Read THE PANELED DOOR: CHAPTER I of The Blue Wall A Story of Strangeness and Struggle , free online book, by Richard Washburn Child, on ReadCentral.com.

THE SCRATCHING SOUND

Estabrook listened to the story of Mortimer Cranch, sometimes staring into the wizened face of the speaker, sometimes gazing into the depths of the painted Gardens of Versailles. When at last, in a hollow voice which reverberated through the scene loft, Cranch had ended, the younger man jumped forward with his eyes blazing, his hands clenched, his nostrils distended.

“What is wrong with my wife now?” he roared. “You know. Tell me or I’ll tear you to pieces!”

There was a moment in which the place was as still as a tomb. I myself drew no breath, but watched the half-bald head of the criminal shake sadly.

Then suddenly he looked up. With one claw-like finger, he pointed at Estabrook. Hate and distrust were in his eyes.

“You know!” he piped in a thin but terrible voice. There was no doubting the sincerity of his accusation.

“I know?” cried Estabrook, falling back. “I know?”

“It began when you left the house!” cried Cranch. “I’ve always watched on and off since you married her. I’m her father. I’ve loved her as no one knows. It was my right to watch. I’ve been nearly mad with worry. What have you done to her? You have dug me out of the grave, I tell you. Now we’re face to face. What have you done with my girl?”

The lonely, ruined man had thrown his arms forward. He wore dignity. For a passing second he became a figure to inspire awe; for a moment he seemed the incarnation of a great self-sacrifice. And in that pause he saw that Estabrook’s expression had suddenly filled with sympathy, as if in a flash a warmer circulation of blood stirred in his veins; as if, suddenly, his sight had been cleared so that he could picture all the suffering which Cranch had been forced to keep locked up within himself, through dragging years. He reached for the extended, bare, and bony wrist of the older man and grasped its cords in his strong fingers.

“Come,” said he softly, “there is no time for us who have loved her so much, each in his own way, to misunderstand.”

Cranch did not answer. He did not move a muscle. But his eyes filled with the thin tears of aged persons.

“And now, Doctor,” said Estabrook, wheeling toward me, “we must find out if Margaret has sent us word.”

He plucked my sleeve; he started toward the stairs. He turned his back on the Gardens of Versailles and the vagrant who kneeled beside the cot in the foreground, with his face buried in the red blankets.

It was the hoarse call of this ghost of a man that stopped us.

“Estabrook!” he said.

“Yes.”

“We may never meet again.”

The younger man went back and without speaking, clasped the other’s hand.

“You will tell one person just one about me?” asked Cranch.

“Julianna!” Estabrook exclaimed with horror.

The other shook his head patiently from side to side.

“I meant Margaret Murchie,” he whispered.

Then, feeling the wistful gaze of his worn and watery eyes upon our backs, we left the Mohave Scenic Studio forever. A run across town in my car brought us again to my door. My scrawny busybody of a maid opened it before I had opportunity to even draw forth my key.

“Four or five telephone calls,” she said with her impudent importance, “but only one is pressing.”

“One?” cried I, “who from?”

“Somebody I don’t know, Doctor. Margaret Somebody. She left a message. She wouldn’t say no more than just one word.”

“What was that word?” cried Estabrook at my shoulder.

“Danger.”

I suppose that both of us felt the shock and then the tingle of excitement in the meaning of that phrase, interpreted in the light of our understanding.

“Doctor!” the young man shouted.

“Yes, Estabrook,” said I; “keep your nerve. I think I have the key to this problem in my possession. I have not yet explained. I did not want to do so unless it was necessary. But if I am right you must not weaken. You must be ready to throw your whole strength into loyalty and affection for your wife and courage to protect her at any cost!”

“I’m ready!” he cried. “I feel that I must win her all over again. She is as fresh and new and beautiful to me as the day I first saw her. And I love her now as never before!”

“Jump into the car, then!” I commanded, and turning to my chauffeur, whispered, “To the Marburys’. Where we were this morning. And what we want is speed!”

He nodded, but I have no doubt that Estabrook and I both cursed him for his caution as he slowed down at the crossings, and finally, when, to conform to the traffic regulation, he circled in front of the banker’s house.

This time neither of us looked up at either residence, but ran forward toward the Estabrooks’ door. I pressed the bell centred in the Chinese bronze.

Suddenly, however, the unfortunate husband grasped the arm of my coat.

“My promise!” he exclaimed.

“You mean to keep it at any cost?”

“Yes,” said he. “I trusted her judgment and her loyalty, and gave her my word.”

“Pah!” I exploded angrily. His literal sense of honor, his narrow conscience which led him into inexpediency, seemed to me a part of a feminine rather than of a masculine nature, and more ridiculous than high-minded.

“Well, wait here, then,” I snapped back at him as Margaret Murchie opened the door. “If necessary I will call you.”

The old servant said nothing until we were in the hall, but her face was white with fear. I read on it the word she had transmitted to us by telephone. And whether or not it was my imagination, I felt the presence of a crisis and a forewarning that the inexplicable events which I had observed were now to come to some explosive end.

Margaret’s first words, said to me with her two large hands raised as if to ward off a menace, were not reassuring.

“The scratching noise!” she cried. “The soft scratching noise!”

I turned her toward me by grasping her shoulder.

“No hysteria,” I said firmly. “Every second may count. Tell me quickly what has happened.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, bracing herself. “I’ve done as you told me very faithful. I went this morning to get my orders from her. I don’t say the voice that answered me weren’t hers.”

“Well, would you say it was?” I asked savagely.

“I think I would, sir,” she replied. “It was strange and changed and soft. I could hardly hear it. She said she didn’t require anything. So I came away.”

“And then ?”

“And then I did as you told me. I went to her door often enough and listened. You told me not to call to her unless there wasn’t any sound. But there was a sound a dreadful sound after a body had listened to it a bit.”

“A sound?”

“Yes, a scratching sound. Sometimes it would stop and then it would go on again. And all the time it seemed to me more than ever that she wasn’t alone in that room.”

“Wasn’t alone! What made you think so?” I exclaimed.

“I couldn’t just say,” answered Margaret. “I’ve never been able to say. It’s just a feeling a strange and terrible feeling, sir, that somebody else is there. But the scratching sound I heard with my two ears. And you never heard so worrying a sound before!”

“It has stopped?” I said.

“Yes, it has stopped. It stopped just before I telephoned. I thought I heard something touch the door and I went up and listened. I couldn’t hear anything. I knocked. I got no answer. I remembered your orders. I wasn’t sure whether I could hear breathing or not inside, but I didn’t dare to wait. I called your office, sir. And I thank God you’re here!”

“And you didn’t break open the door? You didn’t even try the knob?”

She looked at me dumbly. Her mouth twitched with her terror.

“I didn’t dare. I’ve had courage for everything in this world, sir,” she said. “But I didn’t dare to open that door! I’m glad somebody else has come into this dreadful house!”

“Which is the room?” I asked.

“Come with me,” she replied, beginning her climb of the broad stairs.

Her feet made no noise on the soft carpeting; nor did mine. The whole house, indeed, seemed stuffy with motionless air, as if not even sound vibrations had disturbed the deathlike fixity of that interior. As we turned at the top toward the paneled white door, which I knew as by instinct was the one we sought, for the first time I became conscious of the faint ticking of a clock somewhere on the floor above us.

“I’ve forgot to wind the rest,” whispered the old servant, as if she had divined my thought. “They were driving me mad.”

I nodded to show her that now I, too, was beginning to feel the effect of the strange state of affairs which I had first sensed from the other side of the blue wall.

“Leave me here,” I said to her softly. “Go down to Mr. Estabrook. He is in the vestibule. He has a message for you from long ago.”

I may have spoken significantly; she may have been at that moment peculiarly sharp to read the meanings behind plain sentences. Whatever the case, her face lit up with joy the characteristic, joyful expression that never comes to the faces of men and few times to the face of a woman. For a moment youth seemed to return to her. The last traces of the limber strength of body, gone with her girlhood, came back. She wore no longer, at that second, the mien of a nun of household service. She was transfigured.

“It’s Monty Cranch!” she cried under her breath. “He isn’t dead! I knew he wasn’t. I knew it always.”

“Go now,” I said. “Mr. Estabrook has something of a story to tell you.”

She left me then, standing alone before that white expanse of door. I was literally and figuratively on the threshold of poor MacMechem’s mystery, knowing well that the solution of it would explain the strange influence that had registered its effects upon my patient, little Virginia Marbury.

I listened with my ear pressed softly against the door. No other sign of life came to me than that of soft breathing. Indeed, even then I had to admit to myself that I might have imagined the sound. I stood back, as one does in such circumstances, half afraid to act half afraid that to touch the knob or assault the closed and silent room would be to bring the sky crashing down to earth, turn loose a pestilence, set a demon free, or expose some sight grisly enough to turn the observer to stone. I found myself sensing the presence of a person or persons behind the opaque panels; my eyes were trying, as eyes will, to look through the painted wooden barrier.

My glance wandered to the top of the door, back again to the middle, downward toward the bottom. The house was so still, now that Margaret had stepped out of it into the vestibule, that the ears imagined that they heard the beating of great velvety black wings. The gloom of the drawn blinds produced strange shadows, in which the eyes endeavored to find lurking, unseen things that watched the conduct and the destinies of men. But my eyes and ears returned again each time to their vain attention to the entrance of that room, as if the stillness and the gloom bade me listen and look, while I stood there hesitant.

At last the reason for my hesitancy, the reason for my reluctance, the reason for my staring, suddenly appeared as if some fate had directed my observation. A corner of an envelope was protruding from beneath the door!

I felt as I pulled the envelope through that the next moment might bring a piteous outcry from within, as if I had drawn upon the vital nerves of an organism. Yet none came; I found myself erect once more with the envelope in my hand, reading the writing on its face. It was scrawled in a trembling hand.

“Margaret,” it said, “send for my husband. Give him this envelope without opening it yourself. Give it to him before he comes to this door.”

“Poor woman!” I said with a sudden awakening of sympathy. “Poor, poor woman!”

With my whispered words repeating themselves in my mind, I retraced my way along the hall, down the stairs.

I opened the front door quietly. My first glance showed me the countenance of the old servant; it was lighted by the words which the young man was saying to her.

“Estabrook,” said I.

He jumped like a wounded man.

“She is not dead?” he groaned.

“No,” said I; “not dead. Come in. She has sent for you.”

“Sent for me!” he cried, trying to dash by me.

“Wait,” I commanded. “Before you go, come into this reception room. This message is for you.”

He took the envelope, almost crunching it in his nervous fingers.

“Remember what I told you,” I cautioned him.

“Told me?”

“Yes. To be strong,” said I. “To be loyal.”

He nodded, then ran his finger under the flap. There were several sheets of thin paper folded within.

“Her writing!” he exclaimed. “But so strange so steady so much like her writing when I first knew her. Why, Doctor, it is her old self it’s Julianna.”

“Sit down,” I suggested.

He spread the papers on his knee.

As he read on, I saw the color leave his skin, I saw his hands draw the sheets so taut that there was danger of their parting under the strain. I heard the catch in each breath he took. As he read, I looked away, observing the refined elegance of the room in which we were sitting and even noting the bronze elephant on the mantel which I remembered was the very one which Judge Colfax had thrown at the dog “Laddie.” It was not until he had reached forward and touched my sleeve that I knew he had finished.

I looked up then. He had buried his head in the curve of his arm. His body seemed to stiffen and relax alternately as if unable to contain some great grief or some great joy which accumulated and burst forth, only to accumulate again.

I heard him whisper, “Julianna.”

I saw his hand extending the paper toward me with the evident meaning that I should read it.

I took it from him.

I have that very paper now. It reads as follows.