Read CHAPTER IX of The Invader A Novel , free online book, by Margaret L. Woods, on

On their return to Oxford the young couple were feted beyond the common. People who had known Milly Flaxman in earlier days were surprised to think how little they had noticed her beauty or guessed what a fund of humor, what an extraordinary charm, had lurked beneath the surface of her former quiet, grave manner. The Master of Durham alone refused to be surprised. He merely affirmed in his short squeak that he had always admired Mrs. Stewart very much. She was now frequently to be found in the place of honor at those dinners of his, where distinguished visitors from London brought the stir and color of the great world into the austere groves, the rarefied atmosphere of Academe.

Wherever she appeared, the vivid personality of Mrs. Stewart made a kind of effervescence which that indescribable entity, a vivid personality, is sure to keep fizzing about it. She was devoutly admired, fiercely criticised, and asked everywhere. It is true she had quite given up her music, but she drew caricatures which were irresistibly funny, and was a tremendous success in charades. Everything was still very new to her, everything interesting and amusing. She was enchanted with her house, although Milly and Lady Thomson had chosen it, preferring to a villa in the Parks an old gray house of the kind that are every day recklessly destroyed by the march of modern vulgarity. She approved of the few and good pieces of old furniture with which they had provided it; although Lady Thomson could not entirely approve of the frivolity and extravagance of the chintzes with which she helped the sunshine to brighten the low, panelled rooms. But Aunt Beatrice, girt with principles major and minor, armed with so Procrustean a measure for most of her acquaintance, accepted Mildred’s deviations with an astonishing ease. The secret of personal magnetism is not yet discovered. It may be that the aura surrounding each of us is no mystic vision of the Neo-Buddhists, but a physical fact; that Mildred’s personality acted by a power not moral but physical on the nerves of those who approached her, exciting those of some, of the majority, pleasurably, filling others with a nameless uneasiness, to account for which they must accuse her manners or her character.

To Ian Stewart the old panelled house with the walled garden behind, where snowdrops and crocuses pushed up under budding orchard boughs, was a paradise beyond any he had imagined. He found Mildred the most adorable of wives, the most interesting of companions. Her defects as a housekeeper, which Aunt Beatrice noted in silence but with surprise, were nothing to him. He could not help pausing sometimes even in the midst of his work, to wonder at his own good fortune and to reflect that whatever the future might have in store, he would have no right to complain, since it had been given to him to know the taste of perfect happiness.

Since his marriage he had been obliged to take more routine work, and the Long Vacation had become more valuable to him than ever. As soon as he had finished an Examination he had undertaken, he meant to devote the time to the preparation of a new book which he had in his mind. Mildred, seemingly as eager as himself that the book should be done, had at first agreed. Then some of her numerous friends had described the pleasures of Dieppe, and she was seized with the idea that they too might go there. Ian, she said, could work as well at Dieppe as at Oxford or in the country. Ian knew better; besides, his funds were low and Dieppe would cost too much. For the first time he opposed Mildred’s wishes, and to her surprise she found him perfectly firm. There was no quarrel, but although she was silent he felt that she did not yield her opinion and was displeased with him.

Late at night as he sat over Examination papers, his sensitive imagination framed the accusations of selfishness, pedantry, scrupulosity, which his wife might be bringing against him in the “sessions of silent thought;” although it was clearly to her advantage as much as to his own that he should keep out of money difficulties and do work which counted. She had no fixed habits, and he flung down pipe and pen, hoping to find her still awake. But she was already sound asleep. The room was dark, but he saw her by the illumination of distant lightning, playing on the edge of a dark and sultry world. His appointed task was not yet done and he returned to the study, a long, low, dark-panelled room, looking on the garden. The windows were wide open on the hushed, warm, almost sulphurous darkness, from which frail white-winged moths came floating in towards the shaded lamp on his writing-table. He sat down to his papers and by an effort of will concentrated his mind upon them. Habit had made such concentration easy to him as a rule, but to-night, after half an hour of steady work, he was mastered by an invading restlessness of mind and body. The cause was not far to seek; he could hear all the time he worked the dull, almost continuous, roar of distant thunder. All else was very still, it was long past midnight and the town was asleep.

He got up and paced the room once or twice, grasping his extinguished pipe absently in his hand. Suddenly a blast seemed to spring out of nowhere and rush madly round the enclosed garden, tossing the gnarled and leafy branches of the old orchard trees and dragging at the long trails of creepers on wall and trellis. It blew in at the windows, hot as from the heart of the thunder-cloud, and waved the curtains before it. It rushed into the very midst of the old house with its cavernous chimneys, deep cellars, and enormous unexplored walls, filling it with strange, whispering sounds, as of half articulate voices, here menacing, there struggling to reveal some sinister and vital secret. The blast died away, but it seemed to have left those voices still muttering and sighing through the walls that had sheltered so many generations, such various lives of men. Ian was used to the creaking and groaning of the wood-work; he knew how on the staircase the rising of the boards, which had been pressed down in the day, simulated ghostly footsteps in the night. He was in his mental self the most rational of mortals, but at times the Highland strain in his blood, call it sensitive or superstitious, spoke faintly to his nerves never before so strongly, so over-masteringly as to-night. A blue blaze of crooked lightning zigzagged down the outer darkness and seemed to strike the earth but a little beyond the garden wall. Following on its heels a tremendous clap of thunder burst, as it were, on the very chimneys. The solid house shook to its foundations. But the tide of horrible, irrational fear which swept over Ian’s whole being was not caused by this mere exaggerated commonplace of nature. He could give no guess what it was that caused it; he only knew that it was agony. He knew what it meant to feel the hair lift on his head; he knew what the Psalmist meant when he said, “My bones are turned to water.” And as he stood unable to move, afraid to turn his head, abject and ashamed of his abjectness, he was listening, listening for he knew not what.

At length it came. He heard the stairs creak and a soft padding footstep coming slowly down them; with it the brush of a light garment and intermittently a faint human sound between a sigh and a sob. He did not reflect that he could not really have heard such slight sounds through a thick stone wall and a closed door. He heard them. The steps stopped at the door; a hand seemed feeling to open it, and again there was a painful sigh. The physical terror had not passed from him, but the sudden though that it was his wife and that she was frightened or ill, made him able to master it. He seized the lamp, because he knew the light in the hall was extinguished, rushed to the door, opened it and looked out. There was no one there. He made a hasty but sufficient search and returned to the study.

The extremity of his fear was now passed, but an unpleasantly eery feeling still lingered about him and he had a very definite desire to find himself in some warm, human neighborhood. He had left the door open and was arranging the papers on his writing-table, when once again he heard those soft padding feet on the stairs; but this time they were much heavier, more hurried, and stumbled a little. He stood bent over the table, a bundle of papers in his hand, no longer overcome by mortal terror, yet somehow reluctant once more to look out and to see once more nothing. There was a sound outside the door, louder, hoarser than the faint sob or sigh which he had heard before, and he seized the lamp and turned towards it. Before he had made a step forward, the door was pushed violently back and his wife came in, leaning upon it as though she needed support. She was barefooted and dressed only in a long night-gown, white, yet hardly whiter than her face. Her eyes did not turn towards him, they stared in front of her, not with the fixed gaze of an ordinary sleep-walker, but with purpose and intensity. She seemed to see something, to pursue something, with starting eyes and out-stretched arms; something she hated even more than she feared it, for her lips were blanched and tightened over her teeth as though with fury, and her smooth white forehead gathered in a frown. Again she uttered that low, fierce sound, like that he had heard outside the door. Then, loosing the handle on which she had leaned, she half sprung, half staggered, with uplifted hand, towards an open window, beyond which the rush of the thunder shower was just visible, sloping pallidly across the darkness. She leaned out into it and uttered to the night a hoarse, confused voice, words inchoate, incomprehensible, yet with a terrible accent of rage, of malediction. This transformation of his wife, so refined, so self-contained, into a creature possessed by an almost animal fury, struck Ian with horror, although he accepted it as a phenomenon of somnambulism. He approached but did not touch her, for he had heard that it was dangerous to awaken a somnambulist. Her voice sank rapidly to a loud whisper and he heard her articulate “My husband! Mine! Mine!” but in no tone of tenderness, rather pronouncing the words as a passionate claim to his possession. Then suddenly she drooped, half kneeling on the deep window-seat, half fallen across the sill. He sprang to catch her, but not before her forehead had come down sharply on the stone edge of the outer window. He kneeled upon the window-seat and gathered her gently in his arms, where she lay quiet, but moaning and shuddering.

“My husband!” she wailed, no longer furious now but despairing. “Ian! My love! Ian! My life! my life! My own husband!”

Even in this moment it thrilled him to hear such words from her lips. He had not thought she loved him so passionately. He lifted her on to a deep old sofa at the end of the room, wrapped her in a warm Oriental coverlet which hung there, and held her to his heart, murmuring love and comfort in her cold little ear. It seemed gradually to soothe her, although he did not think she really awoke. Then he put her down, lighted the lamp outside, and, not without difficulty, carried her up to bed. Her eyes were half closed when he laid her down and drew the bedclothes over her; and a minute or two later, when he looked in from his dressing-room, she was evidently asleep.

When he got into bed she did not stir, and while he lay awake for another hour, she remained motionless and breathing regularly. He assured himself that the whole curious occurrence could be explained by the electrical state of the atmosphere, which had affected his own nerves in a way he would never humiliate himself by confessing to any one. Those mysterious footsteps on the stairs which he had heard, footsteps like his wife’s yet not hers; that hand upon the door, that voice of sighs, were the creation of his own excited brain. In time he would doubtless come to believe his own assurances on the point, but that night at the bottom of his heart he did not believe them.