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Title: Mr Gray's Strange Story
Author: Louisa Murray
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0606191.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Mr Gray's Strange Story
Louisa Murray



What may this mean...
So terribly to shake our dispositions
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.
--Hamlet, Act 1, Scene IV.

I am a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, fifty years old,
in sound health of body and mind. I have never had any belief in
spiritualism, clairvoyance or any similar psychical delusions. My
favourite studies at college were logic and mathematics, and no one
who knew me could suspect me of belonging to that class of enthusiasts
in which ghosts and other preternatural manifestations have their
origin. Yet I have had one strange experience in my life which
apparently contradicts all my theories of the universe and its laws,
nor have I ever been able to explain it on any rational hypothesis.
That there is some reasonable explanation I believe, and as there is
no one living now, except myself, whom the facts concern, I have
determined to give them to the world for the benefit of those who are
interested in abnormal phenomena.

Twenty-five years ago I was minister of a newly built church, in a
village on the shore of Lake Erie. The village had sprung up round the
saw mills of Mason and Company, lately erected to turn the giant pines
that grew on the sandy borders of the lake into lumber. When the pines
were all worked up, the great saw mills and lumber yards sought
another locality, and the village which had never had any
individuality of its own dropped out of existence.

There was no manse, and I boarded in the house of the chief member of
my congregation, Mr. Michael Forrest, who owned a fine farm of four
hundred acres dose to the village.

The Red House Farm, as it was called from the colour of the paint
Michael Forrest liberally bestowed on his buildings and fences, was in
those days a pleasant place. There peace and plenty reigned, and
everything within and without testified to good management, order and
comfort.

My story opens in the parlour of the Red House, where, in the early
afternoon of a splendid Indian summer day, a young man was writing at
a desk placed under an open window that looked into a spacious
verandah enclosed by cedar posts round which climbing plants were
twined in picturesque profusion. This "best room" was never used by
the family except on Sundays and festal occasions, and at other times
was given up to the minister, the Rev. Gilbert Gray, who writes this
narrative.

The hurry and bustle of dinner were over, the dinner things cleared
away and the kitchen and dining-room made tidy. Mrs. Forrest was
sitting in her rocking chair by the sunny kitchen window, and, her
knitting in her lap, was taking her afternoon nap, her cat curled up
at her feet. All was quiet in the house till light steps came tripping
down stairs, and two pretty girls entered the verandah, sitting down
on the high-backed bench of rustic work, each holding some bit of
light needle-work in her hands. One was the only child of Farmer
Forrest and his wife; the other a niece, brought up by Mrs. Forrest
from infancy, and filling the place of a second daughter.

I have said they were two pretty girls, but Marjory Forrest was
beautiful. She was a tall, graceful blonde, fair and pale, with rose-
red lips, violet eyes, and hair the very colour of sun-light. She
looked like the heroine of some happy love poem--happy, I say, for
there was no hint of tragedy in her pure, serene face. Celia Morris
had a Hebe-like face and form, with bright chestnut hair, merry brown
eyes and a laughing mouth, showing two rows of pearly teeth. She was
just eighteen; two years younger than Marjory.

They made a charming picture in their pretty print dresses, fresh and
spotless, their bright heads bending over their work, and catching the
changing lights and shades coming in through the autumn-tinted leaves.
But the picture darkened and dissolved as a handsome young man stood
in the open arch of the doorway. The girls smiled a welcome, and,
taking off his hat, he stepped in and threw himself down on a pile of
mats made of the husks of Indian corn. He was the son of the head of
the great lumber firm of Mason and Company. His father was a hard-
working, self-made man, but he prided himself on bringing up his son
to be a gentleman. Not an idle gentleman, however, and he had lately
sent the young man to the mills to gain some practical knowledge of
business before admitting him to a junior partnership. As there had
been many satisfactory dealings between Mr. Mason and Farmer Forrest,
Leonard Mason was made welcome at the Red House, and speedily
established himself on a friendly footing. His frank, unaffected
manner, and freedom from what Mrs. Forrest called "city airs," pleased
the farmer and his wife; his knowledge of music and light literature
charmed Marjory and Celia. The young people were on the most familiar
and friendly terms, but Leonard's attentions were so equally divided
between them that if he had a preference only a very close observer
could have discerned it.

To-day he did not respond as readily as usual to Celia's lively
chatter, and he soon got up from his seat on the mats, and, placing
himself against one of the posts, from which point of vantage he could
better see Marjory's face, said, "I am going to Hamilton."

Marjory looked up with a startled glance. Celia laughed a quick little
laugh as she asked, "not this very minute, are you?"

"I am going to-morrow; my father wants me."

"Well, I suppose you mean to come back again," said Celia lightly.

"Yes, but not for a week. Shall you miss me very much while I am
away?"

"Why, of course; there won't be any one to sing 'Come into the garden,
Maud.' Will there Marjory?"

"No, indeed," said Marjory.

"I wonder which of you will miss me most. If I knew, I would ask her
to give me a lock of her hair to wear round my wrist as a keepsake."

Celia's eyes were fixed on Leonard with an eager questioning
expression, but he was looking at Marjory, who kept her eyes steadily
on her work, though a faint blush was stealing over her face.

"I'll tell you what we must do," said Leonard. "I'll get two long and
two short lots, and you must both draw. Whoever draws two long lots
loses a lock of her hair to me.

"I know you won't refuse me," he continued pleadingly, "because there
may be an accident to the train I am going on, and I may be killed,
and then you'd be sorry for having been so unkind."

"What nonsense," cried Celia.

"Not at all," said Leonard, "wise men of old believed in the judgment
of lots." And breaking off a slender vine-tendril he divided it into
two long and two short lots, arranging them with some mysterious
manipulations between his fingers. Then, kneeling on one knee, he held
them to Marjory.

Slowly, with tremulous fingers and blushing cheeks, Marjory drew a
long lot. Leonard seemed going to say something, but checking himself
held out the lots to Celia. Celia did not blush; she grew deathly pale
as she drew out her lot. It was a short one.

"I see you don't intend to lose, Miss Celia," said Leonard.

I think I hear now the wild, hysterical laugh with which she answered
him. Then, I did not heed it.

"If you draw a short one this time," said Leonard, as he again held
the lots to Marjory, "we shall have to try again," but as he spoke the
second long lot was in her hand.

"Oh, kind fortune!" cried Leonard.

He tried to make Marjory look at him, but she would not meet his eyes.
Still, those subtle signs that lovers learn to read the flickering
flame on her cheek, the quivering of her lips and eyelids, who can say
what--gave him courage. Snatching up her scissors, he held them over
her head. "May I?" he asked beseechingly. With shy, timid grace she
bent her fair head still lower; he felt the mute consent, and the next
moment one long braid was severed from the rest and lying in his hand.

"Fasten it round my wrist with a true lover's knot," he whispered,
softly touching her fingers with the braid. She took it at once, and
as he pushed up his sleeve she wound it round his wrist, Leonard
helping her to tie the mystic knot. Holding her hand, which did not
try to escape, he drew her gently towards him and kissed the virgin
lips that confidingly met his.

At that moment a shadow, as if from the wild flight of a bird, passed
before the window at which I sat, and swift as an arrow from a bow
Celia darted out of the verandah. Till then I had seen and heard all
that passed in a sort of stupor, like that which sometimes takes
possession of one who listens to his death sentence, though every word
is indelibly written on the tablets of his memory. Unwittingly I had
been playing the part of an eavesdropper. Now consciousness returned,
and, like a man coming out of a trance, I got up and left the room and
the house.

* * *
I had walked fast and far before I returned to the Red House, and the
moon, a brilliant hunter's moon, was flooding earth and heaven with
light as I came in sight of the verandah. The inmates seemed all
standing outside, among them a tall, finely-made young man, whom I at
once recognized as Archie Jonson, farmer Forrest's nephew, generally
supposed to be the heir to the Red House Farm. A marriage between him
and Celia had been planned by the farmer and his wife while the
cousins were children. Archie had always been devoted to Celia, and
she had been fond of him till he tried to win her for his wife. Then,
either from coyness or coquetry, she became cold and unresponsive. His
entreaties for an immediate marriage were indignantly refused, and the
utmost concession she would make was that after she was one and twenty
she might think about it. A quarrel ensued, and, deeply wounded,
Archie left his home. He was passionately fond of the water, and being
known as a brave and skilful sailor he found no difficulty in
obtaining the place of mate on one of the best schooners on the lakes.

I was surprised at seeing him, as he was not expected home until after
the close of navigation, but still more astonished when he came to
meet me before I reached the house.

"Where's Celia?" he called out as he came near.

"Celia?" I exclaimed, with a sudden feeling of alarm, "Isn't she at
home?"

"No; Marjory thought she went with you to the village."

"She hasn't been with me. I haven't seen her."

"My God!" he burst out passionately; "where can she be?"

"Perhaps she's hiding from you, for fun," I said.

"No; they had missed her before I got here."

The farmer was calling us to come on, and, as soon as we were near
enough, he told us that shortly after dinner he had seen Celia running
down the road to the bush. "But you see," he said, "I was so taken
aback by Leonard coming to ask me for Marjory, that I forgot I had
seen her till this minute."

"She must have gone to get maple leaves for her Christmas wreath,"
said Marjory.

"But what keeps her so late?" said Mrs. Forrest.

"Why, you needn't be scared about her," said the farmer; "there's
nothing to harm her. There hasn't been a bear or a wolf, or even a
rattlesnake, seen in these woods for forty years; nor no such vermin
as tramps, neither."

"There's that swamp," rejoined his wife; "she's always hunting for
some sort of weeds in it, and I often think she'll fall in and get
drowned."

"She couldn't be drowned if she didn't walk into the middle of it on
purpose," said the farmer. "But where's Archie going?"

"To bring home Celia," Archie called back, as he walked off at a pace
that soon took him out of sight.

"I'm sure I'm glad he's gone after her," said Mrs. Forrest. "She might
have hurt her foot on a stub or a stone, and not be able to walk."

I suggested that Leonard and I had better follow Archie, and Leonard
said he was going to make the same proposal.

"Archie won't want you," said the farmer. "If Celia has hurt herself,
he can carry her home as easy as a baby; and like the job, too, I
guess."

"Oh, let them go, father!" said Marjory. "You see how anxious mother
is, and so am I."

"All right, let them go if they like," said the farmer; adding in an
irritable tone, that showed he was himself getting uneasy, "women are
always making a fuss about nothing."

The moon was at the full, and the sky without a cloud. Every cluster
of golden rod and purple aster along the fences, every stick and stone
on the road were as dearly seen as at noonday. Leonard and I hurried
on filled with an unspoken dread. The road was at first in a straight
line, but on coming to a piece of marshy land it turned away to the
bush; a path from this turning led to the swamp, a few yards distant.

These swamps are often places of surpassing beauty. There every
species of wild fowl make their nests and rear their young broods, and
the brilliant flowers and luxuriant leaves of all kinds of water
plants form lovely aquatic gardens, richly coloured with ever-varying
tints from April to December, and always the delight of an artist's
eye. Round the edges of the swamp the water is usually shallow enough
for the hunters to wade through in pursuit of their game, but in the
centre it is often dangerously deep, and only to be crossed in a skiff
or canoe.

Where the road divided, Leonard would have kept a straight course to
the bush, but a terrible fear dragged me in the other direction. "No;
come this way!" I cried, and he turned and followed me in silence.
Faster and faster we hurried on till we reached the swamp. There a
heart-rending sight met our eyes. Archie Jonson was struggling through
the beds of water-lilies, reeds and rushes that obstructed his way,
clasping Celia in his arms. Her long hair fell down dank and dripping,
her arms hung stiff and lifeless, her face gleamed ghastly white under
the strong moonlight. She was dead! "Drowned! drowned!"

As he ran towards him, Archie laid her on a grassy mound. Her limbs
were not distorted and her face was composed, except that her eyes
were wide open as if in startled surprise. "You are a doctor as well
as a minister," Archie said to me, hoarsely; "see if there is any life
left."

There was none. She had been dead for hours. As I said so, Archie
sprung up from his kneeling attitude beside Celia, and turned to
Leonard with a deadly rage and hatred in his eyes.

"This is your doing," he said.

"Mine!" exclaimed Leonard. "Are you mad?"

"I am not mad. There is Celia, the girl I loved better than my life,
lying dead before my eyes, and you are her murderer!"

"Good Heavens!" cried Leonard, "What do you mean?"

"The shock has been too much for him," I said. "Archie, my poor
fellow, you don't know what you are saying."

"I know very well what I am saying. He--that man there--fooled Celia,
poor little innocent child, with his fine flattering manners till she
thought he was making love to her, and when she found out he had only
been play-acting with her, she couldn't bear it. It made her crazy,
and she came down to the swamp and drowned herself. Oh, my God, she
drowned herself. But it was he made her do it."

"I never made love to Celia in my life," said Leonard. "I loved
Marjory from the first hour I saw her."

"Oh, I dare say. You were only playing with Celia, but she thought you
were in earnest. Listen to me, minister," he continued, controlling
his passion with wonderful self-command; "I had a warning, but I was a
blind idiot and did not take it. Three nights ago, I dreamed that I
saw Celia standing on a bank sloping down to a big piece of water, and
a man was standing beside her, and while I was looking on in a stupid
kind of wonder, I saw she was slipping down towards the water and not
able to stop herself, and she held out her hand to the man and cried
to him to help her, but he turned right round and went up the bank.
Then I woke, and the dream seemed so real it made me feel queer; but I
never had any belief in dreams, and when I got up and went out into
the daylight, I laughed at myself for being frightened at a night-mare
and thought no more about it. But the next night the dream came again;
and this time I saw Celia throw herself into the water; and the man
stood on the bank and looked on. Then I knew the dream was sent to
warn me of some danger to Celia, though I couldn't tell what it meant,
and I came home as quick as I could. And the first person I saw was
the man I had seen in my dream--the man I am looking at now, and I
heard he was going to marry Marjory; and Celia could not be found.
Then when aunt Forrest mentioned the swamp, the meaning of the dream
came to me like a flash, and I made for the swamp, but I had come too
late--too late to save her, but not too late to revenge her wrongs."

I attempted to reason with him as well as I could, and tried to show
him how wicked and absurd it was to let a dream--a nightmare, as he
had himself called it--put such wild fancies into his head.

"And you cannot know that she drowned herself; it may have been an
accident," I said.

"It was no accident; she drowned herself in her madness. When I got to
the swamp I saw a bit of ribbon hanging on the reeds, and I went on
till I came to the deep water; there I found her. She had not sunk
very far down because her skirt had caught on a stake that stood up
there, and I got her out easily enough. But she was dead; and you,
Leonard Mason, will have to answer to me for her death."

"I tell you I am innocent of her death as you are!"

"Can you swear it?" cried Archie. "Can you swear it while she lies
there before your eyes?"

"I can, I never had any love for Celia, and I never tried to make her
think I had. I swear it before the God that hears me!"

As Leonard uttered this oath, Archie kept his eyes fixed on him with
piercing intensity; but Leonard met the searching gaze without
flinching.

"If you have sworn to a lie," Archie said, "your sin will find you
out, and you will have to answer to me for what you have done when you
least expect it."

Then he wheeled round, and going to his dead sweet-heart, took her in
his arms. "Go before me, minister," he said--"go before me, and tell
them what is coming."

He would not allow me to help him, so Leonard and I walked on before,
and Archie followed with his piteous burden. He was a tall powerful
young man, besides being under such a strong excitement as gives
threefold strength to every nerve, and he carried poor Celia's death-
weight, as if she had been a living child.

But I can write no more of that night of grief and anguish. When the
dismal morning came, Archie had gone.

.....

Three days after her death Celia was laid in the village graveyard; a
peaceful spot away from all noise or traffic, on the side of a gentle
hill within site of the Red House. No one but Archie Jonson, Leonard
Mason and myself ever suspected the manner of her death. It was
naturally supposed that while gathering flowers in the swamp she had
fallen into some hidden pool from which the water plants that covered
it would prevent her escape.

Archie was not at her funeral, nor had he returned to the farm, but,
two days after she was buried, he wrote to Mrs. Forrest telling her
that he had rejoined his vessel, the White Bird, which was going up
Lake Superior with a cargo, the last trip she intended to make that
season. The letter made no mention of Celia and was very brief, but it
was calmly and coherently written, and the Forrests hoped he intended
to come home when the schooner was laid up. But this gleam of light
was soon lost in deeper darkness. In the middle of November a letter
from the owners of the White Bird came to Michael Forrest, informing
him that the vessel with all her crew had been lost on Lake Superior
in one of those sudden storms which, after a long period of fine
weather in the fall, sometimes break over the lakes. Her figure head,
on which her name and that of the firm to which she belonged were
carved, had been found floating, and recognized by another vessel,
confirming the fears for her fate that had been felt. The bodies of
the crew were never found, for the ice-cold depths of Lake Superior
never give up their dead.

The winter passed slowly and sadly at the Red House, but with the
spring came the promise of new hope and joy. Mr. Mason had built a
pretty house for Leonard and his bride near the Mills, of which
Leonard was to be chief manager. They were to be married in May, and
the month famous for its caprice wore its fairest aspect that year.
The sorrows which Marjory had gone through seemed only to have
deepened the tender sweetness of her delicate beauty, and purified the
happiness that illumined her lovely eyes. Leonard, as handsome and
charming as ever, had grown more manly and thoughtful, and, if
possible, was more in love with Marjory than ever. The old people
gained new life from Marjory's happy prospects, and if I had not known
what depths of regret sad remembrance can lie silent and secret in the
human heart I might have thought that Celia and Archie were forgotten.

The wedding day came in warm and bright, and as full of opening buds
and blossoms as if it had been expressly made for the occasion. The
ceremony was to take place in the Red House parlour at six o'clock in
the evening. The supper was to follow immediately. The bride and
bride-groom were then to be driven to the nearest station to meet the
train for Hamilton where they were to stay a few days and then go on
to Niagara Falls to spend the remainder of their honeymoon there.

It was a busy day at the Red House. Two or three young girls from the
village came to help in the pleasant task of putting all the rooms in
festal array, and in preparing the dainties liberally provided for the
wedding feast.

As the time for the ceremony drew near, the day's excitement rose
higher and higher. The bridesmaids were dressing the bride, Mrs.
Forrest and two favourite assistants were setting out the supper
table. The farmer had taken most of the guests to see his new peach
orchard. Two young men, one a cousin of Leonard's who had come from
Hamilton to be the best man, were chatting and laughing through an
open window with two pretty girls who were decorating the wedding cake
with dainty little flags bearing embroidered mottos placed among loves
and doves and other appropriate devices in sugar. Leonard and I were
standing in the doorway of the verandah, and the eager bridegroom was
looking at his watch.

"It only wants twelve minutes to six," he said, "I hope Marjory is
ready."

"Your watch is too fast," I said, laughing. "Mine wants fully a
quarter."

As I spoke a boy employed to do "chores" came round the barnyard and
said, "There's a man wants to see Mr. Leonard Mason."

"A man--what man?" asked Leonard impatiently.

"Dun know. He says he must see you for a minute."

"Oh, hang it!" said Leonard. "Well, I suppose I can give him a
minute," and he stepped out of the verandah. Then, looking back at me,
he exclaimed, "I hope the day is not going to change."

It was already changing. Grey clouds coming up from the lake were
creeping over the sun. An icy wind followed them, chilling me to the
bone, and I heard a distant peal of thunder. Farmer Forrest came
hurrying his guests into the verandah. "Is all ready, minister?" he
enquired. "Where's Leonard?"

"He went to the yard to speak to a man that wanted to see him, I
answered.

"Well, we'd best go into the parlour now, and receive the bride and
bridegroom in state," said the farmer leading the way.

As Leonard did not come at once, I went to meet him, wondering at his
delay. The clouds were growing darker; there was a sharp gleam of
lightning, and the thunder that followed showed it was nearer. The
storm was certainly coming up, but it might be only a shower.

I looked all round the horizon, and while I was noting the darkening
clouds, two men going up the road to the graveyard came into my view;
a gleam of the fading sunlight making them distinctly visible. The one
in front was more than commonly tall, and led the way with swift,
vigorous strides. He was dressed in what seemed a sailor's rough
jacket and trousers, and a sailor's glazed hat with floating ribbons.
His companion followed him with curiously unequal steps, as if dragged
by some invisible chain. It was easy to recognize in this last Leonard
in his new wedding suit; and as I gazed the conviction flashed upon me
that the man in front was Archie Jonson. After all, then, Archie had
not been drowned when the White Bird was lost. But by what strange
power had he compelled Leonard to leave his waiting bride and follow
him to the graveyard?

Such an extraordinary proceeding was both mysterious and alarming, and
might be dangerous for Leonard; and on the impulse of the moment I
followed them as fast as I could. I was a rapid walker, but they had a
start of some minutes, and I could not overtake them.

When I entered the graveyard the whole sky was wrapped in a black pall
except a little space above the plot of ground, bordered with
periwinkles, in which Celia's grave lay. The white stone at the head
of the grave and the figures of two men beside it stood vividly out
under that clear space, while the black cloud came swiftly on as if to
swallow them up. The tall man had his hand on the gravestone, his face
was turned towards me and I could see every feature. It was Archie
Jonson's face, lividly pale; or it might have been the shadow of the
thunder cloud that made it appear so. Leonard's back was towards me,
and he confronted Archie--if Archie it was--in a fixed and moveless
attitude. I saw them distinctly for a moment; the next the black cloud
that seemed almost to touch the ground covered them, and all was
hidden from eyes. Then a bolt of blue flame with a red light in its
centre shot from the cloud, and an awful crash seemed to rend the
heavens. A blinding torrent of rain succeeded, but it ceased in a
minute or two; the cloud passed on, and the sun, now near its setting,
shone clear in the western sky. Anxiously I looked round for Leonard
and his mysterious companion. Leonard was lying stretched on Celia's
grave; Archie, or his avenging ghost, or whatever had assumed his
likeness, had disappeared.

Going up to Leonard, I found him dead; killed by the lightning I
supposed, though I saw no sign of its having touched him. As I was
still stooping over, half stunned by the shock, his cousin and two or
three other young men came round me. They had heard a confused account
of our having gone to the graveyard, and while others were looking for
us in the barns and out-houses, they had come to see if it could be
true. We made a rough litter of pine boughs on which we laid poor
Leonard, the young men carrying the bier while I walked before,
wondering how it would be possible for me to tell the awful tidings it
was my hard fate to bring.

But it was not left to me. Marjory, who had been waiting and watching
in an agony of terror at Leonard's absence, had seen the ominous
procession coming down the hill, and before anyone could prevent her
she was flying madly to meet it. Desperately I tried to stop her, but
she broke away from me, saw her lover's dead body lying on the bier,
and fell at the feet of the bearers in a death-like swoon; her dainty
wedding dress and fair hair wreathed with flowers, lying in the muddy
pools the thunder-rain had made.

It was long before she could be brought back to life, and then her
mind was gone. She remembered nothing of the past, she had no
recognition of the present; she knew no more, not even her mother; she
never spoke, and did not seem conscious of anything said to her. She
lingered a few days in this state, and then died so quietly that the
watchers did not know when she passed away.

The poor old people did not long survive the wreck of all their
earthly hopes. The Red House farm was sold, and Michael Forrest's
property was divided among relations he had never known.

Leonard Mason's death was, of course, attributed to lightning. The
"chore" boy's description of the man with whom Leonard had gone to the
grave was so fanciful, and so mixed with improbable incidents, that
his tale was not credited by anyone. From some dreamy, incoherent
utterances of Mrs. Forrest's, it was afterwards believed that Leonard
had gone to the graveyard at Marjory's desire to lay a wreath of
flowers on Celia's grave; and when the conjecture was added that the
unknown man must have been an express messenger from Hamilton,
bringing the wreath that had delayed by some mistake, the mystery was
supposed to be explained. As for the strange things connected with
this tragedy that had come to my knowledge, I kept them hidden in my
breast.

I have never seen or heard anything of Archie Jonson since his
inexplicable appearance on that fatal day; and I have been informed
that it was absolutely impossible the best sailor that ever lived
could have escaped in such a storm as that in which the White Bird,
with her crew, foundered.



THE END



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