A solicitor of an active habit and athletic tastes who is compelled
by his hopes of business to remain within the four walls of his office
from ten till five must take what exercise he can in the evenings. Hence
it was that I was in the habit of indulging in very long nocturnal
excursions, in which I sought the heights of Hampstead and Highgate in
order to cleanse my system from the impure air of Abchurch Lane. It was in
the course of one of these aimless rambles that I first met Felix
Stanniford, and so led up to what has been the most extraordinary
adventure of my lifetime.
One evening-it was in April or early May of the year 1894-I made my
way to the extreme northern fringe of London, and was walking down one of
those fine avenues of high brick villas which the huge city is for ever
pushing farther and farther out into the country. It was a line, clear
spring night, the moon was shining out of an unclouded sky, and I, having
already left many miles behind me, was inclined to walk slowly and look
about me. In this contemplative mood, my attention was arrested by one of
the houses which I was passing.
It was a very large building, standing in its own grounds, a little
back from the road. It was modern in appearance, and yet it was far less
so than its neighbours, all of which were crudely and painfully new. Their
symmetrical line was broken by the gap caused by the laurel-studded lawn,
with the great, dark, gloomy house looming at the back of it. Evidently it
had been the country retreat of some wealthy merchant, built perhaps when
the nearest street was a mile off, and now gradually overtaken and
surrounded by the red brick tentacles of the London octopus. The next
stage, I reflected, would be its digestion and absorption, so that the
cheap builder might rear a dozen eighty-pound-a-year villas upon the
garden frontage. And then, as all this passed vaguely through my mind, an
incident occurred which brought my thoughts into quite another channel.
A four-wheeled cab, that opprobrium of London, was coming jolting and
creaking in one direction, while in the other there was a yellow glare
from the lamp of a cyclist. They were the only moving objects in the whole
long, moonlit road, and yet they crashed into each other with that
malignant accuracy which brings two ocean liners together in the broad
waste of the Atlantic. It was the cyclist's fault. He tried to cross in
front of the cab, miscalculated his distance, and was knocked sprawling by
the horse's shoulder. He rose, snarling; the cabman swore back at him, and
then, realizing that his number had not yet been taken, lashed his horse
and lumbered off. The cyclist caught at the handles of his prostrate
machine, and then suddenly sat down with a groan. "Oh, Lord!" he said.
I ran across the road to his side. "Any harm done?" I asked.
"It's my ankle," said he. "Only a twist, I think; but it's pretty
painful. Just give me your hand, will you?"
He lay in the yellow circle of the cycle lamp, and I noted as I
helped him to his feet that he was a gentlemanly young fellow, with a
slight dark moustache and large, brown eyes, sensitive and nervous in
appearance, with indications of weak health upon his sunken cheeks. Work
or worry had left its traces upon his thin, yellow face. He stood up when
I pulled his hand, but he held one foot in the air, and he groaned as he
"I can't put it to the ground," said he.
"Where do you live?"
"Here!" he nodded his head towards the big, dark house in the garden.
"I was cutting across to the gate when that confounded cab ran into me.
Could you help me so far?"
It was easily done. I put his cycle inside the gate, and then I
supported him down the drive, and up the steps to the hail door. There was
not a light anywhere, and the place was as black and silent as if no one
had ever lived in it.
"That will do. Thank you very much," said he, fumbling with his key in the lock.
"No, you must allow me to see you safe."
He made some feeble, petulant protest, and then realized that he
could really do nothing without me. The door had opened into a pitch-dark
hall. He lurched forward, with my hand still on his arm.
"This door to the right," said he, feeling about in the darkness.
I opened the door, and at the same moment he managed to strike a
light. There was a lamp upon the table, and we lit it between us. "Now,
I'm all right. You can leave me now! Good-bye!" said he, and with the
words he sat down in the arm-chair and fainted dead away.
It was a queer position for me. The fellow looked so ghastly, that
really I was not sure that lie was not dead. Presently his lips quivered
and his breast heaved, but his eyes were two white slits and his colour
was horrible. The responsibility was more than I could stand. I pulled at
the bell-rope, and heard the bell ringing furiously far away. But no one
came in response. The bell tinkled away into silence, which no murmur or
movement came to break. I waited, and rang again, with the same result.
There must be some one about. This young gentleman could not live all
alone in that huge house. His people ought to know of his condition. If
they would not answer the bell, I must hunt them out myself. I seized the
lamp and rushed from the room.
What I saw outside amazed me. The hall was empty. The stairs were
bare, and yellow with dust. There were three doors opening into spacious
rooms, and each was uncarpeted and undraped, save for the grey webs which
drooped from the cornice, and rosettes of lichen which had formed upon the
walls. My feet reverberated in those empty and silent chambers. Then I
wandered on down the passage, with the idea that the kitchens, at least,
might be tenanted. Some caretaker might lurk in some secluded room. No,
they were all equally desolate. Despairing of finding any help, I ran down
another corridor, and came on something which surprised me more than ever.
The passage ended in a large, brown door, and the door had a seal of
red wax the size of a five-shilling piece over the keyhole. This seal gave
me the impression of having been there for a long time, for it was dusty
and discoloured. I was still staring at it, and wondering what that door
might conceal, when I heard a voice calling behind me, and, running back,
found my young man sitting up in his chair and very much astonished at
finding himself in darkness.
"Why on earth did you take the lamp away?" he asked.
"I was looking for assistance."
"You might look for some time," said he. "I am alone in the house."
"Awkward if you get an illness."
"It was foolish of me to faint. I inherit a weak heart from my
mother, and pain or emotion has that effect upon me. It will carry me off
some day, as it did her. You're not a doctor, are you?"
"No, a lawyer. Frank Alder is my name."
"Mine is Felix Stanniford. Funny that I should meet a lawyer, for my
friend, Mr. Perceval, was saying that we should need one soon."
"Very happy, I am sure."
"Well, that will depend upon him, you know. Did you say that you had
run with that lamp all over the ground floor?"
"All over it?" he asked, with emphasis, and he looked at me very hard.
"I think so. I kept on hoping that I should find someone."
"Did you enter all the rooms?" he asked, with the same intent gaze.
"Well, all that I could enter."
"Oh, then you did notice it!" said he, and he shrugged his shoulders
with the air of a man who makes the best of a bad job.
"Why, the door with the seal on it."
"Yes, I did."
"Weren't you curious to know what was in it?"
"Well, it did strike me as unusual."
"Do you think you could go on living alone in this house, year after
year, just longing all the time to know what is at the other side of that
door, and yet not looking?"
"Do you mean to say," I cried, "that you don't know yourself?"
"No more than you do."
"Then why don't you look?"
"I mustn't," said he.
He spoke in a constrained way, and I saw that I had blundered on to
some delicate ground. I don't know that I am more inquisitive than my
neighbours, but there certainly was something in the situation which
appealed very strongly to my curiosity. However, my last excuse for
remaining in the house was gone now that my companion had recovered his
senses. I rose to go.
"Are you in a hurry?" he asked.
"No; I have nothing to do."
"Well, I should be very glad if you would stay with me a little. The
fact is that I live a very retired and secluded life here. I don't suppose
there is a man in London who leads such a life as I do. It is quite
unusual for me to have any one to talk with."
I looked round at the little room, scantily furnished, with a
sofa-bed at one side. Then I thought of the great, bare house, and the
sinister door with the discoloured red seal upon it. There was something
queer and grotesque in the situation, which made me long to know a little
more. Perhaps I should, if I waited. I told him that I should be very happy.
"You will find the spirits and a siphon upon the side table. You must
forgive me if I cannot act as host, but I can't get across the room. Those
are cigars in the tray there. I'll take one myself, I think. And so you are a solicitor, Mr. Alder?"
"And I am nothing. I am that most helpless of living creatures, the
son of a millionaire. I was brought up with the expectation of great
wealth; and here I am, a poor man, without any profession at all. And
then, on the top of it all, I am left with this great mansion on my hands,
which I cannot possibly keep up. Isn't it an absurd situation? For me to
use this as my dwelling is like a coster drawing his barrow with a
thoroughbred. A donkey would be more useful to him, and a cottage to me."
"But why not sell the house?" I asked.
"Let it, then?"
"No, I mustn't do that either."
I looked puzzled, and my companion smiled.
"I'll tell you how it is, if it won't bore you," said he.
"On the contrary, I should be exceedingly interested."
"I think, after your kind attention to me, 1 cannot do less than
relieve any curiosity that you may feel. You must know that my father was
Stanislaus Stanniford, the banker."
Stanniford, the banker! I remembered the name at once. His flight
from the country some seven years before had been one of the scandals and
sensations of the time.
"I see that you remember," said my companion. "My poor father left
the country to avoid numerous friends, whose savings he had invested in an
unsuccessful speculation. He was a nervous, sensitive man, and the
responsibility quite upset his reason. He had committed no legal offence.
It was purely a matter of sentiment. He would not even face his own
family, and he died among strangers without ever letting us know where he
"He died!" said I.
"We could not prove his death, but we know that it must be so,
because the speculations came right again, and so there was no reason why
he should not look any man in the face. He would have returned if he were
alive. But he must have died in the last two years."
"Why in the last two years?"
"Because we heard from him two years ago."
"Did he not tell you then where he was living?"
"The letter came from Paris, but no address was given. It was when my
poor mother died. He wrote to me then, with some instructions and some
advice, and I have never heard from him since."
"Had you heard before?"
"Oh, yes, we had heard before, and that's where our mystery of the
sealed door, upon which you stumbled to-night, has its origin. Pass me
that desk, if you please. Here I have my father's letters, and you are the
first man except Mr. Perceval who has seen them."
"Who is Mr. Perceval, may I ask?"
"He was my father's confidential clerk, and he has continued to be
the friend and adviser of my mother and then of myself. I don't know what
we should have done without Perceval. He saw the letters, but no one else.
This is the first one, which came on the very day when my father fled,
seven years ago. Read it to yourself."
This is the letter which I read
"MY EVER DEAREST WIFE,-
"Since Sir William told me how weak your heart is, and how harmful
any shock might be, I have never talked about my business affairs to you.
The time has come when at all risks I can no longer refrain from telling
you that things have been going badly with me. This will cause me to leave
you for a little time, but it is with the absolute assurance that we shall
see each other very soon. On this you can thoroughly rely. Our parting is
only for a very short time, my own darling, so don't let it fret you, and
above all don't let it impair your health, for that is what I want above
all things to avoid.
"Now, I have a request to make, and I implore you by all that binds
us together to fulfil it exactly as I tell you. There are some things
which I do not wish to be seen by any one in my dark room-the room which I
use for photographic purposes at the end of the garden passage. To prevent
any painful thoughts, I may assure you once for all, dear, that it is
nothing of which I need be ashamed. But still I do not wish you or Felix
to enter that room. It is locked, and I implore you when you receive this
to at once place a seal over the lock, and leave it so. Do not sell or let
the house, for in either case my secret will be discovered. As long as you
or Felix are in the house, I know that you will comply with my wishes.
When Felix is twenty-one he may enter the room-not before.
"And now, good-bye, my own best of wives. During our short separation
you can consult Mr. Perceval on any matters which may arise. He has my
complete confidence. I hate to leave Felix and you-even for a time-but
there is really no-choice. "Ever and always your loving husband,
"June 4th, 1887."
"These are very private family matters for me to inflict upon you,"
said my companion, apologetically. "You must look upon it as done in your
professional capacity. I have wanted to speak about it for years."
"I am honoured by your confidence," I answered, "and exceedingly
interested by the facts."
"My father was a man who was noted for his almost morbid love of
truth. He was always pedantically accurate. When lie said, therefore, that
he hoped to see my mother very soon, and when he said that he had nothing
to be ashamed of in that dark room, you may rely upon it that he meant it."
"Then what can it be?" I ejaculated.
"Neither my mother nor I could imagine. We carried out his wishes to
the letter, and placed the seal upon the door; there it has been ever
since. My mother lived for five years after my father's disappearance,
although at the time all the doctors said that she could not survive long.
Her heart was terribly diseased. During the first few months she had two
letters from my father. Both had the Paris post-mark, but no address. They
were short and to the same effect: that they would soon be re-united, and
that she should not fret. Then there was a silence, which lasted until her
death; and then came a letter to me of so private a nature that I cannot
show it to you, begging me never to think evil of him, giving me much good
advice, and saying that the sealing of the room was of less importance now
than during the lifetime of my mother, but that the opening might still
cause pain to others, and that, therefore, he thought it best that it
should be postponed until my twenty-first year, for the lapse of time
would make things easier. In the meantime, he committed the care of the
room to me; so flow you can understand how it is that, although I am a
very poor man, I can neither let nor sell this great house."
"You could mortgage it."
"My father had already done so."
"It is a most singular state of affairs."
"My mother and I were gradually compelled to sell the furniture and
to dismiss the servants, until now, as you see, I am living unattended in
a single room. But I have only two more months."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, that in two months I come of age. The first thing that I do
will be to open that door; the second, to get rid of the house."
"Why should your father have continued to stay away when these
investments had recovered themselves?"
"He must be dead."
"You say that he had not committed any legal offence when he fled the
"Why should he not take your mother with him?"
"I do not know."
"Why should he conceal his address?"
"I do not know."
"Why should he allow your mother to die and be buried without coming back?"
"I do not know."
"My dear sir," said I, "if I may speak with the frankness of a
professional adviser, I should say that it is very clear that your father
had the strongest reasons for keeping out of the country, and that, if
nothing has been proved against him, he at least thought that something
might be, and refused to put himself within the power of the law. Surely
that must be obvious, for in what other possible way can the facts be explained?"
My companion did not take my suggestion in good part.
"You had not the advantage of knowing my father, Mr. Alder," he said,
coldly. "I was only a boy when he left us, but I shall always look upon
him as my ideal man. His only fault was that he was too sensitive and too
unselfish. That any one should lose money through him would cut him to the
heart. His sense of honour was most acute, and any theory of his
disappearance which conflicts with that is a mistaken one."
It pleased me to hear the lad speak out so roundly, and yet I knew
that the facts were against him, and that he was incapable of taking an
unprejudiced view of the situation.
"I only speak as an outsider," said I. "And now I must leave you, for
I have a long walk before me. Your story has interested me so much that I
should be glad if you could let me know the sequel."
"Leave me your card," said he; and so, having bade him "good-night,"
I left him.
I heard nothing more of the matter for some time, and had almost
feared that it would prove to be one of those fleeting experiences which
drift away from our direct observation and end only in a hope or a
suspicion. One afternoon, however, a card bearing the name of Mr. J. H.
Perceval was brought up to my office in Abchurch Lane, and its bearer, a
small dry, bright-eyed fellow of fifty, was ushered in by the clerk.
"I believe, sir," said he, "that my name has been mentioned to you by
my young friend, Mr. Felix Stanniford?"
"Of course," I answered, "I remember."
"He spoke to you, I understand, about the circumstances in connection
with the disappearance of my former employer, Mr. Stanislaus Stanniford,
and the existence of a sealed room in his former residence."
"And you expressed an interest in the matter."
"It interested me extremely."
"You are aware that we hold Mr. Stanniford's permission to open the
door on the twenty-first birthday of his son?"
"The twenty-first birthday is to-day."
"Have you opened it?" I asked, eagerly.
"Not yet, sir," said he, gravely. "I have reason to believe that it
would be well to have witnesses present when that door is opened. You are
a lawyer, and you are acquainted with the facts. Will you be present on
"You are employed during the day, and so am L Shall we meet at nine
o'clock at the house?"
"I will come with pleasure."
"Then you will find us waiting for you. Good-bye, for the present."
He bowed solemnly, and took his leave.
I kept my appointment that evening, with a brain which was weary with
fruitless attempts to think out some plausible explanation of the mystery
which we were about to solve. Mr. Perceval and my young acquaintance were
waiting for me in the little room. I was not surprised to see the young
man looking pale and nervous, but I was rather astonished to find the dry
little City man in a state of intense, though partially suppressed,
excitement. His cheeks were flushed, his hands twitching, and he could not
stand still for an instant.
Stanniford greeted me warmly, and thanked me many times for having
come. "And now, Perceval," said he to his companion, "I suppose there is
no obstacle to our putting the thing through without delay? I shall be
glad to get it over."
The banker's clerk took up the lamp and led the way. But he paused in
the passage outside the door, and his hand was shaking, so that the light
flickered up and down the high, bare walls.
"Mr. Stanniford," said he, in a cracking voice, "I hope you will
prepare yourself in case any shock should be awaiting you when that seal
is removed and the door is opened."
"What could there be, Perceval? You are trying to frighten me."
"No, Mr. Stanniford; but I should wish you to be ready... to be
braced up... not to allow yourself..." He had to lick his dry lips between
every jerky sentence, and I suddenly realized, as clearly as if he had
told me, that he knew what was behind that closed door, and that it was
something terrible. "Here are the keys, Mr. Stanniford, but remember my warning!"
He had a bunch of assorted keys in his hand, and the young man
snatched them from him. Then he thrust a knife under the discoloured red
seal and jerked it off. The lamp was rattling and shaking in Perceval's
hands, so I took it from him and held it near the key hole, while
Stanniford tried key after key. At last one turned in the lock, the door
flew open, he took one step into the room, and then, with a horrible cry,
the young man fell senseless at our feet.
If I had not given heed to the clerk's warning, and braced myself for
a shock, I should certainly have dropped the lamp. The room, windowless
and bare, was fitted up as a photographic laboratory, with a tap and sink
at the side of it. A shelf of bottles and measures stood at one side, and
a peculiar, heavy smell, partly chemical, partly animal, filled the air. A
single table and chair were in front of us, and at this, with his back
turned towards us, a man was seated in the act of writing. His outline and
attitude were as natural as life; but as the light fell upon him, it made
my hair rise to see that the nape of his neck was black and wrinkled, and
no thicker than my wrist. Dust lay upon him-thick, yellow dust-upon his
hair, his shoulders, his shrivelled, lemon-coloured hands. His head had
fallen forward upon his breast. His pen still rested upon a discoloured
sheet of paper.
"My poor master! My poor, poor master!" cried the clerk, and the
tears were running down his cheeks.
"What!" I cried, "Mr. Stanislaus Stanniford!"
"Here he has sat for seven years. Oh, why would be do it? I begged
him, I implored him, I went on my knees to him, but he would have his way.
You see the key on the table. He had locked the door upon the inside. And
he has written something. We must take it."
"Yes, yes, take it, and for God's sake, let us get out of this," I
cried; "the air is poisonous. Come, Stanniford, come!" Taking an arm each,
we half led and half carried the terrified man back to his own room.
"It was my father!" he cried, as he recovered his consciousness. "He
is sitting there dead in his chair. You knew it, Perceval! This was what
you meant when you warned me."
"Yes, I knew it, Mr. Stanniford. I have acted for the best all along,
but my position has been a terribly difficult one. For seven years I have
known that your father was dead in that room."
"You knew it, and never told us!"
"Don't be harsh with me, Mr. Stanniford, sir! Make allowance for a
man who has had a hard part to play."
"My head is swimming round. I cannot grasp it!" He staggered up, and
helped himself from the brandy bottle. "These letters to my mother and to
myself-were they forgeries?"
"No, sir; your father wrote them and addressed them, and left them in
my keeping to be posted. I have followed his instructions to the very
letter in all things. He was my master, and I have obeyed him."
The brandy had steadied the young man's shaken nerves. "Tell me about
it. I can stand it now," said he.
"Well, Mr. Stanniford, you know that at one time there came a period
of great trouble upon your father, and he thought that many poor people
were about to lose their savings through his fault. He was a man who was
so tender-hearted that he could not bear the thought. It worried him and
tormented him, until he determined to end his life. Oh, Mr. Stanniford, if
you knew how I have prayed him and wrestled with him over it, you would
never blame me! And he in turn prayed me as no man has ever prayed me
before. He had made up his mind, and he-would do it in any case, be said;
but it rested with me whether his death should be happy and easy or
whether it should be most miserable. I read in his eyes that he meant what
he said. And at last I yielded to his prayers, and I consented to do his will.
"What was troubling him was this. He had been told by the first
doctor in London that his wife's heart would fail at the slightest shock.
He had a horror of accelerating her end, and yet his own existence had
become unendurable to him. How could he end himself without injuring her?
"You know now the course that he took. He wrote the letter which she
received. There was nothing in it which was not literally true. When he
spoke of seeing her again so soon, he was referring to her own approaching
death, which he had been assured could not be delayed more than a very few
months. So convinced was he of this, that he only left two letters to be
forwarded at intervals after his death. She lived five years, and I had no letters to send.
"He left another letter with me to be sent to you, sir, upon the
occasion of the death of your mother. I posted all these in Paris to
sustain the idea of his being abroad. It was his wish that I should say
nothing, and I have said nothing. I have been a faithful servant. Seven
years after his death, he thought no doubt that the shock to the feelings
of his surviving friends would be lessened. He was always considerate for
There was silence for some time. It was broken by young Stanniford.
"I cannot blame you, Perceval. You have spared my mother a shock,
which would certainly have broken her heart. What is that paper?"
"It is what your father was writing, sir. Shall I read it to you?"
" 'I have taken the poison, and I feel it working in my veins. It is
strange, but not painful. When these words are read I shall, if my wishes
have been faithfully carried out, have been dead many years. Surely no one
who has lost money through me will still bear me animosity. And you,
Felix, you will forgive me this family scandal. May God find rest for a
sorely wearied spirit!'"