THE WARDER OF THE DOOR
[Psychic sleuth: Bell, the Master of Mysteries]
L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
"If you don't believe it, you can read it for yourself," said Allen Clinton, climbing up the steps and searching among the volumes on the top shelf.
I lay back in my chair. The beams from the sinking sun shone through the stained glass of the windows of the old library, and dyed the rows of black leather volumes with bands of red and yellow.
I took a musty volume from Allen Clinton, which he had unearthed from its resting-place.
"It is about the middle of the book," he continued eagerly. 'You will see it in big, black, old English letters."
I turned over the pages containing the family tree and other archives of the Clintons till I came to the one I was seeking. It contained the curse which had rested on the family since 1400. Slowly and with difficulty I deciphered the words of this terrible denunciation.
"And in this cell its coffin lieth, the coffin which hath not human shape, for which reason no holy ground receiveth it. Here shall it rest to curse the family of ye Clyntons from generation to generation. And for this reason, as soon as the soul shall pass from the body of each first-born, which is the heir, it shall become the warder of the door by day and by night. Day and night shall his spirit stand by the door, to keep the door close till the son shall release the spirit of the father from the watch and take his place, till his son in turn shall die. And whoso entereth into the cell shall be the prisoner of the soul that guardeth the door till it shall let him go."
"What a ghastly idea!' I said, glancing up at the young man who was watching me as I read. 'But you say this cell has never been found. I should say its existence was a myth, and, of course, the curse on the soul of the first-born to keep the door shut as warder is absurd. Matter does not obey witchcraft."
"The odd part of it is," replied Allen, 'that every other detail of the Abbey referred to in this record has been identified; but this cell with its horrible contents has never been found."
It certainly was a curious legend, and I allow it made some impression on me. I fancied, too, that somewhere I had heard something similar, but my memory failed to trace it.
I had come down to Clinton Abbey three days before for some pheasant shooting.
It was now Sunday afternoon. The family, with the exception of old Sir Henry, Allen and myself, were at church. Sir Henry, now nearly eighty years of age and a chronic invalid, had retired to his room for his afternoon sleep. The younger Clinton and I had gone out for a stroll round the grounds, and since we returned our conversation had run upon the family history till it arrived at the legend of the family curse. Presently, the door of the library was slowly opened, and Sir Henry, in his black velvet coat, which formed such a striking contrast to his snowy white beard and hair, entered the room. I rose from my chair, and, giving him my arm, assisted him to his favourite couch. He sank into its luxurious depths with a sigh, but as he did so his eyes caught the old volume which I had laid on the table beside it. He started forward, took the book in his hand and looked across at his son.
"Did you take this book down?" he said sharply.
"Yes, father; I got it out to show it to Bell. He is interested in the history of the Abbey, and?"
"Then return it to its place at once," interrupted the old man, his black eyes blazing with sudden passion. "You know how I dislike having my books disarranged, and this one above all. Stay, give it to me."
He struggled up from the couch, and, taking the volume, locked it up in one of the drawers of his writing-table, and then sat back again on the sofa. His hands were trembling, as if some sudden fear had taken possession of him.
"Did you say that Phyllis Curzon is coming tomorrow?" asked the old man presently of his son in an irritable voice.
"Yes, father, of course; don't you remember? Mrs. Curzon and Phyllis are coming to stay for a fortnight; and, by the way," he added, starting to his feet as he spoke, "that reminds me I must go and tell Grace?"
The rest of the sentence was lost in the closing of the door. As soon as we were alone, Sir Henry looked across at me for a few moments without speaking. Then he said?
"I am sorry I was so short just now. I am not myself. I do not know what is the matter with me. I feel all to pieces. I cannot sleep. I do not think my time is very long now, and I am worried about Allen. The fact is, I would give anything to stop this engagement. I wish he would not marry."
"I am sorry to hear you say that, sir," I answered. "I should have thought you would have been anxious to see your son happily married."
"Most men would," was the reply; 'but I have my reasons for wishing things otherwise."
"What do you mean?" I could not help asking.
"I cannot explain myself; I wish I could. It would be best for Allen to let the old family die out. There, perhaps I am foolish about it, and of course I cannot really stop the marriage, but I am worried and troubled about many things."
"I wish I could help you, sir," I said impulsively. "If there is anything I can possibly do, you know you have only to ask me."
"Thank you, Bell, I know you would; but I cannot tell you. Some day I may. But there, I am afraid--horribly afraid."
The trembling again seized him, and he put his hands over his eyes as if to shut out some terrible sight.
"Don't repeat a word of what I have told you to Allen or anyone else," he said suddenly. "It is possible that some day I may ask you to help me; and remember, Bell, I trust you."
He held out his hand, which I took. In another moment the butler entered with the lamps, and I took advantage of the interruption to make my way to the drawing-room.
The next day the Curzons arrived, and a hasty glance showed me that Phyllis was a charming girl. She was tall, slightly built, with a figure both upright and graceful, and a handsome, somewhat proud face. When in perfect repose her expression was somewhat haughty; but the moment she spoke her face became vivacious, kindly, charming to an extraordinary degree; she had a gay laugh, a sweet smile, a sympathetic manner. I was certain she had the kindest of hearts, and was sure that Allen had made an admirable choice.
A few days went by, and at last the evening before the day when I was to return to London arrived. Phyllis' mother had gone to bed a short time before, as she had complained of headache, and Allen suddenly proposed, as the night was a perfect one, that we should go out and enjoy a moonlight stroll.
Phyllis laughed with glee at the suggestion, and ran at once into the hall to take a wrap from one of the pegs.
"Allen," she said to her lover, who was following her, "you and I will go first."
"No, young lady, on this occasion you and I will have that privilege," said Sir Henry. He had also come into the hall, and, to our astonishment, announced his intention of accompanying us in our walk.
Phyllis bestowed upon him a startled glance, then she laid her hand lightly on his arm, nodded back at Allen with a smile and walked on in front somewhat rapidly. Allen and I followed in the rear.
"Now, what does my father mean by this?' said Allen to me. "He never goes out at night; but he has not been well lately. I sometimes think he grows queerer every day."
"He is very far from well, I am certain," I answered.
We stayed out for about half an hour and returned home by a path which led into the house through a side entrance. Phyllis was waiting for us in the hall.
"Where is my father?' asked Allen, going up to her.
"He is tired and has gone to bed," she answered. "Good night, Allen."
"Won't you come into the drawing-room?" he asked in some astonishment.
"No, I am tired!"
She nodded to him without touching his hand; her eyes, I could not help noticing, had a queer expression. She ran upstairs.
I saw that Allen was startled by her manner; but as he did not say anything, neither did I.
The next day at breakfast I was told that the Curzons had already left the Abbey. Allen was full of astonishment and, I could see, a good deal annoyed. He and I breakfasted alone in the old library. His father was too ill to come downstairs.
An hour later I was on my way back to London. Many things there engaged my immediate attention, and Allen, his engagement, Sir Henry and the old family curse, sank more or less into the background of my mind.
Three months afterwards, on the 7th of January, I saw to my sorrow in The Times the announcement of Sir Henry Clinton's death.
From time to time in the interim I had heard from the son, saying that his father was failing fast. He further mentioned that his own wedding was fixed for the twenty-first of the present month. Now, of course, it must be postponed. I felt truly sorry for Allen, and wrote immediately a long letter of condolence.
On the following day I received a wire from him, imploring me to go down to the Abbey as soon as possible, saying that he was in great difficulty.
I packed a few things hastily, and arrived at Clinton Abbey at six in the evening. The house was silent and subdued--the funeral was to take place the next day. Clinton came into the hall and gripped me warmly by the hand. I noticed at once how worn and worried he looked.
"This is good of you, Bell," he said. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for coming. You are the one man who can help me, for I know you have had much experience in matters of this sort. Come into the library and I will tell you everything. We shall dine alone this evening, as my mother and the girls are keeping to their own apartments for tonight."
As soon as we were seated, he plunged at once into his story.
"I must give you a sort of prelude to what has just occurred," he began. "You remember, when you were last here, how abruptly Phyllis and her mother left the Abbey?"
I nodded. I remembered well.
"On the morning after you had left us I had a long letter from Phyllis," continued Allen. "In it she told me of an extraordinary request my father had made to her during that moonlight walk--nothing more nor less than an earnest wish that she would herself terminate our engagement. She spoke quite frankly, as she always does, assuring me of her unalterable love and devotion, but saying that under the circumstances it was absolutely necessary to have an explanation. Frantic with almost ungovernable rage, I sought my father in his study. I laid Phyllis' letter before him and asked him what it meant. He looked at me with the most unutterable expression of weariness and pathos.
"'Yes, my boy, I did it," he said. "Phyllis is quite right. I did ask of her, as earnestly as a very old man could plead, that she would bring the engagement to an end."
"But why?" I asked. "Why?"
"'That I am unable to tell you," he replied.
"I lost my temper and said some words to him which I now regret. He made no sort of reply, When I had done speaking he said slowly, "I make all allowance for your emotion, Allen; your feelings are no more than natural."
"'You have done me a very sore injury," I retorted. "What can Phyllis think of this? She will never be the same again. I am going to see her today."
"He did not utter another word, and I left him. I was absent from home for about a week. It took me nearly that time to induce Phyllis to overlook my father's extraordinary request, and to let matters go on exactly as they had done before.
"After fixing our engagement, if possible, more firmly than ever, and also arranging the date of our wedding, I returned home. When I did so I told my father what I had done.
"As you will," he replied, and then he sank into great gloom. From that moment, although I watched him day and night, and did everything that love and tenderness could suggest, he never seemed to rally. He scarcely spoke, and remained, whenever we were together, bowed in deep and painful reverie. A week ago he took to his bed!"
Here Allen paused.
"I now come to events up to date," he said. "Of course, as you may suppose, I was with my father to the last. A few hours before he passed away he called me to his bedside, and to my astonishment began once more talking about my engagement. He implored me with the utmost earnestness even now at the eleventh hour to break it off. It was not too late, he said, and added further that nothing would give him ease in dying but the knowledge that I would promise him to remain single. Of course I tried to humor him. He took my hand, looked me in the eyes with an expression which I shall never forget and said, "Allen, make me a solemn promise that you will never marry."
"This I naturally had to refuse, and then he told me that, expecting my obstinacy, he had written me a letter which I should find in his safe, but I was not to open it till after his death. I found it this morning. Bell, it is the most extraordinary communication, and either it is entirely a figment of his imagination, for his brain powers were failing very much at the last, or else it is the most awful thing I ever heard of. Here is the letter; read it for yourself."
I took the paper from his hand and read the following matter in shaky, almost illegible writing:
"My Dear Boy: When you read this I shall have passed away. For the last six months my life has been a living death. The horror began in the following way. You know what a deep interest I have always taken in the family history of our house, I have spent the latter years of my life in verifying each detail, and my intention was, had health been given me, to publish a great deal of it in a suitable volume.
"On the special night to which I am about to allude, I sat up late in my study reading the book which I saw you show to Bell a short time ago. In particular, I was much attracted by the terrible curse which the old abbot in the fourteenth century had bestowed upon the family. I read the awful words again and again. I knew that all the other details in the volume had been verified, but that the vault with the coffin had never yet been found. Presently I grew drowsy, and I suppose I must have fallen asleep. In my sleep I had a dream; I thought that someone came into the room, touched me on the shoulder and said, "Come." I looked up; a tall figure beckoned to me. The voice and the figure belonged to my late father. In my dream I rose immediately, although I did not know why I went nor where I was going. The figure went on in front, it entered the hall. I took one of the candles from the table and the key of the chapel, unbolted the door and went out. Still the voice kept saying "Come, come," and the figure of my father walked in front of me. I went across the quadrangle, unlocked the chapel door and entered.
"A death-like silence was around me. I crossed the nave to the north aisle; the figure still went in front of me; it entered the great pew which is said to be haunted, and walked straight up to the effigy of the old abbot who had pronounced the curse. This, as you know, is built into the opposite wall. Bending forward, the figure pressed the eyes of the old monk, and immediately a stone started out of its place, revealing a staircase behind. I was about to hurry forward, when I must have knocked against something. I felt a sensation of pain, and suddenly awoke. What was my amazement to find that I had acted on my dream, had crossed the quadrangle and was in the chapel; in fact, was standing in the old pew! Of course there was no figure of any sort visible, but the moonlight shed a cold radiance over all the place. I felt very much startled and impressed, but was just about to return to the house in some wonder at the curious vision which I had experienced, when, raising my startled eyes, I saw that part of it at least was real. The old monk seemed to grin at me from his marble effigy, and beside him was a blank open space. I hurried to it and saw a narrow flight of stairs. I cannot explain what my emotions were, but my keenest feeling at that moment was a strong and horrible curiosity. Holding the candle in my hand, I went down the steps. They terminated at the beginning of a long passage. This I quickly traversed, and at last found myself beside an iron door. It was not locked, but hasped, and was very hard to open; in fact, it required nearly all my strength; at last I pulled it open towards me, and there in a small cell lay the coffin, as the words of the curse said. I gazed at it in horror. I did not dare to enter. It was a wedged-shaped coffin studded with great nails. But as I looked my blood froze within me, for slowly, very slowly, as if pushed by some unseen hand, the great heavy door began to close, quicker and quicker, until with a crash that echoed and reechoed through the empty vault, it shut.
"Terror-stricken, I rushed from the vault and reached my room once more.
"Now I know that this great curse is true; that my father's spirit is there to guard the door and close it, for I saw it with my own eyes, and while you read this know that I am there. I charge you, therefore, not to marry--bring no child into the world to perpetuate this terrible curse. Let the family die out if you have the courage. It is much, I know, to ask; but whether you do or not, come to me there, and if by sign or word I can communicate with you I will do so, but hold the secret safe. Meet me there before my body is laid to rest, when body and soul are still not far from each other. Farewell. ?Your loving father,