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What did he kill in that silent house - an unknown horror, or an empty coat? Or are there still answers that reason fears... truths that make the brain a gateway to darkness - through which come rushing Things beyond ken?
by A. E. D. Smith
I am quite aware that the other fellows in the office regard me as
something of an oddity — as being rather a 'strange bird', in fact. Well, of
course, a man who happens to be of a studious disposition, who dis-
likes noise and prefers his own company to that of empty-headed com-
panions, and who, moreover, is compelled by defective vision to wear
thick glasses, is always liable to be thus misjudged by inferior minds;
and ordinarily, I treat the opinion of my colleagues with the contempt
it deserves. But at this particular moment I was beginning to think that
perhaps, after all, there might be something to be said for their view.
For, though I might still repudiate the 'queer bird' part of the busi-
ness, undoubtedly I was an ass — a first-class chump; otherwise I should
have been spending my holidays in a nice comfortable way with the
rest of the normal world, listening to the Pierrots or winking at the
girls on the promenade of some seaside resort at home, instead of
having elected to set out alone on this idiotic push-bike tour of a little-
known part of France. Drenched, hungry and lost; a stranger in a
strange land; dispiritedly pushing before me a heavily-laden bicycle
with a gashed tyre — such was the present result of my asinine choice.
The storm had overtaken me miles from anywhere, on a wild road
over a spur of the Vosges, and for nearly two hours I had trudged
through the pelting rain without encountering a living soul or the least
sign of human habitation.
And then, at long last, rounding a bend, I glimpsed just ahead of
me the chimney-pots and gables of a fair-sized house. It was a lonely,
desolate-looking place standing amid a clump of trees a little way back
from the road, and somehow, even at a distance, did not convey a very
inviting impression. Nevertheless, in that wilderness, it was a welcome
enough sight, and in the hope of finding temporary shelter and possi-
bly a little badly-needed refreshment, I quickened my pace towards it.
Two hundred yards brought me to the entrance gates, and here I
suffered a grievous disappointment; for the roofless porter's lodge, the
dilapidated old gates hanging askew on their hinges, and the over-
grown drive beyond, plainly indicated that the place was no longer
I speedily comforted myself, however, with the reflection that in the
circumstances even a deserted house was not to be despised as a ref-
uge. Once under cover of some kind, I might make shift to wring out
my drenched clothing and repair my damaged mount; and without
further ado I pushed my bicycle up the long- neglected drive and
reached the terrace in front of the house itself. It proved to be an old
chateau, half smothered in creepers and vines that had long gone wild,
and, judging by the carved stone coat-of-arms over the main entrance,
had once been occupied by a person of some quality. Mounted on a
pedestal on either side of the iron-studded front door stood a rusty
carronade— trophies, probably, of some long- forgotten war in which
the former occupier had played a part. Most of the windows had been
boarded up, and it was evident that the place had stood empty for
I tried the front door. To my surprise it was unfastened, and a thrust
of my shoulder sent it creaking grudgingly back on its hinges. My
nostrils, as I stepped into the dim, wide hall, were at once assailed by
the stale, disagreeable odour of rotting woodwork and mouldy hang-
ings and carpets. For a moment or two I stood peering uncertainly
about me, with the slight feeling of eeriness that one usually experi-
ences when entering an old, empty house. Facing me was a broad
staircase, with a long, stained-glass window, almost opaque with dirt
and cobwebs, at its head. I mounted the stairs, and throwing open the
first door at hand, found myself looking into a spacious, handsomely
furnished room that had evidently once been the chief apartment of
the house, though long neglect and disuse had now reduced it to a
sorry state. The ornate cornice hung here and there in strips, and in
one corner the plaster of the ceiling had come down altogether. Green
mould covered the eighteenth-century furniture; curtains and draper-
ies hung in tatters; and one half of the beautiful old Persian carpet,
from a point near the door right across to the fireplace, was overspread
by an evil-smelling, bright orange fungus.
The fireplace gave me an idea. Could I but find fuel I might light a
fire, make myself a hot drink, and get my clothes properly dried.
A little searching in the outbuildings discovered a sufficient quantity
of old sticks to serve my purpose, and with a bundle of them under my
coat I re-entered the house and briskly made my way upstairs again.
But on the threshold of the big room, without quite knowing why, I
suddenly checked. It was as though my legs, of their own volition, had
all at once become reluctant to carry me farther into the apartment—
as if something quite outside of me were urging me to turn about and
retreat. I laid the sticks down at my feet, and for a moment or two
stood there uncertainly in the doorway. I was beginning to sense some
subtle suggestion of danger in the atmosphere of the place. Everything
was apparently just as I had left it; yet I had an uneasy sort of feeling
that during my brief absence something evil had entered that room
I am neither a nervous nor a superstitious person; yet I found my-
self, a moment later, rather shamefacedly picking up my sticks and
moving back towards the head of the stairs. Actually, it was not so
much fear as a vague, precautionary sense of uneasiness that prompted
me. It had occurred to me that perhaps I might feel more comfortable
if I remained nearer to the front door, and made my fire in one of the
rooms on the ground floor. If— it was an idiotic fancy, I know — but
. . . well, if anything — er — queer did happen, and I had to make a
sudden bolt for it, I could get out quicker that way.
It was on this second descent of the stairs, as I faced the light from
the open front door, that I suddenly noticed something that pulled me
up with a decided start. Running up the centre of the staircase, and
quite fresh in the thick dust, was a broad, broken sort of track, exactly
as though someone had recently trailed up an empty sack or something
of that nature.
From the foot of the staircase I traced this track across the hall to a
spot immediately below an old, moth-eaten coat that hung from one
of a row of coat-pegs on the opposite wall. And then I saw that similar
tracks traversed the hall in various directions, some terminating before
the doors on either side, others leading past the foot of the stairs to the
rear regions of the house, but all seeming to radiate from the same
point below the coat-pegs. And the queerest thing about it all was that
of footprints, other than my own, there was not a sign.
Uneasiness once more assailed me. The house appeared to be unin-
habited, and yet, plainly someone, or something, had recently been in
the place. Who, or what, was the resdess, questing creature that had
made those strange tracks to and from the old coat? Was it some half-
witted vagrant— a woman possibly— whose trailing draperies obliter-
ated her own footprints?
I had a closer look at the old garment. It was a military greatcoat of
ancient pattern with one or two tarnished siiver buttons still attached
to it, and had evidently seen much service. Turning it round on its peg
with a gingerly finger and thumb, I discovered that just below the left
shoulder there was a round hole as big as a penny, surrounded by an
area of scorched and stained cloth, as though a heavy pistol had been
fired into it at point-blank range. If a pistol bullet had indeed made
that hole, then obviously, the old coat at one period of its existence
had clothed a dead man.
A sudden repugnance for the thing overcame me, and with a slight
shudder I let go of it. It may have been fancy or not, but all at once it
seemed to me that there was more than an odour of mould and rotting
cloth emanating from the thing— that there was a taint of putrefying
flesh and bone. . . .
A taint of animal corruption— faint but unmistakable— I could sniff
it in the air; and with it, something less definable but no less real— a
sort of sixth-sense feeling that the whole atmosphere of the place was
slowly becoming charged with evil emanations from a black and
With an effort I pulled myself together. After all, what was there to
be scared about? I had no need to fear human marauders, for in my hip
pocket 1 carried a small but serviceable automatic; and as for ghosts,
well, if such existed, they didn't usually 'walk' in the daytime. The
place certainly felt creepy, and I shouldn't have cared to spend the
night there; but it would be ridiculous to allow mere idle fancies to
drive me out again into that beasdy rain before I'd made myself that
badly needed hot drink and mended my bicycle.
I therefore opened the door nearest to me, and entered a smallish
room that apparendy had once been used as a study. The fireplace was
on the side opposite to the door, and the wide, ancient grate was still
choked with the ashes of the last log consumed there. I picked up the
poker — a cumbersome old thing with a knob as big as an orange-
raked out the ashes, and laid my sticks in approved Boy Scout fashion.
But the wood was damp, and after I had used up half my matches,
refused to do more than smoulder, whilst a back-draught from the
chimney filled the room with smoke. In desperation I went down on
my hands and knees and tried to rouse the embers into flame by blow-
ing on them. And in the middle of this irksome operation I was startled
by a sound of movement in the hall— a single soft 'flop', as though
some one had flung down a garment.
I was on my feet in a flash, listening with every nerve- a-taut. No
further sound came, and, automatic in hand, I tiptoed to the door.
There was nothing in the hall; nothing to be heard at all save the
steady swish of the rain outside. But from a spot on the floor direcdy
below the old coat the dust was rising in a little eddying cloud, as
though it had just been disturbed.
'Pah! A rat,' I told myself, and went back to my task.
More vigorous blowing on the embers, more raking and poking,
more striking of matches — and, in the midst of it, again came that
curious noise— not very loud, but plain and unmistakable.
Once more I went into the hall, and once more, except for another
little cloud of dust rising from precisely the same spot as before, there
was nothing to be seen. But that sixth-sense warning of imminent
danger was becoming more insistent. I had the feeling now that I was
no longer alone in the old, empty- hall — that some unclean, invisible
presence was lurking there, tainting the very air with its foulness.
'It's no use,' I said to myself. 'I may be a nervous fool, but I can't
stand any more of this. I'll collect my traps and clear out whilst the
With this, I went back into the room, and keeping a nervous eye
cocked on the door, began with rather panicky- haste to re-pack my
haversack. And just as I was in the act of tightening the last strap there
came from the hall a low, evil chuckle, followed by the sound of
stealthy movement. I whipped out my weapon and stood where I was
in the middle of the floor, facing the door, with my blood turning to
ice. Through the chink between the door hinges I saw a shadow pass;
then the door creaked a little, slowly began to open, and round it there
came— the coat.
It stood there upright in the doorway, as God is above me— sway-
ing a little as though uncertain of its balance — collar and shoulders
extended as though by an invisible wearer— the old, musty coat I had
seen hanging in the hall.
For a space that seemed an eternity I stood like a man of stone,
facing the Thing as it seemed to pause on the threshold. A dreadful
sort of hypnotism held me rooted to the spot on which I stood— a
hypnotism that completely paralysed my body, and caused the pistol to
slip from my nervless fingers, and yet left my brain dear. Mingled with
my frozen terror was a feeling of deadly nausea. I knew that I was in
the presence of ultimate Evil — that the very aura of the Hell-engen
dered Thing reared there in the doorway was contamination — that its
actual touch would mean not only the instant destruction of my body,
but the everlasting damnation of my soul.
And now It was coming into the room— with an indescribable bob-
bing sort of motion, the empty sleeves jerking grotesquely at its sides,
the skirts flopping and trailing in the dust, was slowly coming towards
me; and step by step, with my bulging eyes riveted in awful fascination
on the Thing, I was recoiling before it. Step by step, with the rigid,
unconscious movement of an automaton, I drew back until 1 was
brought up with my back pressed into the fireplace and could retreat
no farther. And still, with deadly malevolent purpose, the Thing crept
towards me. The empty sleeves were rising and shakily reaching out
towards my throat. In another moment they would touch me. and
then I knew with the most dreadful certainty that my reason would
snap. A coherent thought somehow came into my burning brain
something that I had read or heard of long ago . - the power . .
of the . . . holy sign . . . against . . . the forces of evil. With a
desperate effort of I stretched out a palsied hand and made the
sign of the Cross. . . . And in that instant, my other hand, scrabbling
frenziedly at the wall behind me, came into contact with something
cold and hard and round. It was the knob of the old, heavy poker.
The touch of the cold iron seemed to give me instant repossession
of my faculties. With lightning swiftness I swung up the iron poker
and struck with all my force at the nightmare Horror before me. And
lo! on the instant, the Thing collapsed, and became an old coat -
nothing more— lying there in a heap at my feel. Yet, on my oath, as I
cleared the hellish thing in a flying leap, and fled from the room, 1 saw
it, out of the tail of my eye, gathering itself together and making shape,
as it were, to scramble after me.
Once outside that accursed house I ran as never man ran before,
and I remember nothing more until I found myself, half fainting, be
fore the door of a little inn.
'Bring wine in the name of God!' I cried, staggering inside.
Wine was brought, and a little wondering group stood round me
while I drank.
I tried to explain to them in my bad French. They continued to
regard me with puzzled looks. At length a look of understanding came
into the landlord's face.
'Mon dieu!' he gasped. 'Is it possible that Monsieur has been in that
place! Quick, Juliette! Monsieur will need another bottle of wine.'
Later, I got something of the story from the landlord, though he
was by no means eager to tell it. The deserted house had once been
occupied by a retired officer of the first Napoleon's army - a semi
madman with a strain of African blood in him. Judging from the land
lord's story, he must have been one of the worst men that God ever
allowed to walk the earth. 'Most certainly, monsieur, he was a bad man
—that one,' concluded my host. 'He killed his wife and tortured every
living thing he could lay hands on— even, it is said, his own daughters.
In the end, one of them shot him in the back. The old chateau has an
evil name. If you offered a million francs, you would not get one of our
country-folks to go near the place.'
As I said at the beginning, I know that the other fellows, in the office
are inclined, as it is, to regard me as being a bit odd; so I haven't told
any of them this story. Nevertheless, it's perfectly true.
My brand-new bicycle and touring traps arc probably *till lying
where I left them in the hall of that devil ridden chateau. Anybody
who cares to collect them may keep them.