Simpkins took off his shoes and found his sandals without striking a light, and then felt his way to the door leading into the hall. The knob rattled a little under his hand. All that evening he had been nerving himself to go in there alone and in the dark, but now he could have turned and run like a country boy passing a graveyard at night.
The hall was not utterly black, as he had expected. Light from the electric lamps without flickered through the stained-glass windows. Ghastly rays of yellow played over the painted faces on the walls and lit up the gilded features of the mummy by Mrs. Athelstone’s desk. There were crimson spots, like blotches of blood, on the veil of Isis. And all about were moving shadows, creeping forward stealthily, falling back slowly, as the light without flared up or died down.
Step by step Simpkins advanced on the black altar, his muscles rigid, his nerves quivering, his eyes staring straight ahead, as a child stares into the dark for some awful shape which it fears to see, yet dares not leave unseen. Once past that altar he would be safe at the door of the storeroom.
How his heart was beating! He was almost at it. Steady! A few steps now and he would gain the storeroom. Good God! What was that!
In the blackness behind the altar two eyes flamed.
Simpkins stopped; he was helpless to turn or to advance. Perhaps if he did not move, it would not. A moment he stood there, tense with terror, then—straight from the altar the thing flew at his throat. But quick as it was: the involuntary jerk of his arm upward was quicker, and it received the blow. Snarling, the thing fell to the floor, and leaped back into the darkness. It was Mrs. Athelstone’s cat.
So strong was Simpkins’ revulsion of feeling, so great his relief, that he forgot the real cause of his terror, and sank down on the very steps of the altar, weakly exclaiming over and over again: “Only the cat! Only the cat! Great Scott! how it frightened me!”
He had been sitting there for a few minutes when he heard a soft click, click, just to his right. Some one was turning a key in the door leading from Mrs. Athelstone’s apartments. As he jumped to his feet, he heard a hand grasp the doorknob. He looked around for a hiding-place, ran a few steps from the altar, doubled like a baited rat, and dove into the blackness behind the veil of Isis. There had been no time to choose; for hardly was he safe under cover and peeping out from between the folds of the veil than the door swung open slowly.
It was Mrs. Athelstone who came through the doorway. She was all in white, a soft, silken white, which floated about her like a cloud, drifting back from her bare arms and throat, and suggesting the rounded outlines of her limbs. Her black hair, braided, hung below her waist, and from her forehead the golden asp bound back the curls. Her arms were full of roses—yellow, white and red.