ADVENTURE OF THE DESERTED RESIDENCE

“A wonderful story, as you say; an extraordinary sequence and play of
coincidence. I confess that your expressions when you first showed me
the Gold Tiberius were not exaggerated. But do you think that Walters
has really some fearful fate to dread?”

“I cannot say. Who can presume to predict events when life itself puts
on the robe of coincidence and plays at drama? Perhaps we have not yet
reached the last chapter in the queer story. But, look, we are drawing
near to the verge of London; there are gaps, you see, in the serried
ranks of brick, and a vision of green fields beyond.”

Dyson had persuaded the ingenious Mr. Phillipps to accompany him on one
of those aimless walks to which he was himself so addicted. Starting
from the very heart of London, they had made their way westward through
the stony avenues, and were now just emerging from the red lines of an
extreme suburb, and presently the half-finished road ended, a quiet lane
began, and they were beneath the shade of elm-trees. The yellow autumn
sunlight that had lit up the bare distance of the suburban street now
filtered down through the boughs of the trees and shone on the glowing
carpet of fallen leaves, and the pools of rain glittered and shot back
the gleam of light. Over all the broad pastures there was peace and the
happy rest of autumn before the great winds begin, and afar off, London
lay all vague and immense amidst the veiling mist; here and there a
distant window catching the sun and kindling with fire, and a spire
gleaming high, and below the streets in shadow, and the turmoil of life.
Dyson and Phillipps walked on in silence beneath the high hedges, till
at a turn of the lane they saw a mouldering and ancient gate standing
open, and the prospect of a house at the end of a moss-grown carriage
drive.

“There is a survival for you,” said Dyson; “it has come to its last
days, I imagine. Look how the laurels have grown gaunt, and weedy, and
black, and bare, beneath; look at the house, covered with yellow wash
and patched with green damp. Why, the very notice-board which informs
all and singular that the place is to be let has cracked and half
fallen.”

“Suppose we go in and see it,” said Phillipps. “I don’t think there is
anybody about.”

They turned up the drive, and walked slowly, towards this remnant of old
days. It was a large straggling house, with curved wings at either end,
and behind a series of irregular roofs and projections, showing that the
place had been added to at divers dates; the two wings were roofed in
cupola fashion, and at one side, as they came nearer, they could see a
stable-yard, and a clock turret with a bell, and the dark masses of
gloomy cedars. Amidst all the lineaments of dissolution, there was but
one note of contrast: the sun was setting beyond the elm-trees, and all
the west and the south were in flames, and on the upper windows of the
house the glow shone reflected, and it seemed as if blood and fire were
mingled. Before the yellow front of the mansion, stained, as Dyson had
remarked, with gangrenous patches, green and blackening, stretched what
once had been, no doubt, a well-kept lawn, but it was now rough and
ragged, and nettles and great docks, and all manner of coarse weeds,
struggled in the places of the flower-beds. The urns had fallen from
their pillars beside the walk, and lay broken in shards upon the ground,
and everywhere from grass-plot and path a fungoid growth had sprung up
and multiplied, and lay dank and slimy like a festering sore upon the
earth. In the middle of the rank grass of the lawn was a desolate
fountain; the rim of the basin was crumbling and pulverized with decay,
and within, the water stood stagnant, with green scum for the lilies
that had once bloomed there; and rust had eaten into the bronze flesh of
the Triton that stood in the middle, and the conch-shell he held was
broken.

“Here,” said Dyson, “one might moralize over decay and death. Here all
the stage is decked out with the symbols of dissolution; the cedarn
gloom and twilight hangs heavy around us, and everywhere within the pale
dankness has found a harbor, and the very air is changed and brought to
accord with the scene. To me, I confess, this deserted house is as moral
as a graveyard, and I find something sublime in that lonely Triton,
deserted in the midst of his water-pool. He is the last of the gods;
they have left him and he remembers the sound of water falling on water,
and the days that were sweet.”

“I like your reflections extremely,” said Phillipps, “but I may mention
that the door of the house is open.”.

“Let us go in then.”

The door was just ajar, and they passed into the mouldy hall, and looked
in at a room on one side. It was a large room, going far back, and the
rich old red flock paper was peeling from the walls in long strips, and
blackened with vague patches of rising damp; the ancient clay, the dank
reeking earth rising up again, and subduing all the work of men’s hands
after the conquest of many years. And the floor was thick with the dust
of decay, and the painted ceiling fading from all gay colors and light
fancies of cupids in a career, and disfigured with sores of dampness,
seemed transmuted into other work. No longer the amorini chased one
another pleasantly, with limbs that sought not to advance, and hands
that merely simulated the act of grasping at the wreathed flowers, but
it appeared some savage burlesque of the old careless world and of its
cherished conventions, and the dance of the loves had become a dance of
Death; black pustules and festering sores swelled and clustered on fair
limbs, and smiling faces showed corruption, and the fairy blood had
boiled with the germs of foul disease; it was a parable of the leaven
working, and worms devouring for a banquet the heart of the rose.

Strangely, under the painted ceiling, against the decaying walls, two
old chairs still stood alone, the sole furniture of the empty place.
High-backed, with curving arms and twisted legs, covered with faded gold
leaf, and upholstered in tattered damask, they too were a part of the
symbolism, and struck Dyson with surprise. “What have we here?” he said.
“Who has sat in these chairs? Who, clad in peach-bloom satin, with lace
ruffles and diamond buckles, all golden, _a conté fleurettes_ to his
companion? Phillipps, we are in another age. I wish I had some snuff to
offer you, but failing that, I beg to offer you a seat, and we will sit
and smoke tobacco. A horrid practice, but I am no pedant.”

They sat down on the queer old chairs, and looked out of the dim and
grimy panes to the ruined lawn, and the fallen urns, and the deserted
Triton.

Presently Dyson ceased his imitation of eighteenth century airs; he no
longer pulled forward imaginary ruffles, or tapped a ghostly snuff-box.

“It’s a foolish fancy,” he said at last, “but I keep thinking I hear a
noise like some one groaning. Listen; no, I can’t hear it now. There it
is again! Did you notice it, Phillipps?

“No, I can’t say I heard anything. But I believe that old places like
this are like shells from the shore, ever echoing with noises. The old
beams, mouldering piecemeal, yield a little and groan, and such a house
as this I can fancy all resonant at night with voices, the voices of
matter so slowly and so surely transformed into other shapes; the voice
of the worm that gnaws at last the very heart of the oak; the voice of
stone grinding on stone, and the voice of the conquest of time.”

They sat still in the old armchairs and grew graver in the musty ancient
air,–the air of a hundred years ago.

“I don’t like the place,” said Phillipps, after a long pause. “To me it
seems, as if there were a sickly, unwholesome smell about it, a smell of
something burning.”

“You are right; there is an evil odor here. I wonder what it is! Hark!
Did you hear that?”

A hollow sound, a noise of infinite sadness and infinite pain broke in
upon the silence; and the two men looked fearfully at one another,
horror and the sense of unknown things glimmering in their eyes.

“Come,” said Dyson, “we must see into this,” and they went into the hall
and listened in the silence.

“Do you know,” said Phillipps, “it seems absurd, but I could almost
fancy that the smell is that of burning flesh.”




They went up the hollow-sounding stairs, and the the odor became thick
and noisome, stifling the breath; and a vapor, sickening as the smell of
the chamber of death, choked them. A door was open and they entered the
large upper room, and clung hard to one another, shuddering at the sight
they saw.

A naked man was lying on the floor, his arms and legs stretched wide
apart, and bound to pegs that had been hammered into the boards. The
body was torn and mutilated in the most hideous fashion, scarred with
the marks of red-hot irons, a shameful ruin of the human shape. But upon
the middle of the body a fire of coals was smouldering; the flesh had
been burned through. The man was dead, but the smoke of his torment
mounted still, a black vapor.

“The young man with spectacles,” said Mr. Dyson.