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The long summer afternoon wore away, sunset came, red and angry, a sunset presaging storm. A chill crept into the air with the twilight. When night fell, it was not a night of silver patterns enskied, but a dark and cloudy cloak where a few stars glittered fitfully. Miss Cornelia, at dinner, saw a bat swoop past the window of the dining room in its scurrying flight, and narrowly escaped oversetting her glass of water with a nervous start. The tension of waiting - waiting - for some vague menace which might not materialize after all - had begun to prey on her nerves. She saw Dale off to the country club with relief - the girl looked a little better after her nap but she was still not her normal self. When Dale was gone, she wandered restlessly for some time between living-room and library, now giving an unnecessary dusting to a piece of bric-a-brac with her handkerchief, now taking a book from one of the shelves in the library only to throw it down before she read a page.
This house was queer. She would not have admitted it to Lizzie, for her soul's salvation - but, for the first time in her sensible life, she listened for creakings of woodwork, rustling of leaves, stealthy steps outside, beyond the safe, bright squares of the windows - for anything that was actual, tangible, not merely formless fear.
"There's too much room in the country for things to happen to you!" she confided to herself with a shiver. "Even the night - whenever I look out, it seems to me as if the night were ten times bigger and blacker than it ever is in New York!"
To comfort herself she mentally rehearsed her telephone conversation of the morning, the conversation she had not mentioned to her household. At the time it had seemed to her most reassuring - the plans she had based upon it adequate and sensible in the normal light of day. But now the light of day had been blotted out and with it her security. Her plans seemed weapons of paper against the sinister might of the darkness beyond her windows. A little wind wailed somewhere in that darkness like a beaten child - beyond the hills thunder rumbled, drawing near, and with it lightening and the storm.
She made herself sit down in the chair beside her favorite lamp on the center table and take up her knitting with stiff fingers. Knit two - purl two - Her hands fell into the accustomed rhythm mechanically - a spy, peering in through the French windows, would have deemed her the picture of calm. But she had never felt less calm in all the long years of her life.
She wouldn't ring for Lizzie to come and sit with her, she simply wouldn't. But she was very glad, nevertheless, when Lizzie appeared at the door.
"Yes, Lizzie?" Miss Cornelia's voice was composed but her heart felt a throb of relief.
"Can I - can I sit in here with you, Miss Neily, just a minute?" Lizzie's voice was plaintive. "I've been sitting out in the kitchen watching that Jap read his funny newspaper the wrong way and listening for ghosts till I'm nearly crazy!"
"Why, certainly, Lizzie," said Miss Cornelia primly. "Though," she added doubtfully, "I really shouldn't pamper your absurd fears, I suppose, but - "
"Oh, please, Miss Neily!"
"Very well," said Miss Cornelia brightly. "You can sit here, Lizzie - and help me work the ouija-board. That will take your mind off listening for things!"
Lizzie groaned. "You know I'd rather be shot than touch that uncanny ouijie!" she said dolefully. "It gives me the creeps every time I put my hands on it!"
"Well, of course, if you'd rather sit in the kitchen, Lizzie - "
"Oh, give me the ouijie!" said Lizzie in tones of heartbreak. "I'd rather be shot and stabbed than stay in the kitchen any more.
"Very well," said Miss Cornelia, "it's your own decision, Lizzie - remember that." Her needles clicked on. "I'll just finish this row before we start," she said. "You might call up the light company in the meantime, Lizzie - there seems to be a storm coming up and I want to find out if they intend to turn out the lights tonight as they did last night. Tell them I find it most inconvenient to be left without light that way.
"It's worse than inconvenient," muttered Lizzie, "it's criminal - that's what it is - turning off all the lights in a haunted house, like this one. As if spooks wasn't bad enough with the lights on - "
"Yes, Miss Neily - I wasn't going to say another word." She went to the telephone. Miss Cornelia knitted on - knit two - purl two - In spite of her experiments with the ouija-board she didn't believe in ghosts - and yet - there were things one couldn't explain by logic. Was there something like that in this house - a shadow walking the corridors - a vague shape of evil, drifting like mist from room to room, till its cold breath whispered on one's back and - there! She had ruined her knitting, the last two rows would have to be ripped out. That came of mooning about ghosts like a ninny.
She put down the knitting with an exasperated little gesture. Lizzie had just finished her telephoning and was hanging up the receiver.
"Yes'm," said the latter, glaring at the phone. "That's what he says - they turned off the lights last night because there was a storm threatening. He says it burns out their fuses if they leave 'em on in a storm."
A louder roll of thunder punctuated her words.
"There!" said Lizzie. "They'll be going off again to-night." She took an uncertain step toward the French windows.
"Humph!" said Miss Cornelia, "I hope it will be a dry summer." Her hands tightened on each other. Darkness - darkness inside this house of whispers to match with the darkness outside! She forced herself to speak in a normal voice.
"Ask Billy to bring some candles, Lizzie - and have them ready."
Lizzie had been staring fixedly at the French windows. At Miss Cornelia's command she gave a little jump of terror and moved closer to her mistress.
"You're not going to ask me to go out in that hall alone?" she said in a hurt voice.
It was too much. Miss Cornelia found vent for her feelings in crisp exasperation.
"What's the matter with you anyhow, Lizzie Allen?"
The nervousness in her own tones infected Lizzie's. She shivered frankly.
"Oh, Miss Neily - Miss Neily!" she pleaded. "I don't like it! I want to go back to the city!"
Miss Cornelia braced herself. "I have rented this house for four months and I am going to stay," she said firmly. Her eyes sought Lizzie's, striving to pour some of her own inflexible courage into the latter's quaking form. But Lizzie would not look at her. Suddenly she started and gave a low scream;
"There's somebody on the terrace!" she breathed in a ghastly whisper, clutching at Miss Cornelia's arm.
For a second Miss Cornelia sat frozen. Then, "Don't do that!" she said sharply. "What nonsense!" but she, looked over her shoulder as she said it and Lizzie saw the look. Both waited, in pulsing stillness - one second - two.
"I guess it was the wind," said Lizzie at last, relieved, her grip on Miss Cornelia relaxing. She began to look a trifle ashamed of herself and Miss Cornelia seized the opportunity.
"You were born on a brick pavement," she said crushingly. "You get nervous out here at night whenever a cricket begins to sing - or scrape his legs - or whatever it is they do!"
Lizzie bowed before the blast of her mistress's scorn and began to move gingerly toward the alcove door. But obviously she was not entirely convinced.
"Oh, it's more than that, Miss Neily," she mumbled. "I - "
Miss Cornelia turned to her fiercely. If Lizzie was going to behave like this, they might as well have it out now between them - before Dale came home.
"What did you really see last night?" she said in a minatory voice.
The instant relief on Lizzie's face was ludicrous; she so obviously preferred discussing any subject at any length to braving the dangers of the other part of the house unaccompanied.
"I was standing right there at the top of that there staircase," she began, gesticulating toward the alcove stairs in the manner of one who embarks upon the narration of an epic. "Standing there with your switch in my hand, Miss Neily - and then I looked down and," her voice dropped, "I saw a gleaming eye! It looked at me and winked! I tell you this house is haunted!"
"A flirtatious ghost?" queried Miss Cornelia skeptically. She snorted. "Humph! Why didn't you yell?"
"I was too scared to yell! And I'm not the only one." She started to back away from the alcove, her eyes still fixed upon its haunted stairs. "Why do you think the servants left so sudden this morning?" she went on. "Do you really believe the housemaid had appendicitis? Or the cook's sister had twins?"
She turned and gestured at her mistress with a long, pointed forefinger. Her voice had a note of doom.
"I bet a cent the cook never had any sister - and the sister never had any twins," she said impressively. "No, Miss Neily, they couldn't put it over on me like that! They were scared away. They saw - It!"
She concluded her epic and stood nodding her head, an Irish Cassandra who had prophesied the evil to come.
"Fiddlesticks!" said Miss Cornelia briskly, more shaken by the recital than she would have admitted. She tried to think of another topic of conversation.
"What time is it?" she asked.
Lizzie glanced at the mantel clock. "Half-past ten, Miss Neily."
Miss Cornelia yawned, a little dismally. She felt as if the last two hours had not been hours but years.
"Miss Dale won't be home for half an hour," she said reflectively. And if I have to spend another thirty minutes listening to Lizzie shiver, she thought, Dale will find me a nervous wreck when she does come home. She rolled up her knitting and put it back in her knitting-bag; it was no use going on, doing work that would have to be ripped out again and yet she must do something to occupy her thoughts. She raised her head and discovered Lizzie returning toward the alcove stairs with the stealthy tread of a panther. The sight exasperated her.
"Now, Lizzie Allen!" she said sharply, "you forget all that superstitious nonsense and stop looking for ghosts! There's nothing in that sort of thing." She smiled - she would punish Lizzie for her obdurate timorousness. "Where's that ouija-board?" she questioned, rising, with determination in her eye.
Lizzie shuddered violently. "It's up there - with a prayer book on it to keep it quiet!" she groaned, jerking her thumb in the direction of the farther bookcase.
"Bring it here!" said Miss Cornelia implacably; then as Lizzie still hesitated, "Lizzie!"
Shivering, every movement of her body a conscious protest, Lizzie slowly went over to the bookcase, lifted off the prayer book, and took down the ouija-board. Even then she would not carry it normally but bore it over to Miss Cornelia at arms'-length, as if any closer contact would blast her with lightning, her face a comic mask of loathing and repulsion.
She placed the lettered board in Miss Cornelia's lap with a sigh of relief. "You can do it yourself! I'll have none of it!" she said firmly.
"It takes two people and you know it, Lizzie Allen!" Miss Cornelia's voice was stern but - it was also amused.
Lizzie groaned, but she knew her mistress. She obeyed. She carefully chose the farthest chair in the room and took a long time bringing it over to where her mistress sat waiting.
"I've been working for you for twenty years," she muttered. "I've been your goat for twenty years and I've got a right to speak my mind - "
Miss Cornelia cut her off. "You haven't got a mind. Sit down," she commanded.
Lizzie sat - her hands at her sides. With a sigh of tried patience, Miss Cornelia put her unwilling fingers on the little moving table that is used to point to the letters on the board itself. Then she placed her own hands on it, too, the tips of the fingers just touching Lizzie's.
"Now make your mind a blank!" she commanded her factotum.
"You just said I haven't got any mind," complained the latter.
"Well;" said Miss Cornelia magnificently, "make what you haven't got a blank."
The repartee silenced Lizzie for the moment, but only for the moment. As soon as Miss Cornelia had settled herself comfortably and tried to make her mind a suitable receiving station for ouija messages, Lizzie began to mumble the sorrows of her heart.
"I've stood by you through thick and thin," she mourned in a low voice. "I stood by you when you were a vegetarian - I stood by you when you were a theosophist - and I seen you through socialism, Fletcherism and rheumatism - but when it comes to carrying on with ghosts - "
"Be still!" ordered Miss Cornelia. "Nothing will come if you keep chattering!"
"That's why I'm chattering!" said Lizzie, driven to the wall. "My teeth are, too," she added. "I can hardly keep my upper set in," and a desolate clicking of artificial molars attested the truth of the remark. Then, to Miss Cornelia's relief, she was silent for nearly two minutes, only to start so violently at the end of the time that she nearly upset the ouija-board on her mistress's toes.
"I've got a queer feeling in my fingers - all the way up my arms," she whispered in awed accents, wriggling the arms she spoke of violently.
"Hush!" said Miss Cornelia indignantly. Lizzie always exaggerated, of course - yet now her own fingers felt prickly, uncanny. There was a little pause while both sat tense, staring at the board.
"Now, Ouija," said Miss Cornelia defiantly, "is Lizzie Allen right about this house or is it all stuff and nonsense?"
For one second - two - the ouija remained anchored to its resting place in the center of the board, Then -
"My Gawd! It's moving!" said Lizzie in tones of pure horror as the little pointer began to wander among the letters.
"You shoved it!"
"I did not - cross my heart, Miss Neily - I - " Lizzie's eyes were round, her fingers glued rigidly and awkwardly to the ouija. As the movements of the pointer grew more rapid her mouth dropped open - wider and wider - prepared for an ear-piercing scream.
"Keep quiet!" said Miss Cornelia tensely. There was a pause of a few seconds while the pointer darted from one letter to another wildly.
"B - M - C - X - P - R - S - K - Z - " murmured Miss Cornelia trying to follow the spelled letters.
"It's Russian!" gasped Lizzie breathlessly and Miss Cornelia nearly disgraced herself in the eyes of any spirits that might be present by inappropriate laughter. The ouija continued to move - more letters - what was it spelling? - it couldn't be - good heavens - "B - A - T - Bat!" said Miss Cornelia with a tiny catch in her voice.
The pointer stopped moving: She took her hands from the board.
"That's queer," she said with a forced laugh. She glanced at Lizzie to see how Lizzie was taking it. But the 1atter seemed too relieved to have her hands off the ouija-board to make the mental connection that her mistress had feared.
All she said was, "Bats indeed! That shows it's spirits. There's been a bat flying around this house all evening."
She got up from her chair tentatively, obviously hoping that the seance was over.
"Oh, Miss Neily," she burst out. "Please let me sleep in your room tonight! It's only when my jaw drops that I snore - I can tie it up with a handkerchief!"
"I wish you'd tie it up with a handkerchief now," said her mistress absent-mindedly, still pondering the message that the pointer had spelled. "B - A - T - Bat!" she murmured. Thought-transference - warning - accident? Whatever it was, it was - nerve-shaking. She put the ouija-board aside. Accident or not, she was done with it for the evening. But she could not so easily dispose of the Bat. Sending a protesting Lizzie off for her reading glasses, Miss Cornelia got the evening paper and settled down to what by now had become her obsession. She had not far to search for a long black streamer ran across the front page - "Bat Baffles Police Again."
She skimmed through the article with eerie fascination, reading bits of it aloud for Lizzie's benefit.
"'Unique criminal - long baffled the police - record of his crimes shows him to be endowed with an almost diabolical ingenuity - so far there is no clue to his identity - '" Pleasant reading for an old woman who's just received a threatening letter, she thought ironically - ah, here was something new in a black-bordered box on the front page - a statement by the paper.
She read it aloud. "'We must cease combing the criminal world for the Bat and look higher. He may be a merchant - a lawyer - a Doctor - honored in his community by day and at night a bloodthirsty assassin - '" The print blurred before her eyes, she could read no more for the moment. She thought of the revolver in the drawer of the table close at hand and felt glad that it was there, loaded.
"I'm going to take the butcher knife to bed with me!" Lizzie was saying.
Miss Cornelia touched the ouija-board. "That thing certainly spelled Bat," she remarked. "I wish I were a man. I'd like to see any lawyer, Doctor, or merchant of my acquaintance leading a double life without my suspecting it."
"Every man leads a double life and some more than that," Lizzie observed. "I guess it rests them, like it does me to take off my corset.
Miss Cornelia opened her mouth to rebuke her but just at that moment there, was a clink of ice from the hall, and Billy, the Japanese, entered carrying a tray with a pitcher of water and some glasses on it. Miss Cornelia watched his impassive progress, wondering if the Oriental races ever felt terror - she could not imagine all Lizzie's banshees and kelpies producing a single shiver from Billy. He set down the tray and was about to go as silently as he had come when Miss Cornelia spoke to him on impulse.
"Billy, what's all this about the cook's sister not having twins?" she said in an offhand voice. She had not really discussed the departure of the other servants with Billy before. "Did you happen to know that this interesting event was anticipated?"
Billy drew in his breath with a polite hiss. "Maybe she have twins," he admitted. "It happen sometime. Mostly not expected."
"Do you think there was any other reason for her leaving?"
"Maybe," said Billy blandly.
"Well, what was the reason?"
"All say the same thing - house haunted." Billy's reply was prompt as it was calm.
Miss Cornelia gave a slight laugh. "You know better than that, though, don't you?"
Billy's Oriental placidity remained unruffled. He neither admitted nor denied. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Funny house," he said laconically. "Find window open - nobody there. Door slam - nobody there!"
On the heels of his words came a single, startling bang from the kitchen quarters - the bang of a slammed door!
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