PROLOGUE

“And Mr. Joseph Walters is going to stay the night?” said the smooth
clean-shaven man to his companion, an individual not of the most
charming appearance, who had chosen to make his ginger-colored mustache
merge into a pair of short chin-whiskers.

The two stood at the hall door, grinning evilly at each other; and
presently a girl ran quickly down, the stairs, and joined them. She was
quite young, with a quaint and piquant rather than a beautiful face, and
her eyes were of a shining hazel. She held a neat paper parcel in one
hand, and laughed with her friends.

“Leave the door open,” said the smooth man to the other, as they were
going out. “Yes, by—-,” he went on with an ugly oath. “We’ll leave the
front door on the jar. He may like to see company, you know.”

The other man looked doubtfully about him. “Is it quite prudent do you
think, Davies?” he said, pausing with his hand on the mouldering
knocker. “I don’t think Lipsius would like it. What do you say, Helen?”

“I agree with Davies. Davies is an artist, and you are commonplace,
Richmond, and a bit of a coward. Let the door stand open, of course. But
what a pity Lipsius had to go away! He would have enjoyed himself.”

“Yes,” replied the smooth Mr. Davies, “that summons to the west was very
hard on the doctor.”

The three passed out, leaving the hall door, cracked and riven with
frost and wet, half open, and they stood silent for a moment under the
ruinous shelter of the porch.

“Well,” said the girl, “it is done at last. I shall hurry no more on the
track of the young man with spectacles.”

“We owe a great deal to you,” said Mr. Davies politely; “the doctor said
so before he left. But have we not all three some farewells to make? I,
for my part, propose to say good-by, here, before this picturesque but
mouldy residence, to my friend Mr. Burton, dealer in the antique and
curious,” and the man lifted his hat with an exaggerated bow.

“And I,” said Richmond, “bid adieu to Mr. Wilkins, the private
secretary, whose company has, I confess, become a little tedious.”

“Farewell to Miss Lally, and to Miss Leicester also,” said the girl,
making as she spoke a delicious courtesy. “Farewell to all occult
adventure; the farce is played.”

Mr. Davies and the lady seemed full of grim enjoyment, but Richmond
tugged at his whiskers nervously.

“I feel a bit shaken up,” he said. “I’ve seen rougher things in the
States, but that crying noise he made gave me a sickish feeling. And
then the smell–But my stomach was never very strong.”

The three friends moved away from the door, and began to walk slowly up
and down what had been a gravel path, but now lay green and pulpy with
damp mosses. It was a fine autumn evening, and a faint sunlight shone on
the yellow walls of the old deserted house, and showed the patches of
gangrenous decay, and all the stains, the black drift of rain from the
broken pipes, the scabrous blots where the bare bricks were exposed, the
green weeping of a gaunt laburnum that stood beside the porch, and
ragged marks near the ground where the reeking clay was gaining on the
worn foundations. It was a queer rambling old place, the centre perhaps
two hundred years old, with dormer windows sloping from the tiled roof,
and on each side there were Georgian wings; bow windows had been carried
up to the first floor, and two dome-like cupolas that had once been
painted a bright green were now gray and neutral. Broken urns lay upon
the path, and a heavy mist seemed to rise from the unctuous clay; the
neglected shrubberies, grown all tangled and unshapen, smelt dank and
evil, and there was an atmosphere all about the deserted mansion that
proposed thoughts of an opened grave. The three friends looked dismally
at the rough grasses and the nettles that grew thick over lawn and
flower-beds; and at the sad water-pool in the midst of the weeds. There,
above green and oily scum instead of lilies, stood a rusting Triton on
the rocks, sounding a dirge through a shattered horn; and beyond, beyond
the sunk fence and the far meadows; the sun slid down and shone red
through the bars of the elm trees.

Richmond shivered and stamped his foot. “We had better be going soon,”
he said; “there is nothing else to be done here.”

“No,” said Davies, “it is finished at last. I thought for some time we
should never get hold of the gentleman with the spectacles. He was a
clever fellow, but, Lord! he broke up badly at last. I can tell you he
looked white at me when I touched him on the arm in the bar. But where
could he have hidden the thing? We can all swear it was not on him.”

The girl laughed, and they turned away, when Richmond gave a violent
start. “Ah!” he cried, turning to the girl, “what have you got there?
Look, Davies, look! it’s all oozing and dripping.”

The young woman glanced down at the little parcel she was carrying, and
partially unfolded the paper.

“Yes, look both of you,” she said; “it’s my own idea. Don’t you think it
will do nicely for the doctor’s museum? It comes from the right hand,
the hand that took the gold Tiberius.”

Mr. Davies nodded with a good deal of approbation, and Richmond lifted
his ugly high-crowned bowler, and wiped his forehead with a dingy
handkerchief.




“I’m going,” he said; “you two can stay if you like.”

The three went round by the stable path, past the withered wilderness of
the old kitchen garden, and struck off by a hedge at the back, making
for a particular point in the road. About five minutes later two
gentlemen, whom idleness had led to explore these forgotten outskirts of
London, came sauntering up the shadowy carriage drive. They had spied
the deserted house from the road, and as they observed all the heavy
desolation of the place they began to moralize in the great style, with
considerable debts to Jeremy Taylor.

“Look, Dyson,” said the one as they drew nearer, “look at those upper
windows; the sun is setting, and though the panes are dusty, yet

“The grimy sash an oriel burns.”

“Phillipps,” replied the elder and (it must be said) the more pompous of
the two, “I yield to fantasy, I cannot withstand the influence of the
grotesque. Here, where all is falling into dimness and dissolution, and
we walk in cedarn gloom, and the very air of heaven goes mouldering to
the lungs, I cannot remain commonplace. I look at that deep glow on the
panes, and the house lies all enchanted; that very room, I tell you, is
within all blood and fire.”