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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAvenger - Chapter 2. The Horror Of The Hansom
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Avenger - Chapter 2. The Horror Of The Hansom Post by :nbdesign Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2611

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Avenger - Chapter 2. The Horror Of The Hansom

CHAPTER II. THE HORROR OF THE HANSOM

Wrayson sat up with a sudden and violent start. His pipe had fallen on to the floor, leaving a long trail of grey ash upon his waistcoat and trousers. The electric lights were still burning, but of the fire nothing remained but a pile of ashes. As soon as he could be said to be conscious of anything, he was conscious of two things. One was that he was shivering with cold, the other that he was afraid.

Wrayson was by no means a coward. He had come once or twice in his life into close touch with dangerous happenings, and conducted himself with average pluck. He never attempted to conceal from himself, however, that these few minutes were minutes of breathless, unreasoning fear. His heart was thumping against his side, and the muscles at the back of his neck were almost numb as he slowly looked round the room. His eyes paused at the door. It was slightly open, to his nervous fancy it seemed to be shaking. His teeth chattered, he felt his forehead, and it was wet.

He rose to his feet and listened. There was no sound anywhere, from above or below. He tried to remember what it was that had awakened him so suddenly. He could remember nothing except that awful start. Something must have disturbed him! He listened again. Still no sound. He drew a little breath, and, with his eyes glued upon the half-closed door, recollected that he himself had left it open that he might hear Barnes go upstairs. With a little laugh, still not altogether natural, he moved to the spirit decanter and drank off half a wineglassful of neat whisky!

"Nerves," he said softly to himself. "This won't do! What an idiot I was to go to sleep there!"

He glanced at the clock. It was five minutes to three. Then he moved towards the door, and stood for several moments with the handle in his hand. Gradually his confidence was returning. He listened attentively. There was not a sound to be heard in the entire building. He turned back into the room with a little sigh of relief.

"Time I turned in," he muttered. "Wonder if that's rain."

He lifted the blind and looked out. A few stars were shining still in a misty sky, but a bank of clouds was rolling up and rain was beginning to fall. The pavements were already wet, and the lamp-posts obscured. He was about to turn away when a familiar, but unexpected, sound from the street immediately below attracted his notice. The window was open at the top, and he had distinctly heard the jingling of a hansom bell.

He threw open the bottom sash and leaned out. A hansom cab was waiting at the entrance to the flats. Wrayson glanced once more instinctively towards the clock. Who on earth of his neighbours could be keeping a cab waiting outside at that hour in the morning? With the exception of Barnes and himself, they were most of them early people. Once more he looked out of the window. The cabman was leaning forward in his seat with his head resting upon his folded arms. He was either tired out or asleep. The attitude of the horse was one of extreme and wearied dejection. Wrayson was on the point of closing the window when he became aware for the first time that the cab had an occupant. He could see the figure of a man leaning back in one corner, he could even distinguish a white-gloved hand resting upon the apron. The figure was not unlike the figure of Barnes, and Barnes, as he happened to remember, always wore white gloves in the evening. Barnes it probably was, waiting--for what? Wrayson closed the window a little impatiently, and turned back into the room.

"Barnes and his friends can go to the devil," he muttered. "I am off to bed."

He took a couple of steps across the room, and then stopped short. The fear was upon him again. He felt his heart almost stop beating, a cold shiver shook his whole frame. He was standing facing his half-open door, and outside on the stone steps he heard the soft, even footfall of slippered feet, and the gentle rustling of a woman's gown.

He was not conscious of any movement, but when she reached the landing he was standing there on the threshold, with the soft halo of light from behind shining on to his white, fiercely questioning face. She came towards him without speech, and her veil was lowered so that he could only imperfectly see her face, but she walked as one newly recovered from illness, with trembling footsteps, and with one hand always upon the banisters. When she reached the corner she stopped, and seemed about to collapse. She spoke to him, and her voice had lost all its quality. It sounded harsh and unreal.

"Why are you--spying on me?" she asked.

"I am not spying," he answered. "I have been asleep--and woke up suddenly."

"Give me--some brandy!" she begged.

She stood upon the threshold and drank from the wineglass which he had filled. When she gave it back to him, he noticed that her fingers were steady.

"Will you come downstairs and let me out?" she asked. "I have looked down and it is all dark on the ground floor. I am not sure that I know my way."

He hesitated, but only for a moment. Side by side they walked down four flights of steps in unbroken silence. He asked no question, she attempted no explanation. Only when he opened the door and she saw the waiting hansom she very nearly collapsed. For a moment she clung to him.

"He is there--in the cab," she moaned. "Where can I hide?"

"Whoever it is," Wrayson answered, with his eyes fixed upon the hansom, "he is either drunk or asleep."

"Or dead!" she whispered in his ear. "Go and see!"

Then, before Wrayson could recover from the shock of her words, she was gone, flitting down the unlit side of the street with swift silent footsteps. His eyes followed her mechanically. Then, when she had turned the corner, he crossed the pavement towards the cab. Even now he could see little of the figure in the corner, for his silk hat was drawn down over his eyes.

"Is that you, Barnes?" he asked.

There came not the slightest response. Then for the first time the hideous meaning of those farewell words of hers broke in upon his brain. Had she meant it? Had she known or guessed? He leaned forward and touched the white-gloved hand. He raised it and let go. It fell like a dead, inert thing. He stepped back and confronted the cabman, who was rubbing his eyes.

"There's something wrong with your fare, cabby," he said.

The cabby raised the trap door, looked down, and descended heavily on to the pavement.

"Well, I'm blowed!" he said. "Here, wake up, guv'nor!"

There was no response. The cabby threw open the apron of the cab and gently shook the recumbent figure.

"I can't wait 'ere all night for my fare!" he exclaimed. "Wake up, God luv us!" he broke off.

He stepped hastily back on to the pavement, and began tugging at one of his lamps.

"Push his hat back, sir," he said. "Let's 'ave a look at 'im."

Wrayson stood upon the step of the cab and lifted the silk hat from the head of the recumbent figure. Then he sprang back quickly with a little exclamation of horror. The lamp was shining full now upon the man's face, livid and white, upon his staring but sightless eyes, upon something around his neck, a fragment of silken cord, drawn so tightly that the flesh seemed to hang over and almost conceal it.

"Throttled, by God!" the cabman exclaimed. "I'm off to the police station."

He clambered up to his seat, and without another word struck his horse with the whip. The cab drove off and disappeared. Wrayson turned slowly round, and, closing the door of the flats, mounted with leaden feet to the fourth story.

He entered his own rooms, and walked without hesitation to the window, which was still open. The fresh air was almost a necessity, for he felt himself being slowly stifled. His knees were shaking, a cold icy horror was numbing his heart and senses. A feeling of nightmare was upon him, as though he had risen unexpectedly from a bed of delirium. There in front of him, a little to the left, was the broad empty street amongst whose shadows she had disappeared. On one side was the Park, and there was obscurity indefinable, mysterious; on the other a long row of tall mansions, a rain-soaked pavement, and a curving line of gas lamps. Beyond, the river, marked with a glittering arc of yellow dots; further away the glow of the sleeping city. Shelter enough there for any one--even for her. A soft, damp breeze was blowing in his face; from amongst the dripping trees of the Park the birds were beginning to make their morning music. Already the blackness of night was passing away, the clouds were lightening, the stars were growing fainter. Wrayson leaned a little forward. His eyes were fixed upon the exact spot where she had crossed the road and disappeared. All the horror of the coming day and the days to come loomed out from the background of his thoughts.

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