Sure enough it was a pile of playing-cards--forty packs, I should think, at the least--which had lain there ever since that tragic game which was played before I was born.
"I wonder whence that stair leads?" said Jim.
"Don't go up there, Jim!" I cried, clutching at his arm. "That must lead to the room of the murder."
"How do you know that?"
"The vicar said that they saw on the ceiling--Oh, Jim, you can see it even now!"
He held up his candle, and there was a great, dark smudge upon the white plaster above us.
"I believe you're right," said he; "but anyhow I'm going to have a look at it."
"Don't, Jim, don't!" I cried.
"Tut, Roddy! you can stay here if you are afraid. I won't be more than a minute. There's no use going on a ghost hunt unless--Great Lord, there's something coming down the stairs!"
I heard it too--a shuffling footstep in the room above, and then a creak from the steps, and then another creak, and another. I saw Jim's face as if it had been carved out of ivory, with his parted lips and his staring eyes fixed upon the black square of the stair opening. He still held the light, but his fingers twitched, and with every twitch the shadows sprang from the walls to the ceiling. As to myself, my knees gave way under me, and I found myself on the floor crouching down behind Jim, with a scream frozen in my throat. And still the step came slowly from stair to stair.
Then, hardly daring to look and yet unable to turn away my eyes, I saw a figure dimly outlined in the corner upon which the stair opened. There was a silence in which I could hear my poor heart thumping, and then when I looked again the figure was gone, and the low creak, creak was heard once more upon the stairs. Jim sprang after it, and I was left half-fainting in the moonlight.
But it was not for long. He was down again in a minute, and, passing his hand under my arm, he half led and half carried me out of the house. It was not until we were in the fresh night air again that he opened his mouth.
"Can you stand, Roddy?"
"Yes, but I'm shaking."
"So am I," said he, passing his hand over his forehead. "I ask your pardon, Roddy. I was a fool to bring you on such an errand. But I never believed in such things. I know better now."
"Could it have been a man, Jim?" I asked, plucking up my courage now that I could hear the dogs barking on the farms.
"It was a spirit, Rodney."
"How do you know?"
"Because I followed it and saw it vanish into a wall, as easily as an eel into sand. Why, Roddy, what's amiss now?"
My fears were all back upon me, and every nerve creeping with horror.
"Take me away, Jim! Take me away!" I cried.
I was glaring down the avenue, and his eyes followed mine. Amid the gloom of the oak trees something was coming towards us.
"Quiet, Roddy!" whispered Jim. "By heavens, come what may, my arms are going round it this time."
We crouched as motionless as the trunks behind us. Heavy steps ploughed their way through the soft gravel, and a broad figure loomed upon us in the darkness.
Jim sprang upon it like a tiger.
"YOU'RE not a spirit, anyway!" he cried.
The man gave a shout of surprise, and then a growl of rage.
"What the deuce!" he roared, and then, "I'll break your neck if you don't let go."
The threat might not have loosened Jim's grip, but the voice did.
"Why, uncle!" he cried.
"Well, I'm blessed if it isn't Boy Jim! And what's this? Why, it's young Master Rodney Stone, as I'm a living sinner! What in the world are you two doing up at Cliffe Royal at this time of night?"
We had all moved out into the moonlight, and there was Champion Harrison with a big bundle on his arm,--and such a look of amazement upon his face as would have brought a smile back on to mine had my heart not still been cramped with fear.
"We're exploring," said Jim.
"Exploring, are you? Well, I don't think you were meant to be Captain Cooks, either of you, for I never saw such a pair of peeled- turnip faces. Why, Jim, what are you afraid of?"
"I'm not afraid, uncle.