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Scottish Ghost Stories (Elliott O'Donnell) online
CASE V - THE SALLOW-FACED WOMAN OF NO. -- FORREST ROAD, EDINBURGH
She ransacked her mind to recall some popular operatic air, and although she knew scores she could not remember one. Indeed, the only air that filtered back to her was one she detested--a Vaudeville tune she had heard three nights in succession, when she was staying with a student friend in the Latin Quarter in Paris. She hummed it loudly, however, and, holding the lighted candle high above her head, walked down the steps. At the bottom she stood still and listened. From high above her came noises which sounded like the rumbling of distant thunder, but which, on analysis, proved to be the rattling of window-frames. Reassured that she had no cause for alarm, Lady Adela advanced. Something black scudded across the red-tiled floor, and she made a dash at it with her poker. The concussion awoke countless echoes in the cellars, and called into existence legions of other black things that darted hither and thither in all directions. She burst out laughing--they were only beetles! Facing her she now perceived an inner cellar, which was far gloomier than the one in which she stood. The ceiling was very low, and appeared to be crushed down beneath the burden of a stupendous weight; and as she advanced beneath it she half expected that it would "cave in" and bury her.
A few feet from the centre of this cellar she stopped; and, bending down, examined the floor carefully. The tiles were unmistakably newer here than elsewhere, and presented the appearance of having been put in at no very distant date. The dampness of the atmosphere was intense; a fact which struck Lady Adela as somewhat odd, since the floor and walls looked singularly dry. To find out if this were the case, she ran her fingers over the walls, and, on removing them, found they showed no signs of moisture. Then she rapped the floor and walls, and could discover no indications of hollowness. She sniffed the air, and a great wave of something sweet and sickly half choked her. She drew out her handkerchief and beat the air vigorously with it; but the smell remained, and she could not in any way account for it. She turned to leave the cellar, and the flame of her candle burned blue. Then for the first time that evening--almost, indeed, for the first time in her life--she felt afraid, so afraid that she made no attempt to diagnose her fear; she understood the dogs' feelings now, and caught herself wondering how much they knew.
She whistled to them again, not because she thought they would respond,--she knew only too well they would not,--but because she wanted company, even the company of her own voice; and she had some faint hope, too, that whatever might be with her in the cellar, would not so readily disclose itself if she made a noise. The one cellar was passed, and she was nearly across the floor of the other when she heard a crash. The candle dropped from her hand, and all the blood in her body rushed to her heart. She could never have imagined it was so terrible to be frightened. She tried to pull herself together and be calm, but she was no longer mistress of her limbs. Her knees knocked together and her hands shook. "It was only the dogs," she feebly told herself, "I will call them"; but when she opened her mouth, she found her throat was paralysed--not a syllable would come. She knew, too, that she had lied, and that the hounds could not have been responsible for the noise. It was like nothing she had ever heard, nothing she could imagine; and although she struggled hard against the idea, she could not help associating the sound with the cause of the candle burning blue, and the sweet, sickly smell. Incapable of moving a step, she was forced to listen in breathless expectancy for a recurrence of the crash. Her thoughts become ghastly. The inky sea of darkness that hemmed her in on every side suggested every sort of ghoulish possibility, and with each pulsation of her overstrained heart her flesh crawled. Another sound--this time not a crash, nothing half so loud or definite--drew her eyes in the direction of the steps. An object was now standing at the top of them, and something lurid, like the faint, phosphorescent glow of decay, emanated from all over it; but _what_ it was, she could not for the life of her tell. It might have been the figure of a man, or a woman, or a beast, or of anything that was inexpressibly antagonistic and nasty. She would have given her soul to have looked elsewhere, but her eyes were fixed--she could neither turn nor shut them. For some seconds the shape remained motionless, and then with a sly, subtle motion it lowered its head, and came stealing stealthily down the stairs towards her. She followed its approach like one in a hideous dream--her heart ready to burst, her brain on the verge of madness. Another step, another, yet another; till there were only three left between her and it; and she was at length enabled to form some idea of what the thing was like.