The last stroke of the Cathedral bell died away. Other more distant bells still were sounding dimly, but save for the ceaseless hum of the traffic, no unusual sound now disturbed the archaic peace of the court.
I returned to my table, for during the time that had passed I had badly neglected my work and now must often labour far into the night. I was just reseated when there came a very soft rapping at the outer door!
No doubt my mood was in part responsible, but I found myself thinking of Poe’s weird poem, “The Raven”; and like the character therein I found myself hesitating.
I stole quietly into the passage. It was in darkness. How odd it is that in moments of doubt instinctively one shuns the dark and seeks the light. I pressed the switch lighting the hall lamp, and stood looking at the closed door.
Why should this late visitor have rapped in so uncanny a fashion in preference to ringing the bell?
I stepped back to my table and slipped a revolver into my pocket.
The muffled rapping was repeated. As I stood in the study doorway I saw the flap of the letter-box slowly raised!
Instantly I extinguished both lights. You may brand me as childishly timid, but incidents were fresh in my memory which justified all my fears.
A faintly luminous slit in the door showed me that the flap was now fully raised. It was the dim light on the stairway shining through. Then quite silently the flap was lowered. Came the soft rapping again.
“Who’s there?” I cried.
No one answered.
Wondering if I were unduly alarming myself, yet, I confess, strung up tensely in anticipation that this was some device of the phantom enemy, I stood in doubt.
The silence remained unbroken for thirty seconds or more. Then yet again it was disturbed by that ghostly, muffled rapping.
I advanced a step nearer to the door.
“Who’s there?” I cried loudly. “What do you want?”
The flap of the letter box began to move, and I formed a sudden determination. Making no sound in my heelless Turkish slippers I crept close up to the door and dropped upon my knees.
Thereupon the flap became fully lifted, but from where I crouched beneath it I was unable to see who or what was looking in; yet I hesitated no longer. I suddenly raised myself and thrust the revolver barrel through the opening!
“Who are you?” I cried. “Answer or I fire!”—and along the barrel I peered out on to the landing.
Still no one answered. But something impalpable—a powder—a vapour—to this hour I do not know what—enveloped me with its nauseating fumes; was puffed fully into my face! My eyes, my mouth, my nostrils became choked up, it seemed, with a deadly stifling perfume.
Wildly, feeling that everything about me was slipping away, that I was sinking into a void, for ought I knew that of dissolution, I pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice ...