“There is no such thing as a haunted house,” said I.
“T’aint the house that be haunted, Mr. Rauland,” said the old man, “just the library.”
I put down my valise and hung my coat and hat on a stand. “Whatever, there are no such things as ghosts.”
“That’s what the last one said. Mr. Griffin, that was ‘is name,” said the old woman. Her hair was white but with a green tinge, as if mouldy, and her beady eyes were swollen and bloodshot. “Well, e’s in the mad ‘ouse now, is Mr. Griffin.”
I adjudged them to be man and wife, and equally decrepit. Well, I wasn’t going to be deterred from the bet by these two. In fact, I wondered if Smithers hadn’t put them up to this. “Hmm, I barely think so. The thing is,” I seated myself on an ancient green leather armchair and crossed my legs, “the human imagination knows no bounds. Take caves, for example.”
The old man let out a splutter, whilst the old woman glared at me blankly.
“What I mean is, people look at the walls of a cave, maybe there’ll be stalagmites and stalactites too. Then in the dim light of that subterranean world, they’ll see a witch, a hermit, a lion’s face, whatever.”
The old man wiped mucus from his nose with the sleeve of tattered green cardigan. “Well, I say as it’s ‘aunted. But if you’ve a bet with Mr. Smithers, then me and the wife ain’t going to stop you. Just don’t say as we didn’t warn you.”
I sat before a cheerful fire in the library, engrossed in my old favourite, Wind in the Willows. Perhaps twenty candles burned in sconces and candle-stick holders around the room. I had adjusted their positions so that nowhere in the library was there any shadow. The windows were covered by long green velvet drapes and a camp bed had been made up for me in a corner. I poured a shot of whisky into a glass and sipped the fiery liquid, warming my throat at the same time as my cheeks luxuriated in the heat of the coals.
“It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness,” I read. Then I noticed that a candle had gone out at the far end of the room, to the left of my chair, where a bookcase now resembled a dark cave entrance. “Hah, this won’t do,” I said aloud. I paced down the library and struck a match. It burst into flame with that wonderful smell of sulphur. I relit the candle and retraced my steps to the fire and once more took up my book.
“making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was.”
Suddenly the old grandfather clock began to strike midnight, making me jump. Damn it! The interval between each chime seemed an age. Finally, I had counted twelve and took up my book again, almost dropping it when the clock chimed once more. I must have miscounted, I assumed. Then, to my annoyance, I noticed that the candle I had previously relit had once again gone out. There must be a strong draft at that end of the room, I imagined, and once more I paced the polished oak boards of the library floor to relight the candle. I wet a finger and held it up, expecting to feel a waft of cold air, but there was nothing. I wondered if perhaps the candle was faulty in some way. But, examining it as best as I could in the necessarily dull light of the room, I could see no defect. I must not let my imagination get the better of me, I vowed, that would be fatal.
Taking my seat before the fire again, I closed my eyes and listened. Apart from the slight noise of the fire, there was no sound whatsoever. It felt as if the whole world was asleep. Then, far off, towards the right-hand side of the room this time, I heard a scraping sound. Very faint, as if a mouse were scratching the skirting in the next room. Then it stopped. I began to read once more.
“He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him.”
Damn! There it was again. Scratch … scratch … scratch. I determined to pay it no heed. No mouse was going to get between me and Mole!
“A moment, and he had caught it again”
Scratch … scratch … scratch. Very faint but more urgently now.
“and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood. Home!”
I now noticed that the light on the page had dimmed considerably and looked up, astonished to see that only four candles remained alight. I felt my hands wet with sweat and my heart felt like it would pound right out of my chest. Suddenly, there was a loud knock that made me leap out of the chair in fright. I stood, looking around, but with so many candles extinguished there were now large areas of dark shadow, and with the flicker of the fire I fancied I saw something huge and black move at the edge of my vision.
That was as much as I could stand. There were no such things as ghosts, but there was something … something out of the ordinary going on, something frightening, and I started towards the door, prepared to lose the bet and eat humble pie. Then, of an instant, the remaining candles and the fire itself were snuffed out and the room was plunged into impenetrable darkness.
“I don’t know who or what you are, but I’m not scared of you,” I got out, incapable of hiding the tremulousness in my voice. Then it felt like I had been plunged into a tub of ice. The room must have dropped thirty degrees. I ran in the direction of the door, but in the blackness I crashed my shin against a solid table and let out a shout of pain. Then I sensed a presence, something alive and malevolent, something so close to me in the pitch black that if I were to have reached out a hand I would surely have touched it.
A man in a white coat sat before me. The room was functional with white walls and filing cabinets. A nurse, also in white, smiled at me.
“Mr. Rauland, you’re looking well. How are you sleeping?” said the man.
I thought for a while. “As well as can be expected.”
The two exchanged glances. “You’re fine now, Mr Rauland, all the bruises and broken bones healing well after your … your little hallucination and, er, tumble.”
I sighed. “Look, doctor, I’ve told you again and again what happened. There was … something in the old library, something … evil. I must have panicked, injured myself getting out of the room, then fallen on the stairs.”
The doctor adjusted heavy black-framed glasses. “As you say, Mr. Rauland, as you say. Well, it seems you’ll be with us for just a little bit longer I’m afraid.”
The nurse got up and came towards me. “Come on Mr. Rauland, back to your room now. Time for some nice medication.”
I stood up and went to motion her away, to find my arms were strapped around my chest. Why did I keep forgetting that?
As she escorted me from the room, another nurse led in a fellow, likewise clad in a straightjacket. In his face I recognised the glazed, staring eyes of the madman.
“Mr. Griffin, you’re looking well. How are you sleeping?” I heard the doctor ask.
Featured in the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural
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