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The Heath Hover Mystery

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Heath Hover MysteryBy Bertram MitfordIllustrations by F.H. DrestierPublished by Ward, Lock and Co Ltd, London, Melbourne and Toronto.This edition dated 1911.

  The Heath Hover Mystery, by Bertram Mitford.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE HEATH HOVER MYSTERY, BY BERTRAM MITFORD.



  John Seward Mervyn lay back in his accustomed armchair, and--looked.

  The room was of medium size, partly panelled, and partly hung with darkred papering. It was low ceiled, and the bending beams between thestrips of whitewash were almost black. This added to the gloominess ofthe apartment whether by day or night; and now it was night. To beprecise it was the stroke of midnight.

  A bright fire glowed and flared in the wide, old-world chimney grate,but even this failed altogether to dispel a certain suggestion of thehauntings of vague, shadowy evil influences that seemed to be in theatmosphere. The lamplight too, was cheerful enough, and yet not. Itwould have been, anywhere else, but here it seemed that any element ofcheerfulness must somehow infallibly miss its way.

  The moan of the winter wind surged around the gables of the old house,rising now and then to a most doleful howling, and within, beams andrafters cracked, breaking out loudly in new and unexpected places. Alsoin a manner somewhat nerve-trying to one who sat there in the ghostlymidnight solitude--as this one sat, and he in the full consciousnessthat for years and years past nobody had been found to inhabit thishouse even rent free and for the sole consideration of residing withinthe same. And he was trying the experiment.

  John Seward Mervyn was a man who prided himself on being an absolute andcynical sceptic with regard to the supernatural, and he was poor.Dreadful tales were afloat with regard to this particular tenement, butat such he laughed. Nobody had been able to inhabit it even for weeks.Several had made the attempt, allured by the inducement of rent free.They had remained just long enough to begin to congratulate themselvesupon such a find--and then--out they had gone, bag and baggage, withoutso much as a day's notice. Several in succession; and what they hadseen--or heard--somehow or other none had been willing--or able--todisclose. But the present occupant had been in possession for somemonths, to the marvel of the neighbourhood.

  Now he sat there at dead midnight in absolute solitude. Not a soul waswithin call; the nearest habitations were two or three labourers'cottages on the further side of a wooded hill. His thoughts were of thepast, and they were not pleasant, those of the past seldom are. Acouple of pipes were on the table at his elbow, and a tobacco jar--likewise a square whisky bottle, a syphon and a tumbler, but of this hehad partaken but little. But somehow he felt his solitude to-night ashe had never felt it since he had entered on possession. To-night hefelt he would have given something for human companionship in almost anyshape. The winter wind howled without, not loud but inexpressiblydismal. And he sat, and--looked.

  Looked! At what?

  In a corner of the room was a door--a massive door. It had a curiousold-world, wrought-iron handle. And at this he was looking--gazing, infact, more than intently. Was it slowly turning?

  He could have sworn that it was. Well, what, then? The door wassecurely locked, the key was in a very safe place. And the door lednowhere and from nowhere. It led, in fact, to a vault-like undergroundcellar whose solid walls were totally devoid of outlet. When he hadentered on possession he had exhaustively verified this, and having thussatisfied himself had laughed all the startling and shadowypossibilities which popular report ascribed to the place to utter scorn.And yet, now to-night, he could have sworn that the handle of this doorwas slowly turning.

  To anybody less sceptical--less unaffectedly and wholesouledlysceptical--there was that in the conviction which would have set up ablood-chilling, hair-raising effect. The utter loneliness of the place,the midnight sounds, the moaning of the doleful winter wind, thecrackings and creakings of the ghostly old house, the dreadful legendsthat centred round that very vault, of which the movement of this verydoor handle was a preliminary incident--would have been sufficient tohave driven out such into the pitiless winter night rather than remainsitting there--on the watch.

  On the watch--for what? Could a spectral hand undo that lock? Then thewatcher rubbed his eyes and looked again. Certainly the handle hadturned. Its broad iron loop had been horizontal before, now it was atan angle of forty-five. Of that he was as sure as that he was alive andsitting there. And then he remembered that--this was the night.

  It doesn't matter what day of the month it was. Manifestations wereliable to occur at any time, and sporadically, but there were two nightsin the year when--Well he had obtained a vague inkling as to what mightbe expected, but the last of these two dates had befallen prior to hisoccupation. This was the second of them within the year. This was thenight.

  "Now this is all unutterable bosh," Mervyn said to himself. "I'll haveanother drink anyhow. Then I'll turn in."

  He reached for the whisky bottle, and filled up. Yet he was consciousof a feeling as though a chill were running down him from head to foot,notwithstanding that the fire was glowing with a heat that was almostfierce; and with the hissing squirt of the syphon into the tumbler theremingled a sound as though something or somebody were shuffling orgroping behind that heavily locked door. He took a long pull at histumbler, almost emptying it. Then he looked again at the broad ironloop handle. Its straight lower end, which before had stood at an angleof forty five, was now vertical.

  His eyes dilated upon the phenomenon. The cold chill that ran throughhis system seemed to intensify. Mervyn, though by no means a totalabstainer was a temperate man--so it was not that. Well, the obviousthing was to go and get the key, and open the door and satisfy himself.But, for the life of him he--could not.

  No. He could not. He sat staring more and more wildly with dilatedeyes. He was even horribly conscious of a slow pallor creeping over hisface. What did it mean? The whole atmosphere of the room seemedcharged with some evil influence. An owl hooted melodiously outside.It was answered by another. This seemed in a measure to break thespell, for he loved birds and bird voices, and the hooting of owls inthe dark woods overhanging the long lake-like pond behind his dwellingwas a sound that often drew him forth on moonlight nights to stand onthe sluice and listen for an hour at a time. There was to him nothingboding or sinister in the voices of the night birds, any more than therewas in the jubilant shout of the cuckoo by day, or the twanging of thenightingale.

  He looked again. Certainly that door handle was moving, and it could bemoved by no mortal hand. Yet to make sure, he found his voice.

  "Any one there?" he called, and as he did so he was conscious of asuspicion of a quake in his voice.

  For answer only a soft drive of sleet against the curtained window, andthrough it he could swear that the door handle slowly creaked. The dooritself stood shadowy in the gloom of the corner where the light onlyhalf reached.

  Then something moved. For the life of him the watcher could not repressa start, a thrill of the nerves. But the sound, the movement, did notcome from the corner whereon his tense gaze was fixed. There was alittle black kitten curled up asleep in an armchair opposite the one inwhich he was seated--a tiny ball of woolly fluff, which during its shortlife had been the regular companion of his lonely evenings, and of whichhe was almost humanly fond. It, now, was uncurling itself with a suddencelerity totally foreign to the usual deliberation of its kind onawakening from sleep. Its round eyes were wide open, and a crescendofire of shri
ll growls were proceeding from its little throat. Its backwas arched, and its fur all standing up, and--its gaze too, was fixedupon that door in the shadowy corner. Then it spat, retreating furtherand further till it was against the back of the chair, for all the worldas though to repel the onslaught of its natural and hereditary enemy--dog.

  "The fact is," thought Mervyn, noting this, "I have been too much shutup with myself, and the utter, infernal loneliness of life here iseating into my nerves." But the sensible side of this scepticalreflection was undermined by another--that there are occasions whenanimals can see what we cannot. And this tiny creature was showingunmistakable and increasing signs of perturbation and alarm.

  He spoke to it--softly, caressingly--then went over and picked it up.As he returned with it to his own chair it struggled violently as thoughto escape--a thing it had never done--growling the while with redoubledintensity. And his own chair was nearer to that door.

  "Now Poogie, don't be a little fool," he apostrophised,