With Intent to Steal by Algernon Blackwood
To sleep in a lonely barn when the best bedrooms
in the house were at our disposal, seemed, to say
the least, unnecessary, and I felt that some explanation
was due to our host.
But Shorthouse, I soon discovered, had seen to
all that; our enterprise would be tolerated, not
welcomed, for the master kept this sort of thing
down with a firm hand. And then, how little I
could get this man, Shorthouse, to tell me. There
was much I wanted to ask and hear, but he surrounded
himself with impossible barriers. It was
ludicrous; he was surely asking a good deal of me,
and yet he would give so little in return, and his
reason—that it was for my good—may have been
perfectly true, but did not bring me any comfort in
its train. He gave me sops now and then, however,
to keep up my curiosity, till I soon was
aware that there were growing up side by side
within me a genuine interest and an equally
genuine fear; and something of both these is
probably necessary to all real excitement.
The barn in question was some distance from
the house, on the side of the stables, and I had
passed it on several of my journeyings to and fro
wondering at its forlorn and untarred appearance
under a régime where everything was so spick and
span; but it had never once occurred to me as
possible that I should come to spend a night
under its roof with a comparative stranger, and
undergo there an experience belonging to an order
of things I had always rather ridiculed and
At the moment I can only partially recall the
process by which Shorthouse persuaded me to lend
him my company. Like myself, he was a guest in
this autumn house-party, and where there were so
many to chatter and to chaff, I think his taciturnity
of manner had appealed to me by contrast, and
that I wished to repay something of what I owed.
There was, no doubt, flattery in it as well, for he
was more than twice my age, a man of amazingly
wide experience, an explorer of all the world's
corners where danger lurked, and—most subtle
flattery of all—by far the best shot in the whole
party, our host included.
At first, however, I held out a bit.
"But surely this story you tell," I said, "has
the parentage common to all such tales—a superstitious
heart and an imaginative brain—and has
grown now by frequent repetition into an authentic
ghost story? Besides, this head gardener of half
a century ago," I added, seeing that he still went
on cleaning his gun in silence, "who was he, and
what positive information have you about him
beyond the fact that he was found hanging from
the rafters, dead?"
"He was no mere head gardener, this man who
passed as such," he replied without looking up,
"but a fellow of splendid education who used this
curious disguise for his own purposes. Part of
this very barn, of which he always kept the key,
was found to have been fitted up as a complete
laboratory, with athanor, alembic, cucurbite, and
other appliances, some of which the master destroyed
at once—perhaps for the best—and which
I have only been able to guess at—"
"Black Arts," I laughed.
"Who knows?" he rejoined quietly. "The man
undoubtedly possessed knowledge—dark knowledge—that
was most unusual and dangerous, and
I can discover no means by which he came to
it—no ordinary means, that is. But I have found
many facts in the case which point to the
exercise of a most desperate and unscrupulous
will; and the strange disappearances in the neighbourhood,
as well as the bones found buried in the
kitchen garden, though never actually traced to
him, seem to me full of dreadful suggestion."
I laughed again, a little uncomfortably perhaps,
and said it reminded one of the story of Giles de
Rays, maréchal of France, who was said to have
killed and tortured to death in a few years no less
than one hundred and sixty women and children
for the purposes of necromancy, and who was
executed for his crimes at Nantes. But Shorthouse
would not "rise," and only returned to his subject.
"His suicide seems to have been only just in
time to escape arrest," he said.
"A magician of no high order then," I observed
sceptically, "if suicide was his only way of evading
the country police."
"The police of London and St. Petersburg
rather," returned Shorthouse; "for the headquarters
of this pretty company was somewhere in Russia,
and his apparatus all bore the marks of the most
skilful foreign make. A Russian woman then
employed in the household—governess, or something—vanished,
too, about the same time and was
never caught. She was no doubt the cleverest of
the lot. And, remember, the object of this appalling
group was not mere vulgar gain, but a kind of
knowledge that called for the highest qualities of
courage and intellect in the seekers."
I admit I was impressed by the man's conviction
of voice and manner, for there is something very
compelling in the force of an earnest man's belief,
though I still affected to sneer politely.
"But, like most Black Magicians, the fellow only
succeeded in compassing his own destruction—that
of his tools, rather, and of escaping himself."
"So that he might better accomplish his objects
elsewhere and otherwise," said Shorthouse, giving,
as he spoke, the most minute attention to the
cleaning of the lock.
"Elsewhere and otherwise," I gasped.
"As if the shell he left hanging from the rafter
in the barn in no way impeded the man's spirit
from continuing his dreadful work under new
conditions," he added quietly, without noticing my
interruption. "The idea being that he sometimes
revisits the garden and the barn, chiefly the
"The barn!" I exclaimed; "for what purpose?"
"Chiefly the barn," he finished, as if he had
not heard me, "that is, when there is anybody
I stared at him without speaking, for there was
a wonder in me how he would add to this.
"When he wants fresh material, that is—he
comes to steal from the living."
"Fresh material!" I repeated aghast. "To steal
from the living!" Even then, in broad daylight,
I was foolishly conscious of a creeping sensation
at the roots of my hair, as if a cold breeze were
passing over my skull.
"The strong vitality of the living is what this
sort of creature is supposed to need most," he went
on imperturbably, "and where he has worked and
thought and struggled before is the easiest place
for him to get it in. The former conditions are
in some way more easily reconstructed—" He
stopped suddenly, and devoted all his attention
to the gun. "It's difficult to explain, you know,
rather," he added presently, "and, besides, it's much
better that you should not know till afterwards."
I made a noise that was the beginning of a score
of questions and of as many sentences, but it got
no further than a mere noise, and Shorthouse, of
course, stepped in again.
"Your scepticism," he added, "is one of the
qualities that induce me to ask you to spend the
night there with me."
"In those days," he went on, in response to my
urging for more information, "the family were
much abroad, and often travelled for years at a
time. This man was invaluable in their absence.
His wonderful knowledge of horticulture kept
the gardens—French, Italian, English—in perfect
order. He had carte blanche in the matter of
expense, and of course selected all his own underlings.
It was the sudden, unexpected return of
the master that surprised the amazing stories of
the countryside before the fellow, with all his
cleverness, had time to prepare or conceal."
"But is there no evidence, no more recent
evidence, to show that something is likely to
happen if we sit up there?" I asked, pressing
him yet further, and I think to his liking, for it
showed at least that I was interested. "Has anything
happened there lately, for instance?"
Shorthouse glanced up from the gun he was
cleaning so assiduously, and the smoke from his
pipe curled up into an odd twist between me and
the black beard and oriental, sun-tanned face. The
magnetism of his look and expression brought
more sense of conviction to me than I had felt
hitherto, and I realised that there had been a
sudden little change in my attitude and that I
was now much more inclined to go in for the
adventure with him. At least, I thought, with
such a man, one would be safe in any emergency;
for he is determined, resourceful, and to be depended
"There's the point," he answered slowly; "for
there has apparently been a fresh outburst—an
attack almost, it seems,—quite recently. There is
evidence, of course, plenty of it, or I should not
feel the interest I do feel, but—" he hesitated a
moment, as though considering how much he ought
to let me know, "but the fact is that three
men this summer, on separate occasions, who have
gone into that barn after nightfall, have been
"Accosted?" I repeated, betrayed into the interruption
by his choice of so singular a word.
"And one of the stablemen—a recent arrival
and quite ignorant of the story—who had to go
in there late one night, saw a dark substance
hanging down from one of the rafters, and when
he climbed up, shaking all over, to cut it down—for
he said he felt sure it was a corpse—the knife
passed through nothing but air, and he heard a
sound up under the eaves as if someone were laughing.
Yet, while he slashed away, and afterwards
too, the thing went on swinging there before his
eyes and turning slowly with its own weight, like
a huge joint on a spit. The man declares, too,
that it had a large bearded face, and that the
mouth was open and drawn down like the mouth
of a hanged man."
"Can we question this fellow?"
"He's gone—gave notice at once, but not before
I had questioned him myself very closely."
"Then this was quite recent?" I said, for I knew
Shorthouse had not been in the house more than a
"Four days ago," he replied. "But, more than
that, only three days ago a couple of men were in
there together in full daylight when one of them
suddenly turned deadly faint. He said that he
felt an overmastering impulse to hang himself;
and he looked about for a rope and was furious
when his companion tried to prevent him—"
"But he did prevent him?"
"Just in time, but not before he had clambered
on to a beam. He was very violent."
I had so much to say and ask that I could get
nothing out in time, and Shorthouse went on
"I've had a sort of watching brief for this case,"
he said with a smile, whose real significance, however,
completely escaped me at the time, "and one
of the most disagreeable features about it is the
deliberate way the servants have invented excuses
to go out to the place, and always after dark;
some of them who have no right to go there, and
no real occasion at all—have never been there in
their lives before probably—and now all of a
sudden have shown the keenest desire and determination
to go out there about dusk, or soon after,
and with the most paltry and foolish excuses in
the world. Of course," he added, "they have been
prevented, but the desire, stronger than their
superstitious dread, and which they cannot explain,
is very curious."
"Very," I admitted, feeling that my hair was
beginning to stand up again.
"You see," he went on presently, "it all points
to volition—in fact to deliberate arrangement. It
is no mere family ghost that goes with every ivied
house in England of a certain age; it is something
real, and something very malignant."
He raised his face from the gun barrel, and for
the first time his eye caught mine in the full. Yes,
he was very much in earnest. Also, he knew a
great deal more than he meant to tell.
"It's worth tempting—and fighting, I think,"
he said; "but I want a companion with me. Are
you game?" His enthusiasm undoubtedly caught
me, but I still wanted to hedge a bit.
"I'm very sceptical," I pleaded.
"All the better," he said, almost as if to himself.
"You have the pluck; I have the knowledge—"
He looked round cautiously as if to make sure
that there was no one within earshot.
"I've been in the place myself," he said in a
lowered voice, "quite lately—in fact only three
nights ago—the day the man turned queer."
"But—I was obliged to come out—"
Still I stared.
"Quickly," he added significantly.
"You've gone into the thing pretty thoroughly,"
was all I could find to say, for I had almost made
up my mind to go with him, and was not sure that
I wanted to hear too much beforehand.
He nodded. "It's a bore, of course, but I must
do everything thoroughly—or not at all."
"That's why you clean your own gun, I suppose?"
"That's why, when there's any danger, I take as
few chances as possible," he said, with the same
enigmatical smile I had noticed before; and then he
added with emphasis, "And that is also why I ask
you to keep me company now."
Of course, the shaft went straight home, and I
gave my promise without further ado.
Our preparations for the night—a couple of rugs
and a flask of black coffee—were not elaborate,
and we found no difficulty, about ten o'clock, in
absenting ourselves from the billiard-room without
attracting curiosity. Shorthouse met me by
arrangement under the cedar on the back lawn, and
I at once realised with vividness what a difference
there is between making plans in the daytime and
carrying them out in the dark. One's common-sense—at
least in matters of this sort—is reduced
to a minimum, and imagination with all her
attendant sprites usurps the place of judgment.
Two and two no longer make four—they make a
mystery, and the mystery loses no time in growing
into a menace. In this particular case, however, my
imagination did not find wings very readily, for
I knew that my companion was the most unmovable
of men—an unemotional, solid block of a man who
would never lose his head, and in any conceivable
state of affairs would always take the right as well
as the strong course. So my faith in the man gave
me a false courage that was nevertheless very
consoling, and I looked forward to the night's
adventure with a genuine appetite.
Side by side, and in silence, we followed the path
that skirted the East Woods, as they were called,
and then led across two hay fields, and through
another wood, to the barn, which thus lay about
half a mile from the Lower Farm. To the Lower
Farm, indeed, it properly belonged; and this made
us realise more clearly how very ingenious must
have been the excuses of the Hall servants who felt
the desire to visit it.
It had been raining during the late afternoon,
and the trees were still dripping heavily on all
sides, but the moment we left the second wood and
came out into the open, we saw a clearing with the
stars overhead, against which the barn outlined
itself in a black, lugubrious shadow. Shorthouse
led the way—still without a word—and we crawled
in through a low door and seated ourselves in a soft
heap of hay in the extreme corner.
"Now," he said, speaking for the first time, "I'll
show you the inside of the barn, so that you may
know where you are, and what to do, in case
A match flared in the darkness, and with the
help of two more that followed I saw the interior of
a lofty and somewhat rickety-looking barn, erected
upon a wall of grey stones that ran all round and
extended to a height of perhaps four feet. Above
this masonry rose the wooden sides, running up
into the usual vaulted roof, and supported by a
double tier of massive oak rafters, which stretched
across from wall to wall and were intersected by
occasional uprights. I felt as if we were inside the
skeleton of some antediluvian monster whose huge
black ribs completely enfolded us. Most of this, of
course, only sketched itself to my eye in the
uncertain light of the flickering matches, and when
I said I had seen enough, and the matches went out,
we were at once enveloped in an atmosphere as
densely black as anything that I have ever known.
And the silence equalled the darkness.
We made ourselves comfortable and talked in low
voices. The rugs, which were very large, covered
our legs; and our shoulders sank into a really
luxurious bed of softness. Yet neither of us
apparently felt sleepy. I certainly didn't, and
Shorthouse, dropping his customary brevity that
fell little short of gruffness, plunged into an easy
run of talking that took the form after a time of
personal reminiscences. This rapidly became a
vivid narration of adventure and travel in far
countries, and at any other time I should have
allowed myself to become completely absorbed in
what he told. But, unfortunately, I was never able
for a single instant to forget the real purpose of our
enterprise, and consequently I felt all my senses
more keenly on the alert than usual, and my
attention accordingly more or less distracted. It
was, indeed, a revelation to hear Shorthouse
unbosom himself in this fashion, and to a young
man it was of course doubly fascinating; but the
little sounds that always punctuate even the deepest
silence out of doors claimed some portion of my
attention, and as the night grew on I soon became
aware that his tales seemed somewhat disconnected
and abrupt—and that, in fact, I heard really only
part of them.
It was not so much that I actually heard other
sounds, but that I expected to hear them; this was
what stole the other half of my listening. There
was neither wind nor rain to break the stillness,
and certainly there were no physical presences in
our neighbourhood, for we were half a mile even
from the Lower Farm; and from the Hall and
stables, at least a mile. Yet the stillness was being
continually broken—perhaps disturbed is a better
word—and it was to these very remote and tiny
disturbances that I felt compelled to devote at least
half my listening faculties.
From time to time, however, I made a remark
or asked a question, to show that I was listening
and interested; but, in a sense, my questions
always seemed to bear in one direction and to
make for one issue, namely, my companion's previous
experience in the barn when he had been obliged
to come out "quickly."
Apparently I could not help myself in the matter,
for this was really the one consuming curiosity I
had; and the fact that it was better for me not to
know it made me the keener to know it all, even
Shorthouse realised this even better than I did.
I could tell it by the way he dodged, or wholly
ignored, my questions, and this subtle sympathy
between us showed plainly enough, had I been able
at the time to reflect upon its meaning, that the
nerves of both of us were in a very sensitive and
highly-strung condition. Probably, the complete
confidence I felt in his ability to face whatever
might happen, and the extent to which also I
relied upon him for my own courage, prevented
the exercise of my ordinary powers of reflection,
while it left my senses free to a more than usual
degree of activity.
Things must have gone on in this way for a
good hour or more, when I made the sudden discovery
that there was something unusual in the
conditions of our environment. This sounds a
roundabout mode of expression, but I really know
not how else to put it. The discovery almost
rushed upon me. By rights, we were two men
waiting in an alleged haunted barn for something
to happen; and, as two men who trusted one
another implicitly (though for very different
reasons), there should have been two minds keenly
alert, with the ordinary senses in active co-operation.
Some slight degree of nervousness, too,
there might also have been, but beyond this,
nothing. It was therefore with something of
dismay that I made the sudden discovery that
there was something more, and something that I
ought to have noticed very much sooner than I
actually did notice it.
The fact was—Shorthouse's stream of talk was
wholly unnatural. He was talking with a purpose.
He did not wish to be cornered by my questions,
true, but he had another and a deeper purpose still,
and it grew upon me, as an unpleasant deduction
from my discovery, that this strong, cynical,
unemotional man by my side was talking—and
had been talking all this time—to gain a particular
end. And this end, I soon felt clearly, was to
convince himself. But, of what?
For myself, as the hours wore on towards midnight,
I was not anxious to find the answer; but
in the end it became impossible to avoid it, and I
knew as I listened, that he was pouring forth this
steady stream of vivid reminiscences of travel—South
Seas, big game, Russian exploration, women,
adventures of all sorts—because he wished the past
to reassert itself to the complete exclusion of the
present. He was taking his precautions. He was
I felt a hundred things, once this was clear
to me, but none of them more than the wish to get
up at once and leave the barn. If Shorthouse
was afraid already, what in the world was to
happen to me in the long hours that lay ahead? . . .
I only know that, in my fierce efforts to deny
to myself the evidence of his partial collapse, the
strength came that enabled me to play my part
properly, and I even found myself helping him by
means of animated remarks upon his stories, and by
more or less judicious questions. I also helped him
by dismissing from my mind any desire to enquire
into the truth of his former experience; and it
was good I did so, for had he turned it loose on
me, with those great powers of convincing description
that he had at his command, I verily believe
that I should never have crawled from that barn
alive. So, at least, I felt at the moment. It was
the instinct of self-preservation, and it brought
Here, then, at least, with different motives,
reached, too, by opposite ways, we were both agreed
upon one thing, namely, that temporarily we would
forget. Fools we were, for a dominant emotion is
not so easily banished, and we were for ever recurring
to it in a hundred ways direct and indirect. A real
fear cannot be so easily trifled with, and while we
toyed on the surface with thousands and thousands
of words—mere words—our sub-conscious activities
were steadily gaining force, and would before very
long have to be properly acknowledged. We could
not get away from it. At last, when he had
finished the recital of an adventure which brought
him near enough to a horrible death, I admitted
that in my uneventful life I had never yet been
face to face with a real fear. It slipped out
inadvertently, and, of course, without intention, but
the tendency in him at the time was too strong to
be resisted. He saw the loophole, and made for it
"It is the same with all the emotions," he said.
"The experiences of others never give a complete
account. Until a man has deliberately turned and
faced for himself the fiends that chase him down
the years, he has no knowledge of what they really
are, or of what they can do. Imaginative authors
may write, moralists may preach, and scholars
may criticise, but they are dealing all the time in
a coinage of which they know not the actual value.
Their listener gets a sensation—but not the true
one. Until you have faced these emotions," he
went on, with the same race of words that had
come from him the whole evening, "and made them
your own, your slaves, you have no idea of the
power that is in them—hunger, that shows lights
beckoning beyond the grave; thirst, that fills with
mingled ice and fire; passion, love, loneliness,
revenge, and—" He paused for a minute, and
though I knew we were on the brink I was powerless
to hold him. " . . . and fear," he went on—"fear
. . . I think that death from fear, or madness
from fear, must sum up in a second of time the
total of all the most awful sensations it is possible
for a man to know."
"Then you have yourself felt something of this
fear," I interrupted; "for you said just now—"
"I do not mean physical fear," he replied; "for
that is more or less a question of nerves and will,
and it is imagination that makes men cowards. I
mean an absolute fear, a physical fear one might
call it, that reaches the soul and withers every
power one possesses."
He said a lot more, for he, too, was wholly unable
to stem the torrent once it broke loose; but I have
forgotten it; or, rather, mercifully I did not hear it,
for I stopped my ears and only heard the occasional
words when I took my fingers out to find if he had
come to an end. In due course he did come to an
end, and there we left it, for I then knew positively
what he already knew: that somewhere here in
the night, and within the walls of this very barn
where we were sitting, there was waiting Something
of dreadful malignancy and of great power.
Something that we might both have to face ere
morning, and Something that he had already tried
to face once and failed in the attempt.
The night wore slowly on; and it gradually
became more and more clear to me that I could not
dare to rely as at first upon my companion, and that
our positions were undergoing a slow process of
reversal. I thank Heaven this was not borne in
upon me too suddenly; and that I had at least the
time to readjust myself somewhat to the new
conditions. Preparation was possible, even if it
was not much, and I sought by every means in my
power to gather up all the shreds of my courage,
so that they might together make a decent
rope that would stand the strain when it came.
The strain would come, that was certain, and I was
thoroughly well aware—though for my life I cannot
put into words the reasons for my knowledge—that
the massing of the material against us was
proceeding somewhere in the darkness with determination
and a horrible skill besides.
Shorthouse meanwhile talked without ceasing.
The great quantity of hay opposite—or straw, I
believe it actually was—seemed to deaden the sound
of his voice, but the silence, too, had become so
oppressive that I welcomed his torrent and even
dreaded the moment when it would stop. I heard,
too, the gentle ticking of my watch. Each second
uttered its voice and dropped away into a gulf, as
if starting on a journey whence there was no return.
Once a dog barked somewhere in the distance,
probably on the Lower Farm; and once an owl
hooted close outside and I could hear the swishing
of its wings as it passed overhead. Above me, in
the darkness, I could just make out the outline of
the barn, sinister and black, the rows of rafters
stretching across from wall to wall like wicked arms
that pressed upon the hay. Shorthouse, deep in
some involved yarn of the South Seas that was
meant to be full of cheer and sunshine, and yet
only succeeded in making a ghastly mixture of
unnatural colouring, seemed to care little whether
I listened or not. He made no appeal to me, and I
made one or two quite irrelevant remarks which
passed him by and proved that he was merely
uttering sounds. He, too, was afraid of the
I fell to wondering how long a man could talk
without stopping. . . . Then it seemed to me that
these words of his went falling into the same gulf
where the seconds dropped, only they were heavier
and fell faster. I began to chase them. Presently
one of them fell much faster than the rest, and I
pursued it and found myself almost immediately in
a land of clouds and shadows. They rose up and
enveloped me, pressing on the eyelids. . . . It must
have been just here that I actually fell asleep, somewhere
between twelve and one o'clock, because, as I
chased this word at tremendous speed through space,
I knew that I had left the other words far, very far
behind me, till, at last, I could no longer hear them
at all. The voice of the story-teller was beyond
the reach of hearing; and I was falling with ever
increasing rapidity through an immense void.
A sound of whispering roused me. Two persons
were talking under their breath close beside me.
The words in the main escaped me, but I caught
every now and then bitten-off phrases and half
sentences, to which, however, I could attach no
intelligible meaning. The words were quite close—at
my very side in fact—and one of the voices
sounded so familiar, that curiosity overcame dread,
and I turned to look. I was not mistaken; it was
Shorthouse whispering. But the other person, who
must have been just a little beyond him, was lost
in the darkness and invisible to me. It seemed
then that Shorthouse at once turned up his face
and looked at me and, by some means or other that
caused me no surprise at the time, I easily made
out the features in the darkness. They wore an
expression I had never seen there before; he
seemed distressed, exhausted, worn out, and as
though he were about to give in after a long mental
struggle. He looked at me, almost beseechingly,
and the whispering of the other person died away.
"They're at me," he said.
I found it quite impossible to answer; the words
stuck in my throat. His voice was thin, plaintive,
almost like a child's.
"I shall have to go. I'm not as strong as I
thought. They'll call it suicide, but, of course, it's
really murder." There was real anguish in his
voice, and it terrified me.
A deep silence followed these extraordinary
words, and I somehow understood that the Other
Person was just going to carry on the conversation—I
even fancied I saw lips shaping themselves just
over my friend's shoulder—when I felt a sharp
blow in the ribs and a voice, this time a deep voice,
sounded in my ear. I opened my eyes, and the
wretched dream vanished. Yet it left behind
it an impression of a strong and quite unusual
"Do try not to go to sleep again," he said sternly.
"You seem exhausted. Do you feel so?" There
was a note in his voice I did not welcome,—less
than alarm, but certainly more than mere solicitude.
"I do feel terribly sleepy all of a sudden," I
"So you may," he added very earnestly; "but I
rely on you to keep awake, if only to watch. You
have been asleep for half an hour at least—and
you were so still—I thought I'd wake you—"
"Why?" I asked, for my curiosity and nervousness
were altogether too strong to be resisted.
"Do you think we are in danger?"
"I think they are about here now. I feel my
vitality going rapidly—that's always the first sign.
You'll last longer than I, remember. Watch
The conversation dropped. I was afraid to say all
I wanted to say. It would have been too unmistakably
a confession; and intuitively I realised the
danger of admitting the existence of certain
emotions until positively forced to. But presently
Shorthouse began again. His voice sounded odd,
and as if it had lost power. It was more like a
woman's or a boy's voice than a man's, and recalled
the voice in my dream.
"I suppose you've got a knife?" he asked.
"Yes—a big clasp knife; but why?" He made
no answer. "You don't think a practical joke
likely? No one suspects we're here," I went on.
Nothing was more significant of our real feelings
this night than the way we toyed with words, and
never dared more than to skirt the things in our
"It's just as well to be prepared," he answered
evasively. "Better be quite sure. See which
pocket it's in—so as to be ready."
I obeyed mechanically, and told him. But even
this scrap of talk proved to me that he was getting
further from me all the time in his mind. He was
following a line that was strange to me, and, as he
distanced me, I felt that the sympathy between us
grew more and more strained. He knew more; it
was not that I minded so much—but that he was
willing to communicate less. And in proportion
as I lost his support, I dreaded his increasing
silence. Not of words—for he talked more volubly
than ever, and with a fiercer purpose—but his
silence in giving no hint of what he must have
known to be really going on the whole time.
The night was perfectly still. Shorthouse continued
steadily talking, and I jogged him now and
again with remarks or questions in order to keep
awake. He paid no attention, however, to either.
About two in the morning a short shower fell,
and the drops rattled sharply on the roof like shot.
I was glad when it stopped, for it completely
drowned all other sounds and made it impossible
to hear anything else that might be going on.
Something was going on, too, all the time, though
for the life of me I could not say what. The outer
world had grown quite dim—the house-party, the
shooters, the billiard-room, and the ordinary daily
incidents of my visit. All my energies were concentrated
on the present, and the constant strain of
watching, waiting, listening, was excessively telling.
Shorthouse still talked of his adventures, in some
Eastern country now, and less connectedly. These
adventures, real or imaginary, had quite a savour
of the Arabian Nights, and did not by any means
make it easier for me to keep my hold on reality.
The lightest weight will affect the balance under
such circumstances, and in this case the weight of
his talk was on the wrong scale. His words were
very rapid, and I found it overwhelmingly difficult
not to follow them into that great gulf of darkness
where they all rushed and vanished. But that, I
knew, meant sleep again. Yet, it was strange I
should feel sleepy when at the same time all my
nerves were fairly tingling. Every time I heard
what seemed like a step outside, or a movement in
the hay opposite, the blood stood still for a moment
in my veins. Doubtless, the unremitting strain
told upon me more than I realised, and this was
doubly great now that I knew Shorthouse was a
source of weakness instead of strength, as I had
counted. Certainly, a curious sense of languor
grew upon me more and more, and I was sure that
the man beside me was engaged in the same
struggle. The feverishness of his talk proved this,
if nothing else. It was dreadfully hard to keep
But this time, instead of dropping into the gulf,
I saw something come up out of it! It reached
our world by a door in the side of the barn furthest
from me, and it came in cautiously and silently and
moved into the mass of hay opposite. There, for a
moment, I lost it, but presently I caught it again
higher up. It was clinging, like a great bat, to the
side of the barn. Something trailed behind it, I
could not make out what. . . . It crawled up the
wooden wall and began to move out along one of
the rafters. A numb terror settled down all over
me as I watched it. The thing trailing behind it
was apparently a rope.
The whispering began again just then, but the
only words I could catch seemed without meaning;
it was almost like another language. The voices
were above me, under the roof. Suddenly I saw
signs of active movement going on just beyond the
place where the thing lay upon the rafter. There
was something else up there with it! Then
followed panting, like the quick breathing that
accompanies effort, and the next minute a black
mass dropped through the air and dangled at the
end of the rope.
Instantly, it all flashed upon me. I sprang to
my feet and rushed headlong across the floor of
the barn. How I moved so quickly in the darkness
I do not know; but, even as I ran, it flashed
into my mind that I should never get at my knife
in time to cut the thing down, or else that I should
find it had been taken from me. Somehow or
other—the Goddess of Dreams knows how—I
climbed up by the hay bales and swung out along
the rafter. I was hanging, of course, by my arms,
and the knife was already between my teeth,
though I had no recollection of how it got there.
It was open. The mass, hanging like a side of
bacon, was only a few feet in front of me, and I
could plainly see the dark line of rope that fastened
it to the beam. I then noticed for the first time
that it was swinging and turning in the air, and
that as I approached it seemed to move along the
beam, so that the same distance was always maintained
between us. The only thing I could do—for
there was no time to hesitate—was to jump at
it through the air and slash at the rope as I
I seized the knife with my right hand, gave a
great swing of my body with my legs and leaped
forward at it through the air. Horrors! It was
closer to me than I knew, and I plunged full into
it, and the arm with the knife missed the rope
and cut deeply into some substance that was soft
and yielding. But, as I dropped past it, the thing
had time to turn half its width so that it swung
round and faced me—and I could have sworn
as I rushed past it through the air, that it had
the features of Shorthouse.
The shock of this brought the vile nightmare to
an abrupt end, and I woke up a second time on the
soft hay-bed to find that the grey dawn was
stealing in, and that I was exceedingly cold. After
all I had failed to keep awake, and my sleep, since
it was growing light, must have lasted at least an
hour. A whole hour off my guard!
There was no sound from Shorthouse, to whom,
of course, my first thoughts turned; probably his
flow of words had ceased long ago, and he too had
yielded to the persuasions of the seductive god.
I turned to wake him and get the comfort of companionship
for the horror of my dream, when to
my utter dismay I saw that the place where he
had been was vacant. He was no longer beside
It had been no little shock before to discover
that the ally in whom lay all my faith and dependence
was really frightened, but it is quite impossible
to describe the sensations I experienced when
I realised he had gone altogether and that I was
alone in the barn. For a minute or two my head
swam and I felt a prey to a helpless terror. The
dream, too, still seemed half real, so vivid had it
been! I was thoroughly frightened—hot and
cold by turns—and I clutched the hay at my side
in handfuls, and for some moments had no idea in
the world what I should do.
This time, at least, I was unmistakably awake,
and I made a great effort to collect myself and
face the meaning of the disappearance of my companion.
In this I succeeded so far that I decided
upon a thorough search of the barn, inside and
outside. It was a dreadful undertaking, and I did
not feel at all sure of being able to bring it to a
conclusion, but I knew pretty well that unless
something was done at once, I should simply
But, when I tried to move, I found that the cold,
and fear, and I know not what else unholy besides,
combined to make it almost impossible. I suddenly
realised that a tour of inspection, during the whole
of which my back would be open to attack, was not
to be thought of. My will was not equal to it.
Anything might spring upon me any moment from
the dark corners, and the growing light was just
enough to reveal every movement I made to any
who might be watching. For, even then, and
while I was still half dazed and stupid, I knew
perfectly well that someone was watching me all
the time with the utmost intentness. I had not
merely awakened; I had been awakened.
I decided to try another plan; I called to him.
My voice had a thin weak sound, far away and
quite unreal, and there was no answer to it. Hark,
though! There was something that might have
been a very faint voice near me!
I called again, this time with greater distinctness,
"Shorthouse, where are you? can you hear
There certainly was a sound, but it was not a
voice. Something was moving. It was someone
shuffling along, and it seemed to be outside the
barn. I was afraid to call again, and the sound
continued. It was an ordinary sound enough, no
doubt, but it came to me just then as something
unusual and unpleasant. Ordinary sounds remain
ordinary only so long as one is not listening to
them; under the influence of intense listening they
become unusual, portentous, and therefore extraordinary.
So, this common sound came to me as
something uncommon, disagreeable. It conveyed,
too, an impression of stealth. And with it there
was another, a slighter sound.
Just at this minute the wind bore faintly over
the field the sound of the stable clock, a mile away.
It was three o'clock; the hour when life's pulses
beat lowest; when poor souls lying between life
and death find it hardest to resist. Vividly I
remember this thought crashing through my
brain with a sound of thunder, and I realised
that the strain on my nerves was nearing the
limit, and that something would have to be
done at once if I was to reclaim my self-control
When thinking over afterwards the events of
this dreadful night, it has always seemed strange
to me that my second nightmare, so vivid in its
terror and its nearness, should have furnished me
with no inkling of what was really going on all
this while; and that I should not have been able
to put two and two together, or have discovered
sooner than I did what this sound was and where
it came from. I can well believe that the vile
scheming which lay behind the whole experience
found it an easy trifle to direct my hearing amiss;
though, of course, it may equally well have been
due to the confused condition of my mind at the
time and to the general nervous tension under
which I was undoubtedly suffering.
But, whatever the cause for my stupidity at
first in failing to trace the sound to its proper
source, I can only say here that it was with a
shock of unexampled horror that my eye suddenly
glanced upwards and caught sight of the figure
moving in the shadows above my head among the
rafters. Up to this moment I had thought that it
was somebody outside the barn, crawling round
the walls till it came to a door; and the rush of
horror that froze my heart when I looked up and
saw that it was Shorthouse creeping stealthily
along a beam, is something altogether beyond
the power of words to describe.
He was staring intently down upon me, and I
knew at once that it was he who had been watching
This point was, I think, for me the climax of
feeling in the whole experience; I was incapable
of any further sensation—that is any further
sensation in the same direction. But here the
abominable character of the affair showed itself
most plainly, for it suddenly presented an entirely
new aspect to me. The light fell on the picture
from a new angle, and galvanised me into a fresh
ability to feel when I thought a merciful numbness
had supervened. It may not sound a great deal in
the printed letter, but it came to me almost as if
it had been an extension of consciousness, for the
Hand that held the pencil suddenly touched in
with ghastly effect of contrast the element of the
ludicrous. Nothing could have been worse just
then. Shorthouse, the masterful spirit, so intrepid
in the affairs of ordinary life, whose power increased
rather than lessened in the face of danger—this
man, creeping on hands and knees along
a rafter in a barn at three o'clock in the morning,
watching me all the time as a cat watches a mouse!
Yes, it was distinctly ludicrous, and while
it gave me a measure with which to gauge the
dread emotion that caused his aberration, it stirred
somewhere deep in my interior the strings of an
One of those moments then came to me that are
said to come sometimes under the stress of great
emotion, when in an instant the mind grows
dazzlingly clear. An abnormal lucidity took the
place of my confusion of thought, and I suddenly
understood that the two dreams which I had taken
for nightmares must really have been sent me,
and that I had been allowed for one moment to
look over the edge of what was to come; the Good
was helping, even when the Evil was most
determined to destroy.
I saw it all clearly now. Shorthouse had overrated
his strength. The terror inspired by his
first visit to the barn (when he had failed) had
roused the man's whole nature to win, and he had
brought me to divert the deadly stream of evil.
That he had again underrated the power against
him was apparent as soon as he entered the barn,
and his wild talk, and refusal to admit what he
felt, were due to this desire not to acknowledge
the insidious fear that was growing in his heart.
But, at length, it had become too strong. He
had left my side in my sleep—had been overcome
himself, perhaps, first in his sleep, by the
dreadful impulse. He knew that I should interfere,
and with every movement he made, he watched me
steadily, for the mania was upon him and he was
determined to hang himself. He pretended not to
hear me calling, and I knew that anything coming
between him and his purpose would meet the full
force of his fury—the fury of a maniac, of one, for
the time being, truly possessed.
For a minute or two I sat there and stared. I
saw then for the first time that there was a bit of
rope trailing after him, and that this was what
made the rustling sound I had noticed. Shorthouse,
too, had come to a stop. His body lay
along the rafter like a crouching animal. He
was looking hard at me. That whitish patch was
I can lay claim to no courage in the matter, for
I must confess that in one sense I was frightened
almost beyond control. But at the same time the
necessity for decided action, if I was to save his
life, came to me with an intense relief. No matter
what animated him for the moment, Shorthouse
was only a man; it was flesh and blood I had to
contend with and not the intangible powers. Only
a few hours before I had seen him cleaning his
gun, smoking his pipe, knocking the billiard balls
about with very human clumsiness, and the
picture flashed across my mind with the most
Then I dashed across the floor of the barn and
leaped upon the hay bales as a preliminary to
climbing up the sides to the first rafter. It was
far more difficult than in my dream. Twice I
slipped back into the hay, and as I scrambled up
for the third time I saw that Shorthouse, who thus
far had made no sound or movement, was now
busily doing something with his hands upon the
beam. He was at its further end, and there must
have been fully fifteen feet between us. Yet I
saw plainly what he was doing; he was fastening
the rope to the rafter. The other end, I saw, was
already round his neck!
This gave me at once the necessary strength,
and in a second I had swung myself on to a beam,
crying aloud with all the authority I could put
into my voice—
"You fool, man! What in the world are you
trying to do? Come down at once!"
My energetic actions and words combined had an
immediate effect upon him for which I blessed
Heaven; for he looked up from his horrid task,
stared hard at me for a second or two, and then
came wriggling along like a great cat to intercept
me. He came by a series of leaps and bounds and
at an astonishing pace, and the way he moved
somehow inspired me with a fresh horror, for it
did not seem the natural movement of a human
being at all, but more, as I have said, like that of
some lithe wild animal.
He was close upon me. I had no clear idea of
what exactly I meant to do. I could see his face
plainly now; he was grinning cruelly; the eyes
were positively luminous, and the menacing expression
of the mouth was most distressing to
look upon. Otherwise it was the face of a chalk
man, white and dead, with all the semblance of
the living human drawn out of it. Between his
teeth he held my clasp knife, which he must have
taken from me in my sleep, and with a flash I
recalled his anxiety to know exactly which pocket
it was in.
"Drop that knife!" I shouted at him, "and drop
after it yourself—"
"Don't you dare to stop me!" he hissed, the
breath coming between his lips across the knife
that he held in his teeth. "Nothing in the world
can stop me now—I have promised—and I must
do it. I can't hold out any longer."
"Then drop the knife and I'll help you," I
shouted back in his face. "I promise—"
"No use," he cried, laughing a little, "I must
do it and you can't stop me."
I heard a sound of laughter, too, somewhere in
the air behind me. The next second Shorthouse
came at me with a single bound.
To this day I cannot quite tell how it happened.
It is still a wild confusion and a fever of horror in
my mind, but from somewhere I drew more than
my usual allowance of strength, and before he could
well have realised what I meant to do, I had his
throat between my fingers. He opened his teeth
and the knife dropped at once, for I gave him a
squeeze he need never forget. Before, my muscles
had felt like so much soaked paper; now they
recovered their natural strength, and more besides.
I managed to work ourselves along the rafter until
the hay was beneath us, and then, completely
exhausted, I let go my hold and we swung round
together and dropped on to the hay, he clawing
at me in the air even as we fell.
The struggle that began by my fighting for his
life ended in a wild effort to save my own, for
Shorthouse was quite beside himself, and had no
idea what he was doing. Indeed, he has always
averred that he remembers nothing of the entire
night's experiences after the time when he first
woke me from sleep. A sort of deadly mist settled
over him, he declares, and he lost all sense of his
own identity. The rest was a blank until he came
to his senses under a mass of hay with me on the
top of him.
It was the hay that saved us, first by breaking
the fall and then by impeding his movements so
that I was able to prevent his choking me to