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Title: Round the Fire
Author: Catherine Crowe
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605341.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Round the Fire
Catherine Crowe




'My story will be a very short one,' said Mrs M.; 'for I must tell you
that though, like everybody else, I have heard a great many ghost
stories, and have met people who assured me they had seen such things,
I cannot, for my own part, bring myself to believe in them; but a
circumstance occurred when I was abroad that you may perhaps consider
of a ghostly nature, though I cannot.

'I was travelling through Germany, with no one but my maid--it before
the time of railways, and on my road from Leipsic to Dresden I stopped
at an inn that appeared to have been long ago part an aristocratic
residence--a castle, in short; for there was a stone wall and
battlements, and a tower at one side; while the other was a prosaic-
looking square building that had evidently been added in modern times.
The inn stood at one end of a small village, in which some of the
houses looked so antique that they might, I thought, be coeval with
the castle itself. There were a good many travellers, but the host
said he could accommodate me; and when I asked to see my room, he led
me up to the towers, and showed me a tolerably comfortab1e one. There
were only two apartments on each floor; so I asked him if I could have
the other for my maid, and he said yes, if no other traveller arrived.
None came, and she slept there.

'I supped at the table d'hôte, and retired to bed early, as I had an
excursion to make on the following day; and I was sufficiently tired
with my journey to fall asleep directly.

'I don't know how long I had slept--but I think some hours, when I
awoke quite suddenly, almost with a start, and beheld near the foot of
the bed the most hideous, dreadful-looking old woman, in an antique
dress, that imagination can conceive. She seemed to be approaching
me---not as if walking, but gliding, with her left arm and hand
extended towards me.

'"Merciful God, deliver me!" I exclaimed under my first impulse of
amazement; and as I said the words she disappeared.'

'Then, though you don't believe in ghosts, you thought it was one when
you saw it,' said I.

'I don't know what I thought--I admit I was a good deal frightened,
and it was a long time before I fell asleep again.

'In the morning,' continued Mrs M., 'my maid knocked, and I told her
to come in; but the door was locked, and I had to get out of bed to
admit her-I thought I might have forgotten to fasten it. As soon as I
was up I examined every part of the room, but I could find nothing to
account for this intrusion. There was neither trap nor moving panel,
nor door that I could see, except the one I had locked. However, I
made up my mind not to speak of the circumstance, for I fancied I must
have been deceived in supposing myself awake, and that it was only a
dream; more particularly as there was no light in my room, and I could
not comprehend how I could have seen this woman.

'I went out early, and was away the greater part of the day. When I
returned I found more travellers had arrived, and that they had given
the room next mine to a German lady and her daughter, who were at the
table d'hôte. I therefore had a bed made up in my room for my maid;
and before I lay down, I searched thoroughly, that I might be sure
nobody was concealed there.

'In the middle of the night--I suppose about the same time I had been
disturbed on the preceding one--I and my maid were awakened by a
piercing scream; and I heard the voice of the German girl in the
adjoining room, exclaiming, "Ach! meine mutter! meine mutter!"

'For some time afterwards I heard them talking, and then I fell
asleep--wondering. I confess,.whether they had had a visit from the
frightful old woman. They left me in no doubt the next morning. They
came down to breakfast greatly excited--told everybody the cause---
described the old woman exactly as I had seen her, and departed from
the house incontently, declaring they would not stay there another
hour.'

'What did the host say to it?' we asked.

'Nothing; he said we must have dreamed it--and I suppose we did.'

'Your story,' said I, 'reminds me of a very interesting letter which I
received soon after the publication of The Night Side of Nature. It
was from a clergyman who gave his name, and said he was chaplain to a
nobleman. He related that in a house he inhabited, or had inhabited, a
lady had one evening gone upstairs and seen, to her amazement, in a
room, the door of which was open, a lady in an antique dress standing
before a chest of drawers and apparently examining their contents. She
stood still, wondering who this stranger could be, when the figure
turned her face towards her and, to her horror, she saw there were no
eyes. Other members of the family saw the same apparition also. I
believe there were further particulars; but I unfortunately lost this
letter, with some others, in the confusion of changing my residence.

'The absence of eyes I take to be emblematical of moral blindness; for
in the world of spirits there is no deceiving each other by false
seemings; as we are, so we appear.

'Then,' said Mrs W.C., 'the apparition--if it was an apparition---that
two of my servants saw lately, must be in a very degraded state.

'There is a road, and on one side of it a path, just beyond my garden
wall. Not long ago two of my servants were in the dusk of the evening
walking up this path, when they saw a large, dark object coming
towards them. At first they thought it was an animal; and when it got
close one of them stretched out her hand to touch it; but she could
feel nothing, and it passed on between her and the garden wall,
although there was no space, the path being only wide enough for two;
and on looking back, they saw it walking down the hill behind them.
Three men were coming up on the path, and as the thing approached they
jumped off into the road.

'"Good heavens, what is that!" cried the women.

'"I don't know," replied the men; "I never saw such a thing as that
before."

'The women came home greatly agitated; and we have since heard there
is a tradition that the spot is haunted by the ghost of a man who was
killed in a quarry close by.'

'I have travelled a great deal,' said our next speaker, the Chevalier
de La C.G.; 'and, certainly, I have never been in any country where
instances of these spiritual appearances were not adduced on
apparently credible authority. I have heard numerous stories of the
sort, but the one that most readily occurs to me at present was told
to me not long ago, in Paris, by Count P.---the nephew of the
celebrated Count P. whose name occurs in the history of the remarkable
incidents connected with the death of the Emperor Paul.

'Count P., my authority for the following story, was attached to the
Russian embassy; and he told me, one evening, when the conversation
turned on the inconveniences of travelling in the East of Europe, that
on one occasion, when in Poland, he found himself about seven o'clock
in an autumn evening on a forest road, where there was no possibility
of finding a house of public entertainment within many miles. There
was a frightful storm; the road, not good at the best, was almost
impracticable from the weather, and his horses were completely knocked
up. On consulting his people what was best to be done, they said that
to go back was as impossible as to go forward; but that by turning a
little out of the main road, they should soon reach a castle where
possibly shelter might be procured for the night. The count gladly
consented, and it was not long before they found themselves at the
gate of what appeared a building on a very splendid scale The courier
quickly alighted and rang at the bell, and while waiting for admission
he inquired who the castle belonged to, and was told that it was Count
X's.

'It was some time before the bell was answered, but at length all
elderly man appeared at a wicket, with a lantern, and peeped out. On
perceiving the equipage, he came forward and stepped up to the
carriage, holding the light aloft to discover who was inside. Count P.
handed him his card, and explained his distress.

'"There is no one here, my lord," replied the man, "but myself and my
family; the castle is not inhabited."

'"That's bad news," said the count; "but nevertheless, you can give me
what I am most in need of, and that is--shelter for the night."

'"Willingly," said the man, "if your lordship will put up with such
accommodation as we can hastily prepare."

'"So," said the count, "I alighted and walked in; and the old man
unbarred the great gates to admit my carriages and people. We found
ourselves in an immense cour, with the castle en face, and stables and
offices on each side. As we had a fourgon with us, with provender for
the cattle and provisions for ourselves, we wanted nothing but beds
and a good fire; and as the only one lighted was in the old man's
apartments, he first took us there. They consisted of a suite of small
rooms in the left wing, that had probably been formerly occupied by
the upper servants. They were comfortably furnished, and he and his
large family appeared to be very well lodged."

Besides the wife, there were three sons, with their wives and
children, and two nieces; and in a part of the offices, where I saw a
light, I was told there were labourers and women servants, for it was
a valuable estate, with a fine forest, and the sons acted as gardes
chasse.

'"Is there much game in the forest?" I asked.

'"A great deal of all sorts," they answered.

'"Then I suppose during the season the family live here?"

'"Never," they replied. "None of the family ever reside here."

'"Indeed!" I said; "how is that? It seems a very fine place."

'"Superb," answered the wife of the custodian; "but the castle is
haunted."

'She said this with a simple gravity that made me laugh; upon which
they all stared at me with the most edifying amazement.

'"I beg your pardon," I said; "but you know, perhaps, in great cities,
such as I usually inhabit, there are no ghosts."

'"Indeed!" said they. "No ghosts!"

'"At least," I said, "I never heard of any; and we don't believe in
such things."

'They looked at each other with surprise, but said nothing; not
appearing to have any desire to convince me. "But do you mean to say,"
said I, "that that is the reason the family don't live here, and that
the castle is abandoned on that account?"

'"Yes," they replied, "that is the reason nobody has resided here for
many years."

'"But how can you live here then?"

'"We are never troubled in this part of the building," said she. "We
hear noises, but we are used to that."

'"Well, if there is a ghost, I hope I shall see it," said I.

'"God forbid!" said the woman, crossing herself. "But we shall guard
against that; your seigneurie will sleep not far from this, where you
will be quite safe."

'"Oh! but," said I, "I am quite serious: if there is a ghost I should
particularly like to see him, and I should be much obliged to you to
put me in the apartments he most frequents.".'They opposed this
proposition earnestly, and begged me not to think of it; besides, they
said if anything was to happen to my lord, how should they answer for
it; but as I insisted, the women went to call the members of the
family who were lighting fires and preparing beds in some rooms on the
same floor as they occupied themselves. When they came they were as
earnest against the indulgence of my wishes as the women had been.
Still I insisted.

'"Are you afraid," I said, "to go yourselves in the haunted chambers?"

'"No," they answered. "We are the custodians of the castle and have to
keep the rooms clean and well aired lest the furniture be spoiled--my
lord talks always of removing it, but it has never been removed yet--
but we would not sleep up there for all the world."

'"Then it is the upper floors that are haunted?"

'"Yes, especially the long room, no one could pass a night there; the
last that did is in a lunatic asylum now at Warsaw," said the
custodian.

'"What happened to him?"

'"I don't know," said the man; "he was never able to tell."

'"Who was he?" I asked.

'"He was a lawyer. My lord did business with him; and one day he was
speaking of this place, and saying that it was a pity he was not at
liberty to pull it down and sell the materials; but he cannot, because
it is family property and goes with the title; and the lawyer said he
wished it was his, and that no ghost should keep him out of it. My
lord said that it was easy for any one to say that who knew nothing
about it, and that he must suppose the family had not abandoned such a
fine place without good reasons. But the lawyer said it was some
trick, and that it was coiners, or robbers, who had got a footing in
the castle, and contrived to frighten people away that they might keep
it to themselves; so my lord said if he could prove that he should be
very much obliged to him, and more than that, he would give him a
great sum--I don't know how much."

So the lawyer said he would; and my lord wrote to me that he was
coming to inspect the property, and I was to let him do anything he
liked.

'"Well, he came, and with him his son, a fine young man and a soldier.
They asked me all sorts of questions, and went over the castle and
examined every part of it. From what they said, I could see that they
thought the ghost was all nonsense, and that I and my family were in
collusion with the robbers or coiners. However, I did not care for
that; my lord knew that the castle had been haunted before I was
born."

'"I had prepared rooms on this floor for them--the same I am preparing
for your lordship, and they slept there, keeping the keys of the upper
rooms to themselves, so I did not interfere with them. But one
morning, very early, we were awakened by someone knocking at our
bedroom door, and when we opened it we saw Mr Thaddeus--that was the
lawyer's son---standing there half-dressed and as pale as a ghost; and
he said his father was very ill and he begged us to go to him; to our
surprise he led us upstairs to the haunted chamber, and there we found
the poor gentleman speechless, and we thought they had gone up there
early and that he had had a stroke. But it was not so; Mr Thaddeus
said that after we were all in bed they had gone up there to pass the
night. I know they thought that there was no ghost but us, and that's
why they would not let us know their intention. They laid down upon
some sofas, wrapt up in their fur cloaks, I and resolved to keep
awake, and they did so for some time, but at last the young man was
overcome by drowsiness; he struggled against it, but could not conquer
it, and the last thing he recollects was his father shaking him and
saying, 'Thaddeus, Thaddeus, for God's sake keep awake!' But he could
not, and he knew no more till he woke and saw that day was breaking,
and found his father sitting in a corner of the room speechless, and
looking like a corpse; and there he was when we went up. The young man
thought he'd been taken ill or had a stroke, as we supposed at first;
but when we found they had passed the night in the haunted chambers,
we had no doubt what had happened--he had seen some terrible sight and
so lost his senses."

'"He lost his senses, I should say, from terror when his son fell
asleep," said I, "and he felt himself alone. He could have been a man
of no nerve. At all events, what you tell me raises my curiosity. Will
you take me upstairs and shew me these rooms?"

'"Willingly," said the man, and fetching a bunch of keys and a light,
and calling one of his sons to follow him with another, he led the way
up the great staircase to a suite of apartments on the first floor.
The rooms were lofty and large, and the man said the furniture was
very handsome, but old. Being all covered with canvas cases, I could
not judge of it. "Which is the long room?" I said.

'Upon which he led me into a long narrow room that might rather have
been called a gallery.

There were sofas along each side, something like a dais at the upper
end; and several large pictures hanging on the walls.

'I had with me a bull dog, of a very fine breed, that had been given
me in England by Lord F.

She had followed me upstairs--indeed, she followed me everywhere---and
I watched her narrowly as she went smelling about, but there were no
indications of her perceiving anything extraordinary. Beyond this
gallery there was only a small octagon room, with a door that led out
upon another staircase. When I had examined it all thoroughly, I
returned to the long room and told the man as that was the place
especially frequented by the ghost, I should feel much obliged if he
would allow me to pass the night there. I could take upon myself to
say that Count X. would have no objection.

'"It is not that," replied the man; "but the danger to your lordship,"
and he conjured me not to insist on such a perilous experiment.

'When he found I was resolved, he gave way, but on condition that I
signed a paper, stating that in spite of his representations I had
determined to sleep in the long room.

'I confess the more anxious these people seemed to prevent my sleeping
there, the more curious I was; not that I believed in the ghost the
least in the world. I thought that the lawyer had been right in his
conjecture, but that he hadn't nerve enough to investigate whatever he
saw or heard; and that they had succeeded in frightening him out of
his senses. I saw what an excellent place these people had got, and
how much it was their interest to maintain the idea that the castle
was uninhabitable. Now, I have pretty good nerves--I have been in
situations that have tried them severely--and I did not believe that
any ghost, if there was such a thing, or any jugglery by which a
semblance of one might be contrived, would shake them. As for any real
danger, I did not apprehend it; the people knew who I was, and any
mischief happening to me would have led to consequences they well
understood. So they lighted fires in both the grates of the gallery
and as they had abundance of dry wood they soon blazed up. I was
determined not to leave the room after I was once in it, lest, if my
suspicions were correct, they might have time to make their
arrangements; I desired my people to bring up my supper, and I ate it
there.

'My courier said he had always heard the castle was haunted, but he
dare say there was no ghost but the people below, who had a very
comfortable berth of it; and he offered to pass the night with me, but
I declined any companion and preferred trusting to myself and my dog.
My valet, on the contrary, strongly advised me against the enterprise,
assuring me that he had lived with a family in France whose chateau
was haunted, and had left his place in consequence.

'By the time I had finished my supper it was ten o'clock, and
everything was prepared for the night. My bed, though an impromptu,
was very comfortable, made of amply stuffed cushions and thick
coverlets, placed in front of the fire. I was provided with light and
plenty of wood; and I had my regimental cutlass, and a case of
excellent pistols, which I carefully primed and loaded in presence of
the custodian, saying, "You see I am determined to fire at the ghost,
so if he cannot stand a bullet he had better not pay me a visit."

'The old man shook his head calmly, but made no answer. Having desired
the courier, who said he should not go to bed, to come upstairs
immediately if he heard the report of firearms, I dismissed my people
and locked the doors, barricading each with a heavy ottoman besides.
There was no arras or hangings of any sort behind which a door could
be concealed; and I went round the room, the walls of which were
panelled with white and gold, knocking every part, but neither the
sound, nor Dido, the dog, gave any indications of there being anything
unusual. Then I undressed and lay down with my sword and my pistols
beside me; and Dido at the foot of my bed, where she always slept.

'I confess I was in a state of pleasing excitement; my curiosity and
my love of adventure were roused; and whether it was ghost, or robber,
or coiner, I was to have a visit from, the interview was likely to be
equally interesting. It was half-past ten when I lay down; my
expectations were too vivid to admit of sleep; and after an attempt at
a French novel, I was obliged to give it up; I could not fix my
attention to it. Besides, my chief care was not to be surprised. I
could not help thinking the custodian and his family had some secret
way of getting into the room, and I hoped to detect them in the act;
so I lay with my eyes and ears open in a position that gave me a view
of every part of it, till my travelling clock struck twelve, which
being pre-eminently the ghostly hour, I thought the critical moment
was arrived. But no, no sound, no interruption of any sort to the
silence and solitude of the night occurred. When half-past twelve and
one struck, I pretty well made up my mind that I should be
disappointed in expectations, and that the ghost, whoever he was, knew
better than encounter Dido and a brace of well charged pistols; but
just as I arrived at this conclusion an unaccountable frisson came
over me, and I saw Dido, who tired with her day's journey had lain
till now quietly curled up asleep, begin to move, and slowly get upon
her feet. I thought she was only going to turn, but, instead of lying
down, she stood still with her ears erect and her head towards the
dais, uttering a low growl.

'The dais, I should mention, was but the skeleton of a dais, for the
draperies were taken off.

There was only remaining a canopy covered with crimson velvet, and an
arm-chair covered with velvet too, but cased in canvas like the rest
of the furniture. I had examined this part of the room thoroughly, and
had moved the chair aside to ascertain that there was nothing under
it.

'Well, I sat up in bed and looked steadily in the same direction as
the dog, but I could see nothing at first, though it appeared that she
did; but as I looked I began to perceive something like a cloud in the
chair, while at while at the same time a chill which seemed to pervade
the very marrow in my bones crept through me, yet the fire was good;
and it was not the chill of fear, for I cocked my pistols with perfect
self-possession and abstained from giving Dido the signal to advance,
because I wished eagerly to see the dénouement of the adventure.

'Gradually this cloud took a form, and assumed the shape of a tall
white figure that reached from the ceiling to the floor of the dais,
which was raised by two steps. "At him, Dido! At him!"

I said, and away she dashed to the steps, but instantly turned and
crept back completely cowed.

As her courage was undoubted, I own this astonished me, and I should
have fired, but that I was perfectly satisfied that what I saw was not
a substantial human form, for I had seen it grow into its present
shape and height from the undefined cloud that first appeared in the
chair. I laid my hand on the dog, who had crept up to my side, and I
felt her shaking in her skin. I was about to rise myself and approach
the figure, though I confess I was a good deal awestruck, when it
stepped majestically from the dais, and seemed to be advancing. "At
him!" I said, "At him, Dido!" and I gave the dog every encouragement
to go forward; she made a sorry attempt, but returned when she had got
half-way and crouched beside me whining with terror. The figure
advanced upon me; the cold became icy; the dog crouched and trembled;
and I, as it approached, honestly confess,' said Count P., 'that I hid
my head under the bedclothes and did not venture to look up till
morning. I know not what it was--as it passed over me I felt a
sensation of undefinable horror, that no words can describe--and I can
only say that nothing on earth would tempt me to pass another night in
that room, and I am sure if Dido could speak you'd find her of the
same opinion.

'I had desired to be called at seven o'clock, and when the custodian,
who accompanied my valet, found me safe and in my perfect senses, I
must say the poor man appeared greatly relieved; and when I descended
the whole family seemed to look upon me as a hero. I thought it only
just to them to admit that something had happened in the night that I
felt impossible to account for, and that I should not recommend
anybody who was not very sure of their nerves to repeat the
experiment.'

When the Chevalier had concluded this extraordinary story, I suggested
that the apparition of the castle very much resembled that mentioned
by the late Professor Gregory, in his letters on mesmerism, as having
appeared in the Tower of London some years ago, and, from the alarm it
created, having occasioned the death of a lady, the wife of an officer
quartered there, and one of the sentries. Every one who had read that
very interesting publication was struck by the resemblance.



THE END



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