The strength seemed to be sapped out of me. Believe me, Lord Roxton, it is no light thing which we are facing to-night."
The sportsman was unusually grave. "So I begin to think," said he. "Do you think you are fit for the job?"
"I am sorry to have been so weak," Mr. Mason answered. "I shall certainly see the thing through. The worse the case, the more need for my help. I am all right now," he added, with his cheery laugh, drawing an old charred briar from his pocket. "This is the best doctor for shaken nerves. I'll sit here and smoke till I'm wanted."
"What shape do you expect it to take?" asked Malone of Lord Roxton.
"Well, it is something you can see. That's certain."
"That's what I cannot understand, in spite of all my reading," said Malone. "These authorities are all agreed that there is a material basis, and that this material basis is drawn from the human body. Call it ectoplasm, or what you like, it is human in origin, is it not?"
"Certainly," Mason answered.
"Well, then, are we to suppose that this Dr. Tremayne builds up his own appearance by drawing stuff from me and you?"
"I think, so far as I understand it, that in most cases a spirit does so. I believe that when the spectator feels that he goes cold, that his hair rises and the rest of it, he is really conscious of this draft upon his own vitality which may be enough to make him faint or even to kill him. Perhaps he was drawing on me then."
"Suppose we are not mediumistic? Suppose we give out nothing?"
"There is a very full case that I read lately," Mr. Mason answered. "It was closely observed -- reported by Professor Neillson of Iceland. In that case the evil spirit used to go down to an unfortunate photographer in the town, draw his supplies from him, and then come back and use them. He would openly say, 'Give me time to get down to So-and-so. Then I will show you what I can do'. He was a most formidable creature and they had great difficulty in mastering him."
"Strikes me, young fellah, we have taken on a larger contract than we knew," said Lord Roxton. "Well, we've done what we could. The passage is well lit. No one can come at us except down the stair without breaking the worsted. There is nothing more we can do except just to wait."
So they waited. It was a weary time. A carriage clock had been placed on the discoloured wooden mantelpiece, and slowly its hands crept on from one to two and from two to three. Outside an owl was hooting most dismally in the darkness. The villa was on a by-road, and there was no human sound to link them up with life. The padre lay dozing in his chair. Malone smoked incessantly. Lord Roxton turned over the pages of a magazine. There were the occasional strange tappings and creakings which come in the silence of the night. Nothing else until . . .
Someone came down the stair.
There could not be a doubt of it. It was a furtive, and yet a clear footstep. Creak! Creak! Creak! Then it had reached the level. Then it had reached their door. They were all sitting erect in their chairs, Roxton grasping his automatic. Had it come in? The door was ajar, but had not further opened. Yet all were aware of a sense that they were not alone, that they were being observed. It seemed suddenly colder, and Malone was shivering. An instant later the steps were retreating. They were low and swift -- much swifter than before. One could imagine that a messenger was speeding back with intelligence to some great master who lurked in the shadows above.
The three sat in silence, looking at each other.
"By Jove!" said Lord Roxton at last. His face was pale but firm. Malone scribbled some notes and the hour. The clergyman was praying.
"Well, we are up against it," said Roxton after a pause. "We can't leave it at that. We have to go through with it. I don't mind tellin' you, padre, that I've followed a wounded tiger in thick jungle and never had quite the feelin' I've got now. If I'm out for sensations, I've got them. But I'm going upstairs."
"We will go, too," cried his comrades, rising from their chairs.