon, with a sky that gave promise of a fine morrow: and Mr. Matthews went out for a long walk to visit certain places of local interest. It was not until he had finished a cosy tea and a cigarette that it occurred to him to wonder whether his instructions with regard to the north room had been carried out.
He decided that, comfortable though the library was, it was worth while to go up to the passage and see whether the door of the north room was open and the fire lit. He was a determined man. He was really very much annoyed when he saw no gleam of light at the further end of the passage. Still, perhaps the door had swung to. He walked down the passage and tried it. It was locked.
Mr. Matthews seldom allowed his temper, which was a hot one, to get the better of him. He stood a moment, waiting for it to cool; and, as he paused in the dim corridor, he heard a faint sound. It was like a faint
as if some soft object had fallen to the ground; then came a very faint light rustling sliding sound.
He was almost sure that the sound came from the other side of the closed door. He thought perhaps the lock had merely stuck, and that Sharpe was within, closing windows or whatnot: but a second try at the door convinced him that it was locked fast. The sounds, then, must be an echo from some other part of the winding house. In any case, what really mattered was that his orders had been disobeyed.
He paid a visit to the Sharpes in the kitchen and made this quite clear.
The next morning, Wednesday, the sun rose apparently refreshed by the previous day’s holiday. It was a magnificent day, with a sky of so deep and serene a blue that it seemed impossible that it could really have existed behind yesterday’s rain. Mr. Matthews interviewed Sharpe and repeated his instructions with regard to the airing of all the rooms, irrespective of their history, aspect, or any other peculiarity. He thought it unlikely that he would be again disobeyed: and he was right, for chance visits to the meeting of the four passages always found a cool breeze blowing and showed four rows of open doors and glimpses of open windows.
In the afternoon the sun streamed out so invitingly that Mr. Matthews felt a desire to revisit his domain under these new conditions. He particularly wanted to see the effect of the golden light on the carved panelling of the north room, and to examine its design more closely.
This proved to be ordinary enough. There were plain panels reaching from the floor to a height of about three feet; then came a band of carving, ornament and scriptural texts intermingled; then twelve large panels, each four or five feet high. Each of these was surrounded by a frame of carved ornament, and they were separated from one another by narrower panels of plain wood. On the twelve panels were roughly carved twelve figures; and Mr. Matthews, noticing one with keys and another bearing an eagle, put them down as representations of the twelve apostles. All the carving was rough and amateurish, lacking the exquisite finish and proportion of skilled Tudor workmanship; yet Mr. Matthews felt little doubt in his mind that the curious designs, odd and archaic in conception, conventional to a degree, were of the sixteenth century.
“I’ll get Mr. Molyneux up to have a look at them,” he decided. “He’ll know if they’re fake or genuine antique.”
An examination of the furniture yielded little beyond the bare wood of which they were made. Only in the desk did the American see anything at all interesting. This was a portrait – a rough but powerful sketch done on parchment; it was like a strong, though untaught, copy of a Dürer portrait; and yet it had the impress of originality.