A Presence In The House
Tom Grimstead was not looking for a story when he decided to spend a night in the haunted Carey house. As a newspaperman, he had frequently exposed many bogus mediums and spiritualists, but the accounts of those who had spent, or rather tried to spend, a night in the Carey house seemed so authentic and honest that Grimstead, who was enjoying his vacation in the quaint New England town of Sedley, longed to experience some of the thrills that had come to these narrators.
"There was a presence in the house," quavered Martin Stacy, who had once spent part of a night there. "I — I felt it!"
"Could you see it?" asked Grimstead.
"No," he whispered, "but I knew it was there — whatever it was. If anyone sneaked into your room when you were reading, without making any noise, you would feel they were there even if you hadn't seen 'em — wouldn't you?"
"Well, it was that same sort of feeling that came over me in Mrs. Carey's bedroom."
Martin Stacy's story was similar to the others. They had all felt a sinister presence in Mrs. Carey's room and the feeling had always been followed by senseless, unreasoning terror that made them flee into the night.
The Carey tragedy had been the grimmest that had ever occurred in the town of Sedley. Twenty years before, Weldon Carey had brought his bride to the old Carey house, which had been built by a colonial Carey and inhabited by Careys ever since. Selma Carey was beautiful and vivacious and she appeared to be as madly in love with the old house and its colonial traditions as she was with its master.
Then came the tragedy! Young Mrs. Carey was found murdered one morning — strangled to death — and her husband told incoherently how two burglars had broken into the place at midnight. One of them had throttled Mrs. Carey and the other was threatening him with a revolver, when some noise frightened them away.
The countryside was searched for the two men, but they were never apprehended and the verdict of the coroner's jury was that Mrs. Carey had come to her death "at the hands of a person or persons unknown."
Carey seemed heart-broken after the tragedy, and finally, not succeeding in selling the old house, he left it in charge of a caretaker and went abroad to live. In all these intervening years he had never returned to his birthplace, nor could anyone be induced to rent the place.
Tom Grimstead thought as he stood in front of the Carey mansion at dusk one September afternoon that he had never seen a more repellent-looking house. There was something indescribably repugnant about it, as if one were contemplating the corpse of a house.
Horror surrounded it like a nimbus, and Grimstead's first impulse was to walk hastily away. But shaking off the feeling of dread that had settled upon him like an incubus, he resolutely walked up the weed-encumbered walk that led to the front door, armed with a key that he had experienced no difficulty in securing from a cynical real-estate agent, who promptly offered to wager that he would not stay the night out — a wager that Grimstead as promptly accepted.
He carried a handbag that contained a supply of sandwiches, a small automatic, half a dozen fat candles, a flashlight and two volumes of Poe's grisliest short stories. He ironically thought of these as his "ghost props."
But, stout-nerved as he was, Grimstead shrank back instinctively as the front door slammed shut, leaving him in impenetrable darkness. This instantaneous plunge into blackness was sudden enough to daunt anyone, and for a second time that afternoon Grimstead was tempted to abandon his ghost quest.
Then he reflected that thrills were what he had come for, and he was disgusted at the realization that he was allowing his subconscious self to be affected by the stories he had heard. If he were really a skeptic, as he had always prided himself on being, he was on the verge of the most interesting adventure of his none-too-dull life. So he opened his handbag by touch alone, turned on his flashlight and took stock of his surroundings.
He was in an old-fashioned living room at the far end of which was a huge open fireplace. In front of him a fine specimen of colonial architecture in the shape of an imposing staircase pointed the way to adventure on the second floor. The large room was fully furnished, but a smell of decay and mildew assailed Grimstead's nostrils.
The atmosphere was heavy and fetid odors of bygone days seemed to meet and commingle, and the air held a penetrating chill. Something soft brushed his face in the semi-gloom and he started back involuntarily and then laughed nervously.
It was a death's-head moth and the creature settled upon the back of a large upholstered chair, its wings spread wide, shivering as the bright ray from the flashlight illumined its ghastly markings.
With a little shiver that was not entirely due to the chill of the place, Grimstead started up the stairs in search of Mrs. Carey's bedroom, which, he had been told, was the front room at the left of the upper hallway. But first he explored the other rooms, finding them all furnished but reeking with desolation and decay. Time had wrought sad havoc upon objects of inestimable value to the collector of colonial antiques.
Grimstead now turned the handle of the door that led into the dead woman's bedchamber and found himself in an ancient boudoir about which still clung an elusive odor of mignonette and lavender.
Against one side of the wall was an antique dressing table, but the surface of the long mirror, which had in bygone days often reflected the fair image of Selma Carey, was now opaque, blurred over by the film of years.
Near the dresser was a four-poster bed covered with a yellowed counterpane, and two pillows were in place at its head. It was hard to believe that no one had slept there for twenty years.
With the exception of the dust that covered everything, and a dank smell, the room and its furnishings appeared to have been left as they were on the day of the tragedy and Grimstead found himself glancing from time to time at the door of the dressing-room, which was about ten feet from the bed, as if he expected a charming figure in deshabille to come romping into the room at any moment.
So acute was this impression that he strode across the room and threw open the door of the dressing room, peering curiously within. It contained an old-fashioned tin bathtub, the paint from which was chipped off here and there, giving it a dismal look of dilapidation. On a rusty metal towel-rack hung a rotting hath towel, and from a hook in the wall was suspended a mildewed dressing gown that had once been lavender-colored.
With a look of infinite pity, Grimstead closed the door softly behind him, his vivid imagination conjuring up the picture of a lovely woman with golden hair cascading to her waist, humming a gay little tune as she prepared for her bath.
He now set the stage for his lonely vigil.
Lighting one of his fat candles, he placed it upon the dusty dresser in such a position that its flame illumined the bed.
Then he stuck another above the fireplace on the white marble mantelpiece.
Drawing up a small dressing table, he placed his third candle upon that and then he dusted off a comfortable Morris chair with wide arms and placed it where he could command a view of the entire room. The dressing table was at his left, within easy reaching distance, and on this he placed his sandwiches, his automatic and his volumes of Poe.
Satisfied with these strategic arrangements, he lit his pipe, sank into the big chair and was soon immersed in The Fall of the House of Usher, which he had decided was the proper yarn for the time, the place and the man.
It was so silent in the house that the scampering of mice in the wainscoting sounded as loud as the romping of Newfoundland dogs. Every now and then one of them would squeal as if it were being murdered, and whenever this happened, Grimstead would pause in his reading and look up with a startled tenseness, expecting to see — he knew not what.
The wind was rising and it howled and moaned like a tortured spirit striving with futile hands to force an entrance through the rotting eaves of the ancient house. It was an eerie sound and Grimstead found himself forced to exert all his will power in order to concentrate upon the harrowing tale that he was reading. He felt like a spectator awaiting the climax to a particularly dramatic scene in a melodrama.
There came a lull in the wind and the mice suddenly ceased to scamper as if at a signal from a master mouse. The old house appeared to be waiting in suspense — holding its breath. Grimstead had reached the point in his story where the sound of muffled blows from the vault was reverberating through the ill-fated house of Usher.
"Madman," he read, "I tell you — "
He looked up quickly. The dying down of the wind and the cessation of the scamperings in the wainscoting made the room feel as dead as stagnant water looks. But it was not the nerve-racking stillness that had galvanized Grimstead into alert attention.
It was the unalterable conviction that someone or something was lurking near him. Reaching stealthily for the automatic, he glanced keenly around the room. Certainly he was the only living soul there! But —
The door of the dressing room was slowly opening!
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Grimstead stared incredulously at the widening aperture. He had thoroughly inspected the room less than half an hour before and no living creature could have been concealed there. Nor was there any other door to the room. The thing was impossible — yet it was happening before his eyes!
Wider, wider the door opened, and then, as Grimstead held his breath in suspense, something stepped into the room. He could not see it but he felt it, and an icy wind suddenly stirred the roots of his hair at the realization that he was no longer alone. He heard the ghostly sound of footsteps crossing the room and then the candle on the dresser suddenly wavered as if a passing breeze had slightly stirred it.
As the paralyzed newspaperman gazed wide-eyed from his chair, there came from the dresser the unmistakable sound of hairpins tinkling down into a celluloid tray.
Thinking that an over-vivid imagination was playing him tricks, Grimstead, by a tremendous effort of will, sat erect in his chair and was about to spring to his feet, when an amazing thing stupefied him once more into inaction.
The ghostly footsteps crossed the carpet once more, like the soft brushing of unseen wings, and Grimstead saw the bed suddenly sag — as if a body were lying there — and then one of the pillows became indented — as if a head were resting there.
Something invisible was reclining upon the bed!
As this incredible fact percolated through Grimstead's understanding, blind panic assailed him. Only one thing, he confessed afterward, prevented him from becoming a gibbering idiot. That was his discovery that the door leading into the dressing room, which was wide open after his visitant had entered, was now tightly closed. This tended to convince him that the entire episode was an hallucination due to overwrought nerves.
At any rate, he sprang to his feet, determined to probe the mystery to its depths, when a sound smote upon his ears that stiffened him in his tracks and made him snatch the automatic hurriedly from the table.
Someone was coming up the stairs!
He heard the sound of shuffling, reluctant footsteps, as if the person, thing or whatever it was, were disinclined to make the ascent. Slower and more hesitant became these ominous footsteps, and Grimstead, now utterly unnerved, gripped the automatic frantically and turned a white face in the direction of the bedroom door, not knowing what to expect. But he felt convinced that if this door opened as the other had done and no tangible thing entered he should scream like an hysterical woman.
The unwilling footsteps had now reached the landing outside the door and came to a halt there, as if the intruder were listening.
This wait seemed interminable to the crouching newspaperman who stood immovably by the table, his automatic aimed straight at the door.
Finally there was a shuffle of feet and then a hand turned the knob.
Slowly the door opened.
"Hands up," cried Grimstead hoarsely, "or I'll shoot."
"What the devil?" growled a surprised voice, and Grimstead emitted a great sigh of relief. At least it was a human being!
A heavily built, bearded man about fifty years old, a stranger to Grimstead, walked slowly into the room, first glancing around fearfully before allowing his gaze to rest upon Grimstead.
"Now then," he said coldly, "who are you and what are you doing in this house?"
"Just what I was going to ask you," grinned Grimstead, his self-possession now fully restored.
"I am — " began the stranger — and then came the crowning horror of that memorable evening. The man's voice suddenly broke and his tanned face turned livid with fear. He was staring with a look of indescribable terror at the bed.
"What's that? Who's there?" he whispered in high-pitched, terror-laden accents.
"Why — what — " stammered Grimstead and then froze into the gaping figure of a man.
The indentations in the bed and pillow slowly straightened out like a flat automobile tire when the air rushes in.
Once more Grimstead heard those ghostly footsteps and then the bearded man shrieked like a demon in hell.
"Selma, for God's sake, don't!" he gasped. "I didn't mean to do it! I swear I didn't mean to do it!"
He staggered back, fumbling at his throat and gasping for breath.
"Take your hands away!" he panted. "My God, you are throttling me!"
His voice died out in a choking gurgle and he staggered wildly around the room, pulling desperately at his throat as if trying to unloosen the clutch of hands. Grimstead took hold of the struggling figure.
"You are mad!" he cried. "There is no one here!"
The stranger did not seem to hear.
His eyes were rolling in his head and his face was turning a mottled purple. Up and down the room he threshed in agony, trying vainly to break the deadly hold that was apparently fastened upon his windpipe with the grip of a maddened bulldog. It was a horrible sight and Grimstead could do nothing but follow the agonized man, who seemed destitute of all reason.
The end came quickly!
Suddenly there was a rattling sound in the man's throat and then he sank slowly to his knees and toppled forward on his face. Once more the sound of invisible footsteps and Grimstead looked up from the dead body in time to see the door of the dressing-room open quickly and close.
Then he lost all control over his twitching nerves and ran shrieking out of the room, down the stairs and out into the fresh sweetness of the September night, staggering like a drunken man, his brain reeling from the horrors of that fetid bedroom.
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Nothing Is Impossible Nowadays
The sight of the familiar street and the feel of the wind blowing in his face partially restored his faculties to normal, but he was trembling like a drug fiend as he entered Dr. Stoughton's office and his speech was so incoherent that the amazed physician was convinced that he was either intoxicated or insane.
But as the spell of the horror wore away and Grimstead began to talk more rationally Dr. Stoughton realized that this was no ordinary case and that Grimstead was neither intoxicated nor insane. He was that most pathetic of all objects — a strong man suffering from overwhelming fright.
Dr. Stoughton had been the Carey physician and was for many years Weldon Carey's closest friend. So it was with a very grave face that he went back to the house with Grimstead, accompanied by "Mort" Farley, an official who facetiously called himself Sedley's "chief of police."
It was with a strong shudder that Grimstead entered the house that had shattered his skepticism to bits, and followed the two men upstairs. Everything in the bedroom was just as he had left it. His candles were still burning and his automatic lay where it had fallen from his nerveless hand. In the center of the room was a huddled heap that had once been a man.
"Hm! This looks bad!" ejaculated Dr. Stoughton as he bent above the prostrate figure. He turned the body over and the face peered up at him, distorted and black as a charred log.
"My God, it's Weldon Carey!" he shouted, drawing back from the corpse in sudden horror.
"How do you know?" asked Farley in awestruck tones. "It has been twenty years — and this man wears a beard."
Dr. Stoughton lifted the man's limp left hand.
"I can tell by this amethyst ring on the little finger," he explained. "It was given to him by his mother and he has always worn it on that finger, as it was too small to fit on any of the others."
"What do you think caused his death, Doctor?" asked Grimstead.
"It was a sudden rush of blood to his head," said Dr. Stoughton, "caused by a tremendous shock of some sort."
Then, after a pause: "It couldn't have been anything else. There are no marks on his throat," and he looked challengingly at the newspaperman.
"I only know what I know," replied Grimstead, and he told the whole story again for Farley's benefit, not omitting the slightest detail. When he had finished, the police official looked doubtfully at Dr. Stoughton. This sort of a case was outside of his own ken.
"Frankly, I am puzzled over all this," began the physician, looking more closely at the face of the dead man.
"It is very evident that — Hello!" he broke off abruptly. "This is devilish queer, I must say!"
Taking a small magnifying glass from his bag, he bent over the body and examined the throat carefully.
"This is the most extraordinary thing that has ever come within my medical knowledge," he said gravely.
"What is it?" asked his companion curiously.
"When I first looked at Carey," explained the physician, "there were no marks whatever upon his throat. It was strangely white in contrast with his blackened face. But now look!"
He handed the glass to Grimstead. The newspaperman looked, started, and then looked again. Without a word, he handed the glass to Farley, who looked through it long and hard. Then he whistled softly.
"Finger prints!" he said laconically.
"Exactly," agreed Dr. Stoughton. "They have come out on the skin like a rash. Carey's throat looked like an undeveloped negative when I first looked at it. But now, through some queer phenomenon, it has been 'developed.'"
A little silence followed his words.
"Did you, perhaps, notice anything else when you looked through the glass?" continued Dr. Stoughton.
"What, for instance?" asked Grimstead.
"Those fingerprints on his throat were those of a woman," said Dr. Stoughton. "They are much too small to have been inflicted by a man."
"Good Lord!" said Farley.
"But they couldn't have been inflicted by a woman," observed Grimstead satirically, "because you said my story was an hallucination. Beings that figure in hallucinations cannot commit red murders, can they?"
"Humph!" grunted Dr. Stoughton. Then, with a puzzled frown: "What do you think of all this, Grimstead?"
"There is only one way to think." replied the newspaperman. "Carey undoubtedly murdered his wife and came back to visit the scene of his crime, as murderers from time immemorial have done. His wife's ghost was in this room. I am as certain of that as I am that my name is Grimstead. It was Selma Carey's fingers that reached from the grave and strangled her husband."
"Bosh!" ejaculated the physician. "Such things are impossible!"
Grimstead shrugged his shoulders.
"Nothing is impossible nowadays, Doctor," he said.
~ The End ~