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The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (Algernon Blackwood) online
WITH INTENT TO STEAL
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 barn--"
"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 in it."
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."