I WAS very tired, but in spite of my fatigue it was some while before I fell asleep. Parmiter had thrown a new light upon the business tonight, and by the help of that light I arrayed afresh my scanty knowledge. The strangeness of my position, besides, kept me in some excitement. Here was I quietly abed in a house where I knew no one; Clutterbuck might well talk about impertinence, and I could not but wonder what in the world I should find to say if Dick was late in the morning. Finally, there was the adventure of that night. I felt myself again slipping down the wet grass and dangling over the precipice. I heard again that unearthly screeching which had so frightened Dick and perplexed me, It perplexed me still. I could not for a moment entertain Dick’s supposition of a spirit. This was the middle of the eighteenth century, you will understand, and I had come fresh from London. Ghosts and bogies might do very well for the island of Tresco, but Mr. Berkeley was not to be terrified with any such old-wives’ stories, and so Mr. Berkeley fell asleep.
At what precise hour the thing happened I do not know. The room was so dark that I could not have read my watch, even if I had looked at it, which I did not think to do. But at some time during that night I woke up quite suddenly with a clear sense that I had been waked up.
I sat up in my bed with my heart beating very quick; and then with as a little noise as I could I gathered myself up in the shadow of the bedhangings, at the head. The fog was still thick about the house, so that hardly a glimmer of light came from the window. But there was some one in the room I knew, for I could hear a rustle as of stealthy movements. And then straight in front of me between the two posts of the bed-foot, I saw something white that wavered and swayed this way and that. Only an hour or so before I had been boasting to myself that I was London-bred and lived in the middle of the eighteenth century. But none the less my hair stirred upon my head, and all the moisture dried up in my throat as I stared at that dim white thing wavering and swaying between the bed-posts. It was taller than any human being that I had seen. I remembered the weird screeching sound which I had heard in the hollow; I think that in my heart I begged Dick Parmiter’s pardon for laughing at his fears; I know that I crouched back among the hangings and shuddered till the bed shook and shook again. And then it made a sound, and all the blood in my veins stood still. I thought that my heart would stop or my brain burst. For the sound was neither a screech like that which rose from the hollow, nor a groan, nor any ghostly noise. It was purely human, it was a kecking sound in the throat, such as one makes who gasps for breath. The white thing was a live thing of flesh and blood.
I sprang up on the bed and jumped to the foot of it. It was very dark in the room, but through the darkness, I could see, on a level with my face, the face of a woman. Her eyes were open and they stared into mine. I could see the whites of them; our heads were so near they almost touched.
Even then I did not understand. I wondered what it was on which she stood. I noticed a streak of white which ran straight up towards the ceiling from behind her head, and I wondered what that was. And then suddenly her body swung against my legs. She was standing on nothing whatever! Again the queer gasping coughing noise broke from her lips, and at last I understood it. It was a gasp of a woman strangling to death. That white stiff streak above her head—I knew what it was too. I caught her by the waist and lifted her up till her weight rested upon my arm. With the other arm I felt about her neck. A thick soft scarf—silk it seemed to the touch—was knotted tightly round it, and the end of the scarf ran up to the cross-beam above the bed-posts. The scarf was the streak of white.
I fumbled at the knot with my fingers. It was a slip knot, and now that no weight kept it taut, it loosened easily. I slipped the noose back over her head and left it dangling. The woman I laid down upon the bed, where she lay choking and moaning,
I flung up the window and the cold fog poured into the room. I had no candle to light and nothing wherewith to light it. But I remembered that my foot had knocked against a chair to the right of the window, as I climbed into the room.
I groped for the chair and set it to face the open night. Then I carried the woman to the window and placed her in the chair, and supported her so that she might not fall. Outside I could hear the surf booming upon the sand almost within arm’s reach, and the air was brisk with the salt of the sea.
Such light as there was, glimmered upon the woman’s face. I saw that she was young, little more than a girl indeed, with hair and eyes of an extreme blackness. She was of a slight figure as I knew from the ease with which I carried her, but tall. I could not doubt who it was, for one thing the white dress she wore was of some fine soft fabric, and even in that light it was easy to see that she was beautiful.
I held her thus with the cold salt air blowing upon her face, and in a little, she began to recover. She moved her hands upon her lap, and finally lifted one and held her throat with it.
“Very likely there will be some water in the room,” said I. “If you are safe, if you will not fall, I will look for it.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
My presence occasioned her no surprise and this I thought was no more than natural at the moment. I took my arm from her waist and groped about the room for the water-jug. I found it at last and a glass beside it. These I carried back to the window.
The girl was still seated on the chair, but she had changed her attitude. She had leaned her arms upon the sill and her head upon her arms. I poured out the water from the jug into the tumbler. She did not raise her head. I spoke to her. She did not answer me. A horrible fear turned me cold. I knelt down by her side, and setting down the water gently lifted her head. She did not resist but sank back with a natural movement into my arms. Her eyes were closed, but she was breathing. I could feel her breath upon my cheek and it came steadily and regular. I cannot describe my astonishment; she was in a deep sleep.
I pondered for a moment what I should do! Should I wake the household? Should I explain what had happened and my presence in the house? For Helen Mayle’s sake I must not do that, since Helen Mayle it surely was whom I held in my arms.
I propped her securely in the chair, then crossed the room, opened the door and listened. The house was very still; so far no one had been disturbed. A long narrow passage stretched in front of me, with doors upon either side. Renaembering what Dick Parmiter had told me, I mean that every sound reverberated through the house, I crept down the landing on tip-toe. I had only my stockings upon my feet and I crept forward so carefully that I could not hear my own footfalls.
I had taken some twenty paces when the passage opened out to my right. I put out my hand and touched a balustrade. A few yards farther on the balustrade ceased; there was an empty space which I took to be the beginning of the stairs, and beyond the empty space the passage closed in again.
I crept forward, and at last at the far end of the house and on the left hand of the passage I came to that for which I searched, and which I barely hoped to find—an open door. I held my breath and listened in the doorway, but there was no sound of any one breathing, so I stepped into the room.
The fog was less dense, it hung outside the window a thin white mist and behind that mist the day was breaking. I looked round the room. It was a large bedroom, and the bed had not been slept in. A glance at the toilette with its dainty knick-knacks of silver proved to me that it was a woman’s bedroom. It had two big windows looking out towards the sea, and as I stood in the dim grey light, I wondered whether it was from one of those windows that Adam Mayle had looked years before, and seen the brigantine breaking up upon the Golden Ball Reef. But the light was broadening with the passage of every minute. With the same caution which I had observed before I stole back on tip-toe to Cullen Mayle’s room. Helen Mayle was still asleep, and she had not moved from her posture. I raised her in my arms, and still she did not wake. I carried her down the passage, through the open door and laid her on the bed. There was a coverlet folded at the end of the bed and I spread it over her. She nestled down beneath it and her lips smiled very prettily, and she uttered a little purring murmur of content; but this she did in her sleep. She slept with the untroubled sleep of a child. Her face was pale, but that I took to be its natural complexion. Her long black eyelashes rested upon her cheeks. There was no hint of any trouble in her expression, no trace of any passionate despair. I could hardly believe that this was the girl who had sought to hang herself, whom I had seen struggling for her breath.
Yet there was no doubt possible. She had come into the empty room—empty as she thought, and empty it would have been, had not a fisherboy burst one night into Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s lodging off the Strand—when every one slept, and there she had deliberately stood upon the bed, fastened her noose to the cross-bar and sprang off. There was no doubt possible. It was her spring from the bed which had waked me up, and as I returned to Cullen’s room, I saw the silk noose still hanging from the beam.