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Title: The Story of Clifford House
Author: Anonymous
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0606781.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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The Story of Clifford House
Anonymous


This story I will tell to you now, as I have promised to do so, and
yet I can hardly make you believe in the reluctance with which I even
allow my thoughts to go back to the time which I spent in that house--
my first town residence after I was married.

I had wished so much to go to town that spring--grown tired of my
lovely country home, I suppose. Tired of wide lawns and quiet, glassy
ponds and streams, bordered by luscious, blooming rhododendrons; of
silent, mossy avenues, glorious with the flickering light that stole
through pale green beech leaves; of rose gardens with grassy paths,
jewel-sprinkled with shell-like petals of white, crimson, pink, and
cream-like hues; of old-fashioned rooms with narrow, mullioned windows
embowered in scarlet japonica and fragrant, starry jessamine.

I suppose I had grown tired of them all, and I begged George to see
about getting a nice house in town for the season.

George 'saw about it'--viz.: he wrote one letter--from my dictation--
to a house agent, and answered one advertisement, and yawned and
grunted for a week afterwards about the 'bore of the thing'.

Of course I had to make him accompany me to town, and to the house
agent's, and to the houses too. Let him smoke and yawn as much as he
liked, I was determined to take a house, and take a nice one as well.

We had looked at--George said fourteen--but, in fact, seven, or eight
houses I think, before we saw Clifford House.

I had found out a new house-agent's office, and this was the very
first house we were shown--pressed upon our notice, too, by the
enthusiastic encomiums of the said house-agent. It was certainly a
very fine house, both as to exterior and interior appearances. Large,
massively built, agreeably darkened in woodwork and masonry by Time's
shading brush, in excellent repair, and the locality all that could be
desired. Wide, lofty apartments, staircases, and landings; a handsome
dining-room panelled in velvety dark-green 'flock' and gold; a
handsome drawing-room panelled in pale cream-colour and gold; airy
bed-chambers and dressing-rooms--one, in particular, attached to what
seemed the principal bedroom, with a vast mirror occupying the whole
side of the apartment which was opposite to the door leading into the
bed-chamber.

'What a nice dressing-room!' I exclaimed, having a weakness, I
confess, for large, handsome mirrors in the rooms I inhabit--George
says impertinent things about my 'wishing to see as much of myself as
I can'. I know I am not tall, in fact, rather what he should call
petite, if he wished to be polite--but that is not my reason for
liking a large mirror.

As I spoke the words I looked about mechanically for the house-agent's
clerk who had been sent with us--a nervous-looking little man, with a
pasty complexion, and orange-coloured hair meekly plastered down at
each side of his face. He had been untiringly trotting up and down
stairs, unlocking doors, answering questions, and keeping up a
harmless soliloquy of chatter about the beauties and excellencies of
the 'mansion,' as he called it, ever since he entered its doors, but
now he was nowhere to be seen.

'What door have you open?' I said, speaking aloud to him, for suddenly
a cold blast of air swept up the wide staircase and into the dressing-
room, making me shudder.

'No door, ma'am--not one, indeed!' said the little clerk, hurrying to
the dressing-room door, but not entering. His face looked whiter than
before, and in his accents there was an almost terrified earnestness
that puzzled me.

The shadows of the afternoon seemed to deepen. The aspect of the
suites of rooms and long silent corridors, with their doors ajar, as
if unseen inhabitants were stealthily crouching behind them, drearily
impressed me with a sense of dull desolation; and it was with a sudden
sensation of childish fear and loneliness that I rushed after my
husband, and took his arm as he hastily descended the stairs.

'A spacious, handsome staircase, George?' I remarked.

'Yes; and a spacious; handsome rent, you may be sure,' George
responded.

But, in this particular, he was exceedingly, and I agreeably,
astonished.

The rent was but a hundred and fifty pounds a year; when, judging from
the situation and appearance of the house, our lowest estimate had
been double that sum.

'How cheap!' I whispered.

'A screw loose somewhere,' was George's oracular response.

He repeated his opinion to the clerk in a more business-like
expression, to the effect that the rent seemed low, and that he
trusted there was no--peculiar--eh?

'Drains, gas, water, all right, sir--right as--a--a trivet, sir,' said
the clerk, looking over his shoulder oddly, as he spoke. 'Chimneys,
ventilators, roof, tiles--everything in the perfectest repair and
order, sir!'

'Hum!' said George, with a frown of thoroughly British
dissatisfaction. 'Unpleasant neighbours, then?'

The little clerk coughed violently, and buried his nose and eyes in
the depths of a red cotton handkerchief:

'Neighbours? Disagreeable, sir? Ah! dear me! Beg pardon, sir--a little
cough. No, indeed, sir!

Mrs Carmichael--very high lady--very rich, widow of young Mr William
Carmichael, just opposite, sir--old Lady Broadleigh within two doors--
Sir Thomas--'

'Oh, very well!' said George impatiently. 'Come, Helen.'

Nevertheless, I was rather surprised to see how many faces were
clustered at the windows of our aristocratic neighbours' houses, and
with what intently curious looks they watched our exit and departure,
as if visitors, or would-be tenants for Clifford House, were some very
wonderful people indeed.

However, wonderful or not, the house seemed all that we could desire;
the lowness of the rent made it a decided bargain, the season was
advancing, our low-ceiled, country rooms seemed contracted, old-
fashioned, and shabby, after those lofty, handsome suites of
apartments; and, in three weeks, huge furniture vans, and a clever
upholsterer, had carpeted, curtained, and furnished our town mansion
from garret to basement, and George and I, our two babies, a nurse,
two maids, a cook, and a butler, were installed in Clifford House.

Dear George had been very generous--nay, almost extravagant--in his
provisions for the comfort and pleasure of his wife and children; and
my dressing-room and their nursery were fitted up so luxuriously and
tastefully, that my feeling at the first inspection of them was that
of self-gratulation on being such a fortunate woman, in having such a
home, such babies, and such a husband.

I arrayed myself for dinner that evening quite gleefully; standing
before my splendid mirror amid the blue drapery, cushions, and couches
of my charming dressing-room. I put on George's favourite dress--a
bronze-brown lustrous silk, with sparkling gold ornaments: he
invariably kissed me when he saw it on, stroked my brown curls and
brunette face, and called me 'Maid Marian'--and was still standing
before the glass smiling at myself, like the happy, foolish little
woman I was, when I perceived to my discomfiture that George was
standing in the doorway watching my doings, and grinning very visibly
under his moustache.

'Don't mind me, my dear, I beg! don't mind me in the least. But when
you have done admiring Mrs George Russell, perhaps you will be kind
enough to let me know'--then, suddenly changing his tone, he
exclaimed, 'Have you the window open, Helen, this chilly evening?'

'No, George,' I replied, glancing at it to make sure of the fact.

'Change in the weather, then,' my husband said. 'Come, Helen, there is
no use in making yourself any prettier!' He had just uttered the last
words when I saw him spring aside suddenly, and look around.

'What is the matter?' I said--'George, dear, what is the matter?' For
his face had grown quite white, and with his back against the wall, he
was staring about him wildly 'I don't know--Helen--something'--he
ejaculated in a low tone; then recovering himself, with a laugh, he
cried--'I struck myself against the door, I suppose! I declare one
would think I was composed of old china, or wax, or sugar candy, it
hurt and stunned me so! Come, dearest.'

He had not struck himself, for I had been watching him going out on
the lobby, and I felt an uneasy conviction that he knew he had not
done so, and only spoke as he did in order to deceive or satisfy me.
Why? Why did I think so? As I live I cannot tell why I thought so
then--I know now. We had the 'babies'--as George always called them--
in with the dessert, after the time-honoured fashion of making olives
as well as olive branches of them; and then, when the little ones had
gone to bed, we sat side by side in the summer twilight, I lazily
fanning myself, George bending over me like the lover-husband he was.
Then came the lamps, and I played for him, and we sang duets and spent
as happy an evening in our new home as a married pair could wish to
spend. I cannot tell why I felt so disinclined to go upstairs that
night, tired as I was, too--for we had had a long journey up from the
country. However, as eleven struck, I routed George out of the easy
chair where he had been indulging in a preliminary doze, and, ringing
for my maid, went up to my dressing-room.

I like gas in my dressing-room, though not in my bedroom, and the
globes at either side the great mirror were a blaze of light. As I
entered I caught the reflection of a woman's figure in the depth of
the glass, not my maid's. The glimpse I had was of a tall woman,
strongly built, and broad-shouldered, a quantity of light hair hanging
in a disordered manner on her neck, and the profile of a white, hard,
masculine face, with the keen glittering eye turned watchfully towards
the door.

This may seem an elaborately detailed description for the momentary
glance I obtained, but it is well known with what lightning rapidity
the organs of vision will, in moments of terror and amazement, convey
impressions to the startled brain, impressions accurate and indelible.

I had taken but one step on entering, the next step the figure had
vanished, and the mirror reflected but my own terrified face, and the
homely, cheerful one of my maid Harriet, as she stooped over the
dressing-table opening a jewel case.

I dropped down on the nearest chair, and, in answer to the girl's
alarmed questions, replied that I did not feel very well. I was sick
and shuddering from head to foot.

Suddenly it flashed across me that it was from a similar cause I had
seen my husband's face grow ghastly, and that strange, terrified look
come into his eyes,--he, who had been a soldier and unflinchingly had
fought amidst the dead and dying on bloody Indian battlefields, almost
boy as he was then! What was it? What had he seen? Nonsense! was I
going to believe I had seen a ghost? Nonsense, a thousand times over!
I heard my husband's cheery voice as he ascended the stairs, and,
quite angry with myself for giving way to such folly, I threw on my
dressing gown, and, snatching up the brush from Harriet, I pulled my
hair down and brushed it quite savagely, until my head ached well--for
punishment.

If the bright morning light disperses sweet illusions formed
overnight, as people say it does, it disperses gloomy ones as well.
With the warmth and brightness of the unclouded summer's sun streaming
in through softly coloured blinds, bringing out the velvety green of
soft new carpets and lounges, the rainbow tints of glittering
chandeliers, vases, and ornaments, the gilding on bright fresh
wallpaper, and the spotless folds of snowy window drapery, it was
impossible for an instant to connect anything dark or dismal with
Clifford House. Why, my dressing-room even, where I had been so silly
last evening, was like a woodland bower, with its deep purple-blue
hangings and rose painted china flower-vases, filled with bouquets
from our country home.

Clustering fragrant honeysuckle half-opened moss roses, drooping
emerald-green fern, and masses of delicious jessamine dropping its
over-blown blossoms on the white toilet-cover, lace-flounced and tied
with blue ribbons, as Harriet delighted to have it.

'I think this such a charming room and such a charming house
altogether, George!' I said; 'and you have been such a dear,
thoughtful old darling!' For I had perceived that the dear fellow had
had his own half-length portrait hung over my writing-table. Quite a
pleasant surprise for me, for I thought he intended it to be hung in
the dining-room, and I delighted in having the dear pleasant brown
eyes looking down at me when I was busy writing or sewing.

'I am so glad you like everything, Nellie,' said he.

'Why, George, don't you?'

But George had walked off whistling, and presently I heard uproarious
baby-laughter, and baby-chatter, and thumping, trotting of small fat
feet, as George put the tidy nursery into dire confusion by his
morning game of romps with his son and heir, and red-cheeked baby-
daughter.

And it did seem as if I must have been dreaming or delirious, when
this day and many a succeeding one passed away swiftly and pleasantly,
without the slightest recurring event to remind me of my strange alarm
on the night of our arrival.

We had been in Clifford House about a fortnight, when one morning I
received a visit from our opposite neighbour--the young widow, Mrs
Carmichael. A very pretty, lady-like person she was, and as we had
some common acquaintances we chattered away very freely and pleasantly
for half-an-hour or so. As she rose to go she asked suddenly if we
liked the house. I replied in the affirmative rather warmly.

She was opposite the light, and I saw an involuntary elevation of her
eye-brows and compression of her lips that puzzled me. I fancied it
was because I had spoken so enthusiastically. Yet her own manner was
anything but languidly fashionable, being very cordial and decided.

'Yes; it is a very nice house, roomy and well-built,' said she, after
a moment's pause; 'I am so glad you like it--we may be permanent
neighbours.'

We went out to dinner at a friend's house in Seymour Street that
evening, and when we returned about half-past eleven, in spite of a
yawning remonstrance from George, I tripped off softly to have a peep
at my darlings, before I went to bed.

The nursery was a large, pleasant room at the end of the long corridor
leading from our own apartments, and, gently turning the handle and
gathering my rustling silk dress around me, I opened the door and went
in. There was the night-lamp burning clearly, shining softly on the
tiny cribs with the sweet flushed infant faces, the long golden-brown
lashes lying on the dimpled apple-bloom cheeks, the waxen hands and
little rounded arms thrown above the tossed golden curls, and the
heavenly calm of the little sleeping forms and pure, peaceful
breathing.

I wonder would any mother, no matter how cold and careless, have
neglected doing what I did, as I bent over my treasures, and prayed
God that His angels might keep watch over each cherub head on its
little, soft, white pillow?

I had looked at and kissed them, and turned to go, when I glanced
towards the nurse's bed.

'Are you not well, Mary? What is the matter?' I said in an anxious
whisper.

She was a very respectable and trustworthy servant, as well as being a
kind, gentle creature with the little ones, and consequently highly
valued by me, but her health was never very good, and she was subject
to severe attacks of nervous headache and sleeplessness. She was
sitting up in bed, her hands grasping the bedclothes, her face and
lips ashy white, and her eyes staring wildly, as if they would start
from their sockets.

'Mary! Good Heavens! what is the matter?' I gasped.

'Ma'am! Oh, ma'am--oh, mistress, I am dying!' And with a stifled cry
the poor girl fell back on the pillow, her eyes still retaining their
frenzied stare. It was but the work of a few moments to ring bells and
summon the household, to dispatch the man-servant for a doctor, and to
have the sleeping children taken into my own bedchamber, while Harriet
and I administered restoratives, and chafed the half-senseless girl's
damp, cold hands.

I could imagine no cause for her sudden illness, and the other
servants were very voluble in exclamations and laments. But when the
physician--a pale, kindly, grave-looking man arrived--after a
moment's examination, he demanded if she had been frightened? I
replied in the negative, and was proceeding to describe to him the
state in which I had found her, when I heard the housemaid and Harriet
whispering energetically together.

'She has!'

'Hush!'

'I know she has!'

'What is it? Speak out at once my good girl!' said the doctor sternly
to the housemaid; 'you know something of this.'

Both servants looked apprehensively at me and at George.

'Speak up at once, Margaret; the girl's life may depend on it! Tell
the truth, my girl, and don't be afraid,' said her master kindly, but
firmly.

'I don't know nothing, sir--indeed, no, ma'am,' said Margaret
confusedly; 'but--I think, ma'am--she's seen the ghost, sir!'

'The what!' cried George angrily.

'She have, sir!' persisted Margaret eagerly, now that her confession
was made. 'We're all afraid, sir; but she's been worser nor the rest
of us. And she says to me only this morning, "Margaret", she says, "if
I see it, I'll die!"'

'What ghost, you fool?' cried George more angrily. 'A pretty set you
are!--great, grown men and women, afraid of some bogie story you have
heard when you were gossipping with the servants on the terrace, I
suppose!'

'No, indeed, sir,' said Margaret; 'I wasn't gossippin', sir; but the
parlour-maid over the way, sir--Mrs Carmichael's parlour-maid, ma'am--
she told me that there was somethin'--'I thought so!' interrupted
George. 'You ought to be ashamed of yourselves not to have an ounce of
brains among you.'

'But, sir!' Margaret burst out again, unheeding her master's rather
uncomplimentary phrenological verdict, 'we didn't mind, sir, though we
was a bit frightened, until we seen it, sir! The butler seen it, and
he ran, and cook ran.'

'And you ran after them?' said George, with an indignant laugh.

'I did, sir, for I saw it too--a big woman with fair hair all over her
shoulders,' said Margaret, in an awestruck whisper to Harriet, who
nodded her head.

The doctor looked up, gravely and without a smile. The servants
clustered together near the door, and muttered in undertones. George
looked at me with a forced smile, which died away in an instant:

'You are not so foolish as to credit any of this nonsense, Helen?' he
said.

The servants all turned eagerly to hear their mistress's opinion. I am
afraid it was written in my pallid face. Was it true? Was it what I
had seen? Could there be any reality in this, that here, in our
pleasant, happy home, here, beneath the roof with our helpless little
ones, was a dreadful, unblessed presence--a shadowy horror; that that
thing with the watchful, cruel eyes had not been a mere vision of
imagination, the mere offspring of an active brain, and the unstrung
nerves of an overtired frame?

'Oh! they imagined something from the stories they heard, I dare say,'
I faltered.

The butler shook his head solemnly:

'I could swear to it, ma'am.'

'And so could I, ma'am!' chorused the cook and housemaid.

'Hush!' said the doctor, as the nurse, roused, at length, from her
stupor, lay quietly, with closed eyes, from which the tears streamed
down her face. 'Some one must sit up with her now,' said the doctor,
looking around.

'I will, sir, if my mistress allows me,' said Harriet.

'Certainly, Harriet,' said I at once.

He communicated his instructions to her and took his leave, promising
to call in the morning.

'Did you ever hear anything like this folly, doctor?' said George, as
he shook hands with him at the head of the stairs.

'Oh! yes, sir, I often hear such stories,' said the doctor quietly, as
he bade us both goodnight.

'George! what has frightened the girl? What has she seen?' I
whispered, clasping my husband's arm.

'Nellie, go to bed, and don't be a goose,' was George's reply.

'George--I saw that thing--that woman, in my dressing-room,' I said,
trembling, 'and oh! think if the children were to see it and be
frightened like poor Mary!'

'Well, Helen,' said my husband sharply, 'if you are going to listen to
ignorant servants' superstitions and run out of your house, just as we
are comfortably settled in it, on account of a foolish sickly woman
fainting from hearing a ghost story--I say--it is a pity you ever came
into it.'

He spoke very decidedly and sternly, and yet I felt in my inmost heart
that he uttered what he wished me to believe, not what he believed
himself.

I said no more, but went to my bedroom--not into the dreaded dressing-
room--and lay awake listening and fevered with nervous anxiety until
the morning dawned.

The nurse was better and able to speak next day, though extremely weak
and unnerved yet. The doctor forbade much questioning, and all that
could be got from her at intervals was that something had come up the
staircase and ran through the corridor, that she heard struggling and
scuffling outside, and then the nursery door opened and she saw a
woman's face peering in, the eyes gleaming wickedly at her, and it had
the yellow hair that 'belonged to the ghost'.

'The woman has had a bad fit of nightmare--that is all, Helen,' said
George, rattling his paper unconcernedly, when I repeated to him the
story I had just heard from poor Mary's trembling lips.

It might be so; but why were they all agreed as to what they had seen?
Why did they all speak of the tangled fair hair, and the wicked
gleaming eyes? Was our house haunted? Was this the mysterious cause of
the exceedingly moderate rent and the house-agent's profuse civility?
The nurse did not recover strength, and being worse than useless in
her present weak, hysterical condition, I sent her down to her country
home for change of air, and hired another temporarily in her place.

The newcomer was a stout, small, cheerful woman of about forty. I
liked her face the moment I saw her; for, besides its smiling, honest
expression, there was a good deal of decided character in the large
firm features. 'You appear to be a sensible person,' I said, when
giving her her first instructions in the nursery, 'and I think I can
rely on you. You know my nurse is leaving because of illness, and that
illness was caused by her being frightened by--a ghost-story.' I
paused; but the woman remained unmoved, listening to me in respectful
silence.

'The servants downstairs have got some nonsense of the kind into their
heads,' I went on; 'they will try to frighten you, too, and tell you
they have seen--' I could not go on. For my life I could not calmly
give her the description of that shadowy image of fear.

'They cannot frighten me, ma'am,' said my new nurse quietly. 'I am not
afraid of spirits.'

I thought she spoke in jest, and smiled.

'I am not indeed, ma'-am,' she repeated. 'I have lived where there
were such things seen, but they never harmed me.'

'You don't mean to say you believe such nonsense?' said I,
hypocritically trying to speak carelessly.

'Oh yes, ma 'am, I do! I could not disbelieve it,' said the nurse,
opening her eyes with earnestness, 'I know the story of this house,
ma'am.'

'What story?' I cried.

The woman coloured and looked confused.

'I beg your pardon, ma'am--I mean what people say is seen here.'

'What do they say? Do not frighten me,' I said, and my voice quivered
in spite of me; 'I have heard nothing but what the servants said.'

The nurse looked deeply concerned.

'I am very stupid, ma'am; I beg your pardon for repeating such stories
to you--I daresay it is only idle people's gossip.'

She went about her duties, and I went--not into my dressing-room--but
down into the drawing-room, where I sat by the window looking out
until my husband returned.

Two or three weeks more passed away without any more alarms. The
summer had deepened into its longest days and hottest sunshine; the
gay season had reached and passed its meridian of wealth, beauty,
luxury, extravagance, success, misery, hopes, and disappointments. I
had enjoyed it very much at first; but I soon wearied of it as my
bodily strength weakened in the ordeal of constant excitement, late
hours, hot rooms, heavy perfumed atmosphere, ices, and diaphanous
ball-dresses.

'Poor Maid Marian,' George said, 'she is pining for her green wild
woods.' However, by following the doctor's advice--the same whom he
had summoned the night of the nurse's illness, and whom we both liked
very much--and living more quietly, I was able to enjoy quiet
entertainments and my favourite operas very fairly, although my red
brunette cheeks had faded dismally.

'An invitation for us, Helen, I know, and that is Willesden's
writing.'

It was a sultry morning at the close of June. I felt tired and
languid, and it was with a bad grace I tore open the envelope lying
beside the breakfast tray.

'Yes, "Colonel and Mrs Willesden request the pleasure"--why George, it
is for this evening!'

'Written the day before yesterday, though--delayed somehow,' said
George, reading over my shoulder. 'Well, Helen, what do you say? It is
only for a quiet, friendly dinner, and I like Willesden very much.'

'No, dear,' I replied wearily. 'You can go and make apologies for me.
I am tired of dinner-parties, and, besides, George is not well.'

'My dear, the young urchin is far better than yourself,' replied
George, dissecting a sardine with amazing relish; 'but just as you
like, Nellie. There's "Mudie's last" on the sofa-table, and perhaps it
is as well you should stay quiet this evening, and amuse yourself
reading it.'

But 'Mudie's last' failed to possess either interest or the power of
amusing me in the long, quiet evening hours, after I had fidgeted
about George whilst he was dressing, until he spoiled two white ties,
and played with my darlings, and heard them lisp their prayers, and
sang them asleep; after the clock had struck eight, and through the
open windows the echoes of footsteps in the hot, dusty street grew
fewer and fewer. No, 'Mudie's last' was a failure, as far as I was
concerned; and, after a faint attempt at practising an intricate
Morceau de Salon, I lay down on my pet chintz-covered couch, near the
window, to look at the sky and the stars--when they came.

The house was as still as the grave, save for the far-off sound of
some of the servants' voices; for I had given leave to Harriet and the
housemaid for an evening out, escorted and protected by Charles--
gravest and most stupid of butlers, between whom and my maid there
existed tender relations, which were to be consummated by 'the
goodwill of a public' from master, and a silk wedding-dress from
mistress, some happy future day.

Accordingly they had donned all their finery, and set off in high
glee; at least, I had heard much giggling and rustling of ribbons, and
Charles's dignified cockney accents, as he opened the area gate wide
for the young ladies' crinolines, and then dead silence again. Cook
and the nurse were ensconced in one of the garret windows comparing
notes and chatting busily, and all the lower part of the house was
left to darkness and to me.

Dead silence--and the 'ting, ting' of the little French clock on the
mantelpiece marked the half-hour after eight. Dear me, how dark it was
growing! this brooding storm I supposed, which had been making me feel
so languid and restless. I wish it would come down and cool the air--
not tonight, though. Dear me, how lonely it is! I wish George were
home. Those women are talking very loudly--I wonder nurse would--here
I got drowsy, and my eyes ached looking for the stars that had not
come.

In a few minutes I roused again, my maternal anxiety changing into
indignation as I heard the women's voices growing louder and shriller,
and some doors opened and shut violently.

What can nurse be thinking of? They will wake the children most
certainly, and Georgie was so long in falling asleep--quite feverish,
my own boy! I shall really reprove her very plainly. I never needed to
do so before. What could she be thinking of? Dead silence again. Well,
this was lonely; I was inclined to ring for lights, and turn on all
the burners in the chandelier by way of company. Then I remembered
there were some wax matches in one of the drawers of a writing-tray
just at hand, and thought I would light the gas myself instead of
bringing the servants down--yes--but--I wanted company. It was so dark
and dreary, and--and--I was afraid.

Afraid to stir--afraid to get off the couch on which I was lying--
afraid to look at the door! a numbing, chilling tide of icy fear
ebbing through even vein--afraid to draw a breath--afraid to move hand
or foot, in a nightmare of supernatural terror. At last, by a violent
effort, I sprang at the bell-handle, and pulled it frantically, and as
soon as I had done so, with a sudden revulsion of feeling, I felt
thoroughly ashamed of my childish cowardice, although I could not have
helped it, and it had overcome me as suddenly as unexpectedly. How
George would have laughed at me!

There were those servants talking again, tramping about and banging
the doors as before.

Really, this was unbearable; cook must be in one of her fits of
temper, and certainly had forgotten herself strangely.

And, as the quarrelsome tones grew louder and louder--evidently in
bitter recrimination, although I could not catch a word--my own anger
rose proportionately, and, forgetting loneliness and darkness in my
indignant anxiety lest my children should be waked by this most
unseemly behaviour of the servants, I ran hastily out of the room and
up the wide staircase.

The dim light from the clouded evening sky, still further subdued by
the gold and purple-stained glass of the conservatory door, streamed
faintly down the steps from the first landing, and by it, just as I
had ascended halfway, I discovered the short, thick-set figure of the
nurse rushing down--of course, in answer to my ring, I supposed.

Involuntarily I stepped aside to avoid coming in violent contact with
her as she fled past. No, it was not the nurse; and the woman
following her in headlong haste, sweeping by me so that the current of
air from their floating dresses struck icily cold on my brow where the
clammy dew of perspiration had started in great drops, was--was--
Merciful Heavens! What was that tall figure, with the coarse,
disordered, yellow hair, the white face, and glittering, steel-blue
eyes, that glinted fiendishly on me for one dreadful instant, and then
vanished? Vanished as the pursued and pursuing figures had vanished in
the shadows of the wide, lofty hall, without sound of voice or
footstep?

I would have cried out--would have shrieked, if every nerve had not
been paralyzed. I could not doubt the evidence of my senses--if I
could have done so the cold, unearthy horror which sickened my very
soul would have borne its undeniable testimony that I had beheld the
impersonation of the hidden curse that rested on this dwelling.

I stood there rigid and immovable, as if that blighting Medusa-glance
had indeed changed me into stone.

It may have been but a very few minutes--it seemed to me a cycle of
painful ages, when the light of a brightly burning lamp shone before
me, and I heard the cheerful sound of the new nurse's voice in my
ears:

'Come along, cook. Bless your heart my dear! you needn't be nervous;
there's no occasion.

'Mrs Russell, ma'am, aren't you well, ma'am?'

'No,' I said faintly, staggering to the woman's outstretched hands.
'Not down there--upstairs to the children.'

She turned as I bade her, and supported me up the stairs and into the
nursery, the cook following close at my shins, muttering fervent
prayers and ejaculations.

The sight of the peacefully sleeping little ones did far more to
restore me than all the essences and chafing and unlacing which the
two women busily administered.

I had got suddenly ill when coming upstairs was the explanation I
gave, which the cook, I plainly perceived, most thoroughly doubted, at
least without the cause she suspected being assigned, which, even in
the midst of my terror-stricken condition, I refrained from giving. I
did not speak to the nurse either of what had happened, but I felt
that she knew as well as if she had been by my side all the time. But
when George returned I told him.

Distressed and alarmed on my account though he was, yet he did not, as
before, refuse credence to my story. 'We must leave the house, George.
I should die here very soon,' I said.

'Yes Helen; of course we must leave if you have anything to distress
or terrify you in this manner, though it does seem absurd to be driven
out of one's house and home by a thing of this kind. Someone's
practical joke, or a trick prompted by malice against the owner of the
property in order to lessen its value. I have heard of such things
often.'

'George it is nothing of the kind,' I said earnestly; 'you know it is
not.'

'No, I don't,' said George shortly and grimly, as he opened his case
of revolvers, 'and I wish I did.'

The night passed away quietly, to our cars at least; but next morning
when George had concluded the usual morning prayers, instead of the
usual move of the servants, they remained clustered at the door,
Charles with an exceedingly elongated visage standing slightly in
advance of the group as spokesman.

'Please, sir and ma'am, we can't tell what to do.'

'Why, go and do your work,' retorted George, with a nervous tug at his
moustache and an uneasy glance at me.

Charles shook his head slowly. 'It can't be done, sir--can't be done,
ma am. Why, no living Christian, not to speak of humble, but
respectable servants,' said Charles with a flourish, quite unconscious
of the nice distinction he had made, 'could stand it any longer.'

'What is the matter, pray?' said my husband.

'Ghosts, sir--spirits, sir--unclean spirits,' said Charles, in an awe-
struck whisper which was re-echoed in the cook's 'Lor' 'a' mercy!' as
she dodged back from the doorway with the housemaid holding fast to
one of her ample sleeves, and the lady's maid holding fast to the
other.

The new nurse, quietly dandling the baby in her arms, was alone
unmoved.

'What stories have you been listening to now?' said their master, with
a slight laugh and a frown.

'No stories, sir; but what we've seen with our eyes and understanded
with our ears, and--and--comprehended with our hearts,' said Charles,
with an unsuccessful attempt at quoting Scripture. 'What was it as
walked the floors last night between one and two, sir? What was it as
talked and shrieked and run and raced? What was it as frightened the
mistress on the stairs last evening?' And the whole posse of them
turned to me, triumphantly awaiting my testimony.

I was feeling very ill, and looking so, I daresay, having struggled
downstairs in order to prevent the servants having any additional
confirmation of their surmises.

'That is no affair of yours,' said George gravely; 'your mistress is
in delicate health, and was feeling unwell all day.'

'Will you allow me to speak, please, sir?' said the nurse, and, as her
master nodded assent, she turned to the frightened group with a
pleasant smile.

'You have no cause to be afraid, cook, or Mr Charles, or any of you,'
said she, addressing the most important functionary first--'not in the
least. I am only a servant like the rest, and here a shorter time than
any one; but I think you are very foolish to unsettle yourselves in a
good situation and frighten yourselves. You needn't think they'll harm
you. Fear God and do your duty, and you needn't mind wandering, poor,
lonely souls--'

'Lor' 'a' mercy! 'ow you do talk, Mrs Hamley!' said the cook
indignantly.

'I've seen them more times than one--many and many a time, Mrs Cook;
and they never harmed a hair of my head,' said the nurse, 'nor they'll
never harm yours.'

'Well, then,' said the cook, packing into the hall, followed by her
satellites, 'not to be made Queen Victorier of, nor Hemperor of
Rooshia neither, would I stay to be frightened out of my seven senses,
and made into a lunatic creature like poor Mary was!'

'Please to make better omelettes for luncheon, cook, than you did
yesterday,' said George calmly, though he looked pale and angry
enough, 'and leave me to deal with the ghosts--I'll settle accounts
with them!'

The nurse turned quickly and looked earnestly at him: 'I would not say
that, sir--God forbid,' said she in an undertone, and the next moment
was singing softly and blithely as she carried the children away to
their morning bath.

George and I looked at each other in silence.

'I wish we had never come into this house, dear,' I said.

'I wish from my heart that we never had, Helen,' he responded; 'but we
must manage to stay the season out, at all events. It would be too
absurd to run away like frightened hares, not to speak of the expense
and trouble we have gone to.'

'We can get it taken off our hands without loss, perhaps,' I
suggested. 'See the house-agent, George.'

'I have seen him,' he replied.

'Oh! all politeness and amiability, of course. Deeply regretted that
we should have any occasion to find fault. No other tenants ever did.
Happy to do anything in the way of clearing up this little mystery,
etcetera. Of course he was laughing at me in his sleeve.'

Again, as after our previous alarms, days passed on and lengthened
into weeks in undisturbed quietude. George had a good many business
matters to arrange; the children looked as rosy and healthy as in
their country home, From their constant walking and playing in the
airy, pleasant parks. My own health was not very good; and Dr
Winchester was kindest and wisest of grave, gentlemanly doctors; so,
all things considered, we stayed in London until August--very
willingly, too--and only spoke of an excursion of a few weeks to the
Isle of Man as a probability in September. Only on my husband's
account, I wished for any change. Something seemed to affect his
health strangely, although he never complained of anything beyond the
usual lassitude and want of tune which a gay London season might be
expected to bequeath him. He was sleepless, frequently depressed,
nervous, and irritable; and still he vehemently declared he was quite
well, and seemed almost annoyed when I urged him to put his business
aside for the present and leave town.

He had been induced to enter into a large mining speculation, and hid,
besides, some heavy money matters to arrange, connected with his
sister's marriage settlements, which he expected would be required
about Christmas. So, all things considered, he had some cause for
looking as haggard as he did.

'It will be as well for him to leave London, Mrs Russell, as soon as
he can,' said Dr Winchester at the close of one of his pleasant 'run-
in' visits. 'His nerves are shaky. We men get nervous nearly as often
as the ladies, though we don't confess to the fact quite so openly. A
link unstrung, you know--nothing more. A few weeks in sea or mountain
air will quite brace him up again.'

And as I dressed for dinner that evening, I determined that if wifely
entreaties, arguments, and authority, should not fail for the first
time in our wedded life, George should have the sea or mountain air
without another week's delay; and, of course, I determined, likewise,
to back up entreaties, arguments, and authority with the prettiest
dress I could put on. I cannot tell why wives, and young wives too,
will neglect their personal appearance when 'only one's husband' is
present. It is unpolitic, unbecoming, and unloving; and men and
husbands don't like neglect--direct or implied, be sure of that,
ladies--young, middle-aged, or old.

'Your brown silk, ma'am?--it is rather cold this evening for that
cream-coloured grenadine,' said Harriet, rustling at my wardrobe.

'No, Harriet, I won't have that brown, I am tired of it,' I replied.
If I had said I was afraid of it, I should have kept closer to the
truth. It so happened that it was this dress which I had worn on the
three occasions when I had been terrified by the strange occurrences
in this house; and I had acquired a superstitious aversion for this
particular robe. So Harriet arrayed me in a particularly charming
demi-toilette of pale yellow silk grenadine and white lace; and I felt
myself to be a most amiable and affectionate little wife, as I went
downstairs to await George's return for dinner.

I never sat in my pretty dressing-room alone. Truth to tell, I
disliked the apartment secretly and intensely, and only for fear of
troubling and displeasing George I would have shut it up from the
first evening I spent in it.

He was late for dinner, and I was quite shocked to see how thin and
ill he looked by the gas-light; and, as soon as it was concluded, and
that by the aid of excellent coffee and a vast amount of petting, I
had coaxed him into his usual smiles and good-humour, I began my
petition--that he would leave town for his own sake.

He listened to me in silence, and then said, 'Very well, Helen, we
will go as soon as we can get the house disposed of; I suppose you
will not come back here again?'

'Oh! no, I think not,' I replied, 'we will spend the winter in
Hertfordshire, in our dear old house, George.'

'Very well,' he said wearily, 'though you must know, Helen, I am not
going on account of this thing. I would hardly quit my house, indeed,
because of ghostly or bodily sights or sounds.'

He had started up from the couch on which he was lying, flushed and
excited as he always was when the subject was mentioned, his eyes
gleaming as brightly as the flashing scabbard which hung on the wall
before him.

'Certainly not, dearest,' I said soothingly.

'I wish I could solve the mystery,' he pursued, more excitedly; 'I
would make somebody suffer for it! One's peace destroyed, and people
terrified, and servants driven away, as if one was living in the dark
ages, with some cursed necromancer next door!'

'Oh! well, it is some time ago now, and the servants have got over
their fright. Pray, don't distress yourself about it, dear George.'

'Ah well--you don't--never mind,' he muttered; 'but I mean to have
tangible evidence before ever I leave this house--I have sworn it!'

He was not easily roused, and I felt both surprise and alarm to see
him so now, and for so inadequate a cause. I had almost fancied he had
forgotten the matter, as we, by tacit consent, never alluded to it.

'Don't you allow yourself to be alarmed, Helen, that is all I care
about,' he went on, pacing the floor. 'I have been half mad with
anxiety on your account, for fear those idiotic servants should manage
to startle you to death some dark evening--cowards, every one of them;
but I mean to have someone to stay here and sit up'--He paused
suddenly, and listened, then stepped noiselessly to the door, and
opening it, listened again intently.

'George,' I whispered.

He took no heed of me; but rapidly unlocking a cabinet drawer, he drew
out a six-barrelled revolver, loaded and capped, and with his finger
on the trigger stole softly to the door and into the hall, whither I
followed him.

Everything was silent, and the hail and stairs lamps were burning
clear and high. I could hear the throbbing of my own heart as I stood
there watching. Suddenly we both heard heavy rapid footsteps,
seemingly overhead; and then confused noises, as of struggling, and
quarreling, and sobbing, mingled in a swelling clamour which sounded
now near, deafeningly near, and then far, far away; now overhead, now
beside us, now beneath, undistinguishable, indescribable, and
unearthly.

Then the rushing footsteps came nearer and nearer. And, clenching his
teeth, while his face grew rigid and white in desperate resolve,
George sprang up the staircase with a bound like a tiger.

It had all passed in less than half the time I have taken to relate
it, and while I yet stood breathless and with straining eyes, George
had nearly reached the last step when I saw him stagger backwards, the
revolver raised in his hand.

There was a struggle, a rushing, swooping sound, two shots fired in
rapid succession, a floating cloud of white smoke, through which I saw
the streaming yellow hair and steel-blue eyes flash downwards, and
then a shriek rang out--the dreadful cry of a man in mortal terror--a
crashing fall, beneath which the house trembled to its foundations,
and I saw my husband's body stretched before the conservatory door,
whither he had toppled backwards--whether dead or dying I knew not.

I remember dimly hearing my own voice in agonized screams, and the
terror-stricken servants hurrying from the kitchens below. I remember
the kind face of my new nurse as she bravely rushed down and
dispatched someone for the doctor, and made others help her to carry
the senseless figure, with blood slowly dripping from the parted lips
and staining the snowy linen shirt-front in great gouts and splashes,
up to the chamber, where they laid him on his bed, and I, a wretched
frenzied woman, knelt beside him with the sole, ceaseless prayer that
brain or lips could form--'God help me!'

I remember the physician's arrival, and the grave face and low clear
voice of Dr Winchester, as he made his enquiries; and then another
physician summoned, and the low frightened voices, and peering
frightened faces, and the lighted candles guttering away in currents
of air from opening and shutting doors, and the long hours of night,
and the cold grey dawning, and the heart-rending suspense, and
speechless, tearless, wordless agony, and the sun rose, gloriously
cloudless, smiling in radiance, as if there was not the shadow of
death over the weary world beneath his rays, and I heard the verdict--
'There was scarcely a hope.'

But God was merciful to me and to him, and my darling did not die.

With a fevered brain and a shattered limb he lay there for weeks--lay
there with the dark portals half open to receive him; lay there, when
I could no longer watch beside him, but lay prostrate and suffering in
another apartment, tended by kind relatives and friends; but at
length, when the mellow sunshine, and the crisp clear air of the soft
shadowy October days stole into the sick room, George was able to be
dressed and sit up for an hour or two amongst the pillows of his easy-
chair by the window.

And there he was, longing to be gone away from London.

'Helen, darling, weak or strong I must go,' he said in his trembling
uncertain voice, and with a restless longing in his faded eyes, 'I
shall never get better in this house.'

And so a few days afterwards, accompanied by the doctor and two
nurses, we went down in a pleasant swift railroad journey to our dear,
beautiful, peaceful home in Hertfordshire.

George never spoke of that night of horror but once, when Dr
Winchester told us the story connected with Clifford House.

Thirty years before, the man who was both proprietor and tenant of
Clifford House died, leaving his two daughters all he possessed.

He had been a bad man, led a bad wild life, and died in a fit brought
on by drunkenness; and these two daughters, grown to womanhood,
inherited with his ill-gotten gold his evil nature.

They were only half-sisters, and were believed to have been
illegitimate also. The elder, a tall, masculine, strongly built woman,
with masses of coarse fair hair, and bright, glittering blue eyes; and
the younger, a plump, dark-haired rather pretty girl, but as
treacherous, vain, and bold, as her elder sister was fierce,
passionate, and cruel. They lived in this house, with only their
servants, for several years after their father's death, a life of
quarrelling and bickering, jealousy and heart-burnings, on various
accounts. The elder strove to tyrannize over the younger, who repaid
it by deceit and crafty selfishness. At length a lover came, whom the
elder sister favoured; whom she loved as fiercely and rashly as such
wild untamed natures do; and by falsehood and deep-laid treachery the
younger sister won the man's fickle fancy from the great, harsh-
featured, haughty, passionate elder one.

The elder woman soon perceived it, and there were dreadful scenes
between the two sisters, when the younger taunted the elder, and the
elder cursed the younger; and at length one night--when there had
been a fiercer encounter of words than usual, and the dark-haired girl
maddened her sister by insults, and the sudden information that she
intended leaving the house in the morning, to stay with a relative
until her marriage, which was to take place in one week from that
time--the wronged woman, demon-possessed from that moment, waited in
her dressing-room until her sister entered, and then she sprang on
her, and, screaming and struggling, they both wrestled until they
reached the staircase, where the younger sister, escaping for an
instant, rushed wildly down, followed by her murderess, who
overpowered her in spite of her frantic struggles, and with her
strong, cruel, bony hands deliberately strangled her, until she lay a
disfigured palpitating corpse at her feet.

The officers of justice arrested the murderess a few hours afterwards,
but she died by poison self-administered on the second day of her
imprisonment.

Clifford House had been shut up and silent for many a year afterwards,
and when, at length, an enterprising landlord put it in habitable
order, and found tenants for it again, he only found them to lose
them.

Year after year passed away, its evil fame darkening with its massive
masonry, for none could be found to sanctify with the sacred name and
pleasures of home that dwelling blighted by an abiding curse.

'I never told you, Helen,' George said, 'although I told Dr
Winchester, that from the first evening I led a haunted life in that
dreadful house, and the more I struggled to disbelieve the evidence of
my senses, and to keep the knowledge from you, the more unbearable it
became, until I felt myself going mad. I knew I was haunted, but until
that last night I had never witnessed what I dreaded day and night to
see. And then, Helen, when I fired, and I saw the devilish murderess
face, with its demon eyes blazing on me, and the tall unearthly figure
hurrying down to meet me, dragging the other struggling, writhing
figure, With her long sinewy fingers seemingly pressed around the
convulsed face, then I knew it was all over with me. If there had been
a flaming furnace beside me I think I should have leaped into it to
escape that awful sight.'

That is years ago now. We have spent many a pleasant month in the
great metropolis since, but love our country home best of all. But we
never speak of that terrible time when we learned the story of
Clifford House.



THE END



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