a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Dancer In Red Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700531h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2017 Most recent update: June 2017 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
The Dancer In Red
The Ghost In Brocade
The Red Star
The Professor’s Mummy
The Ghost’s Touch
A Spirit In My Feet
A Colonial Banshee
So incredible is this tale that I expect few to believe it. Nevertheless, it is not only true, but happened within the last decade. The names of the places and the characters are changed, it is true; I write, too, under a nom-de-plume; but the incidents are set down just as they took place. I can vouch for their truth, for I was an eye-witness of many. The rest I heard from the chief actor in this drama—or perhaps I should say melodrama, if not tragedy—for it is as moving as the most sensational play. And true! Do not forget that—absolutely true. That is the horror of the thing.
As a busy London physician, I have a great deal of hard work to get through; and it is always a pleasure when I can take an occasional holiday for the recuperation of body and mind. Being a bachelor and well-to-do, I have less difficulty than I otherwise would have in making extended trips, so that frequently I go far afield in search of enjoyment and relaxation.
One night in June I was seated in my study, turning over the leaves of a Continental Bradshaw, and wondering what country I should explore on my coming holiday, when the door opened and Hugh Tancred entered hurriedly. Tancred is my cousin, and as we were at school and college together has been free of my house these many years. I was surprised to see him just then, as two months before he had gone to Spain, and I had no idea that he was back in town.
“My dear fellow,” I cried, jumping up with outstretched hands, “I am glad to—. Good God, man, what is the matter?”
And indeed it was no wonder I was startled, for his appearance was such as to dismay a person much less nervous than myself. The ruddy-faced hale young man I had known was as white as any ghost, and every whit as spare. His cheeks were wan, his eyes had in them a startled expression, and the clothes hung loosely on his once stalwart figure. Two months before, when he had started for Spain, he had been the very picture of health; now he might have been, if not a spectre, a patient convalescent from the nearest hospital. He was in a sad state of fright, too —I saw that at once; for his breath came and went in quick gasps, and he hastened to lock the door. Then he flung himself into my arms and gripped me in a mortal terror.
“Dick,” he gasped, glancing back at the door, “Dick, save me!”
“What on earth is the matter?”
“Hell has broken loose!” was his extraordinary reply. “Do you hear the guitar? Listen!”
He paused, but no sound broke the stillness. With a sob of relief he pitched forward into the nearest chair.
“They have missed me!” he said under his breath. “Thank God!”
I stared at the shaking figure in bewilderment. The sudden appearance of Tancred, his inexplicable agitation and his sickly appearance, amazed me beyond measure. When I was able to collect my scattered wits sufficiently for action, the professional habit came uppermost. I must calm him. Going to my medicine chest, I mixed a stiff dose of valerian and bromide, and handed it to him.
“Drink this, Hugh. Tut! tut! you are spilling it man.” And so he was; for his hand shook so with nervousness that I had to hold the glass to his lips. When he had got it down I fingered his pulse, and found it leaping and throbbing in the most extraordinary way. His whole body trembled, and his teeth were chattering. I saw well enough that the man had not been drinking, yet from his appearance and behaviour he might have been recovering from a prolonged debauch.
“You’ll take care of me, Dick,” he whispered, with a scared look at the door.
“Yes, yes; no one shall hurt you here. Lie down for a few moments,”
Hugh nodded, and leaning on my arm staggered to the sofa. Then, as I expected, came a nerve storm which shook him to the very core of his being. He cried and choked hysterically, trembled in every limb, gripped at the cushions, and swung his head from side to side with his teeth rattling like castanets. It was a terrible sight even to a hardened doctor like myself. Hugh had always been highly strung and prone to nervous attacks, yet I had never seen him quite so bad as he was on this night.
In time the drug did its work, and he became sufficiently calm to explain the cause of his agitation. He told me the story in whispers, clutching my hand the while; and the matter of his narrative was so extraordinary that I was half-inclined to put a good deal of it down hallucination. Nevertheless, what was credible sufficiently accounted for his terror.
“Six weeks ago, I was in Seville,” he said “all alone. I did not want any chattering companion to spoil my pleasure. I put up at a good hotel, and hired a guide to show me the sights of the city. I saw them all—the Cathedral, the tobacco factories, the Giralda and the famous Torre del Oro of Don Pedro. Then I was anxious to see the gipsy quarter, as I had heard so much of the beautiful women to be found there. My guide was willing to take me, but mentioned that I had better not be too attentive to any of the girls, as the Gitane are excessively jealous of strangers, and as likely as not I should get into trouble. I promised to be careful. But you know Dick how inflammable I am where a woman is concerned.”
“I know; so you got into trouble?”
“Of the worst.” He shuddered. “Trouble which has made me the wreck you see; trouble which is not yet over.” He put his lips to my ear. “They mean to murder me!”
“The gipsies? Nonsense!”
“It is true. The Mosaic law, Dick: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ ” After a pause, Hugh added slowly, “I killed a man.”
“You—killed—a—man?” I cried, horrified.
“It was this way, Dick,” continued my unfortunate cousin, rapidly. “In the gipsy quarter, I went to a kind of open-air theatre. A girl was dancing—a beautiful Gitana with large black eyes and a most wonderful figure. She was dressed in red—red as blood. I should have been warned by the colour.” He wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and panted. “But I was foolish. She smiled on me, and I—well I lost my head, I suppose. I never saw so beautiful a woman. She had some kind of mesmeric influence over me. When she smiled I took a flower out of my coat, and cast it at her feet. There was a man near me, handsome, but savage in his looks and bearing. He said something under his breath, and looked angrily at me. The guide laid his hand on my arm, and tried to get me away. I shook him off, as I wished to speak with Lola before going.”
“Was her name Lola?”
“Lola Fajardo. The audience called out her name as she danced. I called it out, too.”
“You must have been mad or drunk, Hugh.”
“The latter, I think. It was after dinner, and I am not used to fiery Spanish wines. Yet I can carry a good deal, as you know. I was merely excited, but the beauty and alluring glances of Lola threw me into a kind of intoxicated state. For the time I could see no one but her. She swam before me in her strange dance, like Salome before Herod.”
“Rubbish. I want prose, not poetry.”
“I am telling you facts!” cried Tancred, vehemently. “She danced with a dried human head in her hands. It was the dance of Salome—the daughter of Herodias. And she juggled with the head as she swung and swayed to the music. Ah!” he uttered a sharp cry—“the music! That’s what haunts me. There were words to it—horrible words. I got the guide to translate them to me. I have made a verse of them in English. Listen!”
Hugh rose from the sofa, and balancing the cushion in his hands, danced about the room to his own singing. The music he sang was weird enough; the words as he sang them nothing short of horrible!
“See in the dance pass, repass,
My hands, my feet, my garments red;
The daughter of Herodias,
And this my John the Baptist’s head;”
“Hugh! Hugh!” I stopped the terrible performance, and pulled him down on to the sofa. “Be calm, man,” I said; “you will make yourself thoroughly ill. Tell me how the trouble occurred.”
“Lola caused it,” he said. “She finished her dance, and stepped down to collect money. As she held out her tambourine to me she looked into my face with an alluring smile. I dropped a gold piece into it. Then—I was mad, I think—I kissed her arm.”
“In such a place! You fool!”
“She drew it away angrily, and the young man bounded forward. He had a knife in his hand—a navaja. Lola shrieked, and the crowd shouted. I don’t know how it happened, but I got possession of the navaja, and—and—and I killed him!”
“Great God! You killed him!”
“Yes; the knife pierced his heart, Dick. I remember as in a dream the shouting, swaying crowd, the yellow lights, and the man lying dead there, with the blood spurting in jets from his breast. Lola flung herself on his body, and my guide catching me by the arm hurried me away. Some one extinguished the lights, and so we escaped. The police came, and there was a terrible riot, but I was safe.”
“Did not your guide deliver you up?”
“I paid him a hundred pounds not to do so. He made me leave Seville that night, and took me to Gibraltar. But the gipsies found me out, and followed.”
“Did you see them?”
“No; I heard the music—the music of the dance. It haunted me all the time. I caught a P. and O. steamer for Malta, and on board I heard that infernal guitar. Then again in Malta I heard it. Thence I crossed to Sicily—to Italy—went to Germany, to Switzerland, to Paris, but go where I would, the sound of that music still rang in my ears. To-night, as I was getting my luggage at Victoria, there it was again. I could see no one in the crowd, but I heard the music. I—I came on here, and—the music; Hark!”
His voice leaped to an alto, and he fell back into my arms. As I am a living man, I heard the notes of a guitar in the street. The music was like that which Hugo sang—wild, strange and fascinating. I tried to get to the window, but Tancred clutched me. “No, no,” he implored. “Don’t open it, don’t—” His voice died away in his throat, and he rolled limply on the floor in a faint. There was no time to waste. I sprang to the window. As I opened it the guitar ceased; and when I looked down into the moonlit street, no one was about. Unstrung and puzzled I returned to the unconscious man.
* * * * * * *
For three weeks Hugh lay in my house, hovering between life and death. The excitement consequent on his crime, and the haunting of the guitarist brought on brain fever. I called in another medical man, and we did all in our power to save him. In the end we succeeded; yet it was almost a pity we took the trouble to drag him back from the grave. Others, more powerful and unscrupulous than we, were bent on his death. All we did was to retard the fatal moment. It was bound to come, as the guitar had warned us.
There was no hallucination about that music. I heard it distinctly. So did my confrère. But by placing Hugh in a back room we managed to keep it from his ears. The sound of it would have killed him. I tried to catch the player. Knowing that Hugh had murdered a man, I did not think it wise to seek the aid of the police. It is best to let sleeping dogs lie; and since Tancred had managed to escape from Spain, I did not care to risk the chance of his being extradited back again, to answer for his crime. I felt terribly worried by my position. It is no light matter, first to have to save a man’s life and thereafter to have to protect it.
I never saw the player. At times, both by night and day, I heard the strum, strum, strum of that infernal tune, until I knew it every note backwards. Once I even caught myself whistling it. Whenever it struck my ear I would rush out into the street and make a search for the musician. But it was always in vain. Once or twice I asked a policeman, and was informed that the guitar was played by a hunchback accompanied by a very beautiful woman. I had no doubt but that this latter was Lola, and that she was on the track of her lover’s murderer. Hugh had told me that the dead man had been her lover. That she was not here without design I felt certain, though it was impossible exactly to surmise what it might be. When later on I learned it I marvelled at its cruelty.
In due time Hugh recovered, and with his returning health and reason came the thought of his sin in Seville. In answer to his questions about the guitar music, I swore, God forgive me, that I had never heard it since the night he was taken ill. I was apprehensive that if he remained in England and in my house he would certainly hear it, and then I feared lest he might lose his reason permanently. Such a situation required very strong measures, so I took two passages to the Cape and arranged to accompany Hugh there on a long holiday. So that he should not by any chance hear the thing, I drugged him before we left the house, and it was in a quasi insensible condition that he was taken on board the steamer. And it was as well I had taken this precaution, for sure enough, as we drove round the corner of Harley Street there came the sound of it.
“Now we are safe!” said I, as the liner breasted the waves of the Channel. “Here at least your gipsy friends cannot follow us.”
“I hope not!” murmured Hugh, anxiously, “God grant indeed they may give it up and go back to Spain. Why does Lola persecute me so, I wonder! It was a pure accident I killed her lover. He attacked me first; he—”
“Old man,” I said seriously, “I want you not to talk about this at all. Try and forget; get the thing out of your mind altogether if you can.”
And I believe he did try his best, but I am pretty sure he did not succeed. However, knowing it vexed me, he did not refer to it at all, and when we arrived in South Africa, the novelty of the country and the surrounding life gave him other interests. His wasted form filled out well, and again his face became ruddy, and he began to show every sign of recovered health. There were times even when he was quite merry, and laughed like he used to do. At the end of six months he was completely restored; and although not infrequently a dark shadow rested on his face, he was for the most part cheerful.
“And now, Hugh,” said I to him one day, “it is about time I returned to my patients, whom I think I have neglected long enough. But you take my advice and remain here.”
“No!” he said obstinately. “I have quite got over all that folly. The death of that gipsy was due to pure accident; and even if Lola haunts me with that music, I can laugh at it and her now. I am sane again. I expect she has long since given up her pursuit of revenge, and returned to Spain.”
I thought so, too, and said as much. Still I suggested that Hugh should not remain in London on his return. His fever had left him even more excitable than he had been before, and I thought it best in every way that he should live in the country.
“You are right, Dick,” he asserted. “I shall go down to ‘The Cage.’ This was a lonely mansion placed amidst the Essex fens at no great distance from the sea, and which descended to Hugh from an ancestor. It was a dreary and desolate dwelling, and this I remarked to Hugh.
“It is not cheerful,” replied Hugh, indifferently.
“But it is quiet, and far from civilisation; so I don’t think Lola, even if she be still in England, which I doubt, will follow me there. I can ride and read, and use my camera. Peace is what I require, and at ‘The Cage’ I shall secure it.”
As Tancred was now well, and strong, and sane, I made no further opposition. We returned to England, and he remained a week in my house. Then he went down to Essex; and I am glad to say that in spite of my apprehensions not a note of that cursed guitar was heard. Evidently Hugh was right. Lola had given up her vengeance.
Within a month I was undeceived on this point. A hastily scrawled letter from Hugh informed me that he had heard the guitar music. “Not only that” went on the note, “but I have seen the red dancer—seen Lola—with a head in her hands. It is the head of the man I killed. Come down, for God’s sake. I am going mad.”
To this despairing appeal there was but one answer possible for me. I hastily packed a portmanteau, slipped a revolver into my pocket, and caught the first train. My cousin’s factotum, Jabez Crane, met me at the station with the dogcart, and forthwith we started upon the twelve-mile drive to “The Cage.”
I never could bring myself to like Jabez. He was the man who looked after the Essex property, and with his hag of a wife, lived at “The Cage.” They were a couple of ogres—misanthropes—savages. They resembled strongly those atrocious characters in that remarkable book “Wuthering Heights.” There was little of humanity about either of them; and they both hated Hugh on account of some fancied injury which his father had done them. Often and often I had advised Hugh to discharge them, but he continued to employ them, which was surprising, considering their malice and stupidity. I think it was sheer indolence on his part. Embedded like toads in a rock they had vegetated at “The Cage” for twenty years or more. Only when it was too late did I know what I had done in sending Tancred to keep company with these ourangoutangs.
“Is Mr. Tancred ill?” I asked Jabez, as the cart swung out of the station.
“Ees, he be!” grunted the creature.
“Have you seen any gipsies about “The Cage?”
“Naw, I ain’t.”
“A hunchback and a woman, for instance?”
“I’ve seed nowt.”
“Have you heard any music?”
“Ees, I have.”
“And you have seen no one? Nothing?”
“I’ve seed nowt!” repeated Jabez, who all through this conversation had replied in three words. Clearly there was nothing to be got out of the sulky brute. It may be he knew more than he chose to confess. I was aware that he bore no goodwill towards his master. On the other hand, he might be as ignorant as he professed to be. I could catch no glimpse of Tancred’s persecutor in London, so why should Jabez be more fortunate in Essex. All the same, on glancing at the animal face of the man, on recollecting the lonely position of “The Cage” and the invisible presence of the gipsies, I congratulated myself on the possession of my revolver. That at least was useful defence against the perils amid which I was about to enter.
The first glance assured me that Tancred had slipped back into his old state of half-insane fear. His white and haggard face, his shifting, glittering eyes, betrayed the torture of his mind, and as we sat over the fire after dinner he told me about the coming of the gipsy devils.
“They mean to drive me mad!” he whispered, huddling in abject fear to my side. “Lola no doubt deems death too light a punishment for my crime. It is her intention to wreck me body and soul. Oh, that music—that music!” And he began to sing:—
“ ‘See in the dance I pass, repass,
My hands, my feet, my—’ ”
“Drop it Hugh,” I interrupted, throwing my arm round his shoulder. The poor fellow was shaking like a leaf. “Tell me; have you seen her?”
“Yes; in the long gallery, under the painted window. At midnight last week the music drew me out of bed. I followed it to the gallery, and in the moonlight Lola danced, with that head in her hands. I saw the face; it was that of the man I killed.”
“How could you recognise the face in the moonlight?”
“She rolled the head towards me like a ball. It bounded and spun along the gallery, and twirled like a top at my feet. The moon showed me the features of the dead. I fainted, and when I came to myself it was gone. She was gone; the music was gone,”
“Hugh, you must get away from here in the morning.”
“No, I shall stay. I’ve had enough of this torture. Here I shall await my doom. These devils have cornered me.”
“Then show fight.”
“I can’t show fight,” he cried fretfully. “I am worn out—done for. The end is coming, and I shall await it here.”
From this determination I couldn’t move him. Terrified and ill as he was, he refused to leave “The Cage.” Had I possessed the power, I would have removed him by force; but Jabez and his wife would do nothing, and I could not leave him, to get assistance. My absence even for a day would only have precipitated the end, and that was to come soon enough.
Constantly that weird music buzzed and hummed about the house. It was here, and there, and everywhere; and in spite of all my searching the musician eluded me. “The Cage” was a rambling ruinous mansion, full of secret doors and passages and hiding holes. Jabez knew them all; and seeing that the gipsies contrived to remain invisible, I strongly suspected him of being in league with them. He denied the charge when I made it, and I had no means of proving my words. So here I was shut up in a half-furnished lonely barrack of a house, with a terrified creature who would not leave it, with invisible foes to combat on his behalf, and with the knowledge of a devilish conspiracy against the reason of an unfortunate man. The situation was uncanny enough to shake even my hardened nerves.
I did the best I could with Hugh. I dosed him with sedatives, kept him from over indulgence in drink, made him eat well, and forced him to take plenty of exercise. In his company I explored the neighbourhood, in the hope of coming upon Lola and her hunchback accomplice, but all in vain. The dreary fens, the sandy dunes, were bare of humanity. Once or twice on the beach of a little bay I found the marks of tiny feet, and again the indentation of a boat’s keel driven into the slushy sand. Evidently these demons came from the sea to pursue their nefarious work; but they never appeared in the day-time, and I could not discover where they lurked. It was no use asking Jabez. He gave no sign, either by word or deed, of his knowledge of these things. Neither did his wife; yet I had a firm conviction that the pair had been bought over to lend their aid to the accomplishment of Lola’s vengeance.
After a week of fruitless search and constant music-hauntings, I resolved to inveigle Hugh over those twelve miles to the railway station, and carry him back to London—by force, if needs be. To this end I announced one night at dinner that I intended to return to town. As I anticipated, Tancred objected, “For God’s sake do not leave me, Dick.”
“My dear Hugh, I cannot remain here for an indefinite period. My practice makes it imperative that I return to London, but I will come down again shortly.”
“To find me dead!”
Mrs. Crane was waiting at the table, and I fancied the old witch chuckled at these words. However, when I looked round sharply, her face was as devoid of expression as the wall. So thinking that I was mistaken, I resumed my conversation with her master.
“If you’re afraid of dying, Hugh, come with me to London.”
“No, no; I’ll face death here.”
“At least you will see me off to-morrow at the station?”
Tancred seemed to wince at this. “Then you are bent on going?”
“I must go. Man alive! Think of my patients. I have done what I could.”
“I know, I know. You have been very good, very kind; but you will return?”
“Oh, yes; in ten days or so I will come down for a spell.”
“In that case I don’t mind so much being left now.”
“You’ll come and see me off to-morrow, Hugh?”
“Certainly. That is a small thing to ask.”
In this way the matter was settled, much to my relief; for I had determined that when I got Hugh to the station I would do everything in my power to induce him to come to London. If necessary I would use force. Anything rather than that he should remain here at the peril of his reason and his life.
That night a great storm came up from the sea. The wind roared and moaned round the empty shell of the house, the rain whipped the streaming panes, and the moon was obscured by a rack of ragged clouds.
Hugh’s room was next to mine, and about midnight I entered, to find him sleeping peacefully. The man’s nerves were worn out. His slumber was that of sheer exhaustion. Nevertheless I was glad that nature had come to his relief at so critical a moment. I turned away to seek my bed again. In the dark passage I could hear the weird music of the guitar, and the sound, coming as it did in the lull of the storm, struck at my heart.
Determined to find and face the gipsies, I hastily threw on some clothes, grasped my revolver, and with a small lamp proceeded to explore the house. Overhead the storm again began to shriek and whistle; then, occasionally, came the pad, pad, pad of bare feet. Like Ferdinand in “the Tempest,” I followed the strain that mocked and sang in the darkness ahead.
The invisible musician knew the house better than I, for he or she eluded me at every turn. At times the strain would die away in the distance, again it would sound so close to my ear as to make me jump, and then I would hear a hard chuckle. Round and round the house I followed it—downstairs to the hall, through the empty drawing-room, up the vacant attics, but never did I get any closer to it. It twanged and hummed that devilish melody till my nerves ached with reiteration of it. I stole along cautiously in its wake; I ran into dark corners, hoping to seize the player, but in vain. It might have been a thing of air that played. I heard, but I could not see.
Suddenly, with the twang as of a snapped string, it ceased, and the silence closed in. Even the wind had ceased to roar, and was now moaning round the gables as a thing in pain. With sudden resolution I flew down to the quarters of Jabez and hammered at the door. Both he and his wife came to it in their nightdresses, just as they had sprung out of bed. My suspicions of the pair vanished.
“Did you hear the music?”
“Ay—I heard ‘un.”
“Come with me then, to look for these gipsies.”
“I know nowt o’ gipsies. They be devils I tell ‘ee.”
“All the same you must help me to find them.”
Jabez grumbled, but my tone was peremptory, so he shuffled on his trousers and came with me. For a time there was silence; then the thrumming of the guitar recommenced overhead.
“It’s in the gall’ry!”whispered Jabez, and grasped more tightly the stick he carried.
Without answering, I ran up the stairs, with the man at my heels. We burst into the long gallery, and there we saw a sight of dread. The moon clear of clouds, poured in floods of silver light through the windows, making the gallery like day. At the far end, where the radiance was strongest, a tall figure leaped and spun to music, coming from I know not where. I crept near enough to see that the dancer was a beautiful girl in red garments. She was grasping a human head by the hair, and juggled with it as with a ball.
The sight of that ghastly dance made my heart sick. To add to the horror of it the woman began to sing, in a low sweet voice. I could bear it no longer, and with a shout I ran forward, raising my revolver as I ran. In a moment, as it seemed, the woman vanished, and my bullet smashed the glass of the window beneath which she had spun and leaped.
“Maister, maister,” roared Jabez, grasping my arm, “she be pixy for sure.”
“Let go my arm, you fool!”
But he held on, his face grey with terror, urging me to retreat. I shook him off. I ran forward, and at the end of the gallery I found an open door. Through this I sprang, hurled myself down some stone steps, and emerged into the garden. Two figures leaped and ran, making for the beach. I tried to follow; but clad as I was, the stones and brambles cut my feet and I stumbled and fell at the hedge. When I got up again the two figures had dipped behind the sandhill, and were beyond reach. But I had no doubt that I had seen Lola and her hunchback accomplice at their devilish work.
The thought recalled Hugh, and I ran back. Jabez was waiting for me at the door with the lamp, and his face wore an expression of abject fear. I was afraid of the effect this midnight alarm would have on Hugh, and snatching the lamp from the man’s shaking hand I hurried into the house and up the stairs.
“Hugh, Hugh, are you there?”
The figure on the bed gave no answer, made no movement. I thought that he had fainted perhaps, and I held the lamp to his face. There was no face; no head. The man had been decapitated.
* * * * * * *
Two years after the death of Tancred I was in Spain for the second time. My first visit had been made with the object of discovering Lola Fajado, and bringing her to book for the murder of my cousin. But although I had taken an English detective with me, and although every assistance had been afforded me by the Spanish Government, she could not be found. I fancy she must have gone to the gipsies of Hungary or Russia, or lost herself somewhere beyond the Balkans. At all events my search was in vain, and for the time being she escaped the penalty of her crime.
The Cranes likewise got off free. I was certain that Jabez had been bribed by Lola to show her the secret passages and exits of “The Cage” but he swore, and his wife swore, that they had neither of them ever set eyes upon the gipsies. I must say that, although I believed it was the misanthropical hatred Jabez had for Hugh that led him to play into Lola’s hands in order to frighten him, as well as the factotum’s desire to get his master away from the house, yet I believe he was horrified as was I myself at the terrible tragedy. But whatever the two of them had had to do with the matter they had been wise enough to hold their tongues, and were discharged, as the saying is, without a stain upon their characters. I heard afterwards that they had gone to America; but whether this was true or not, I could not be certain. However, as by the death of Hugh I became the owner of “The Cage” I did not permit them to return there, being satisfied in my own mind that they were indirectly concerned in the crime. They vanished into the darkness best suited to their brutish natures, and I never saw them again.
As was afterwards discovered by detectives, Lola and her hunchback companion had made a fishing village some miles away their headquarters. Thence they came round in a boat at night to the little bay, on the sands of which I had found their footmarks. How they discovered “The Cage” or how they carried on their horrible conspiracy, I did not know then. But I learned the truth during my second visit to Spain.
It was a vague idea that Lola might return to Seville that drew me there. I knew that Spanish justice was lax, and that the Gitane were more or less independent of the law, so it was not unlikely that when the affair was forgotten the woman might venture back among her kinsfolk. I wished to see her, both to bring home the crime, and to recover Tancred’s head, which she had taken with her on that fatal night. For all I knew, she might be using it for her dance. She had certainly juggled with it in the long gallery. But I did not know that until it was too late.
On arriving in Seville I sent for the guide who had been with Hugh on the evening Lola’s lover was killed. He came immediately, and was very frightened when I told him the object of my second visit. As luck would have it, Lola had stolen back, and was in the gipsy quarter at that time; but her accomplice had died in Hungary. The woman, with characteristic insolence, had changed neither her name nor her dance; and as all memory of the affair had died out, no attempt was made to arrest her. Moreover, I strongly suspected that the police had been bribed; but, of course, on this point I could not be certain. At all events she was free, and in Seville; and nightly danced her John the Baptist ballet, with whose head I trembled to think.
Manuel the guide implored me not to see Lola, as she was powerful in the gipsy quarter and there would be trouble. But I compromised the matter by agreeing to go in the character of a tourist, and to make no disturbance. The fact is I wished to see the woman for myself, and be quite certain as to her identity. I determined, too, that when I next went it would be with a posse of police to arrest her. However, with the second visit, Manuel, as I assured him, would have nothing to do.
Thus persuaded, and somewhat heavily bribed, Manuel one night escorted me to the gipsy quarter, and to a small open-air theatre. The seats were ranged in the form of a semi-circle, facing a low platform which was lit with flaring oil lamps. I placed myself directly in front of this, as close as I could get There was no fear of recognition. Lola had never seen me really.
The theatre was filled with gipsies—a most picturesque-looking lot they were—they were drinking, laughing, singing, and smoking the eternal cigarette. What with the colours of their ragged dresses, the yellow lustre of the lamps, and the purple arch of the starry sky roofing in the theatre, the scene was fascinating in the extreme. But I was too intent upon seeing my cousin’s murderess to take much interest in my surroundings, novel as they were.
There was first of all some singing of love ballads, which was followed by dancing with castanets. A gipsy violinist played like an angel and looked like a devil, and there was a famous Tziganda orcshetra from Buda-Pesth. About nine o’clock I heard the thrum of the guitar, and I had considerable difficulty in concealing my agitation. It played the weird music I knew so well—the music of that accursed dance.
To the sound of tumultuous applause Lola Fajardo glided on to the stage. She was a tall and beautiful woman, with large black eyes and a brown complexion. Her figure was superb, and she was lithe as a serpent in her movements. From head to foot she was swathed in a gauzy red garment, with a shawl of crimson silk floating from her shoulders. Golden sequins shone round her neck, her waist, and jingled in her streaming black hair, and at every movement she sparkled like a stream at noon-day. I never saw a more lovely and dangerous woman, and I no longer wondered that poor hot-blooded Hugh had lost his heart on that night.
Standing well to the front of the stage, she began to sway and swing to the music without moving her feet. This part of the dance was not unlike the Indian nautch. First she moved her head, then her body; her arms began to wave, and after a time her feet took part in these graceful movements. Quicker and quicker rang the music as the violins added their sweetness to the more mellow notes of the guitars, and with swift bounds and extraordinary twistings of her agile body Lola threw herself about the stage. Suddenly she came spinning down to the footlights in a circle; and with the glare full on her excited face and red garments, she snatched a head from under her shawl. As she held it up by the fair hair, and the light struck on its appaling whiteness, I sprang to my feet with a cry. It was the head of Hugh Tancred.
Lola, taking my cry as a tribute to her dramatic action, looking down on me with a gratified smile. But the smile died away in a look of horror; she dropped the head with a shriek, and rolled forward across the oil lamps. Before the audience could grasp the situation, a tongue of flame shot up the red dress, and in another moment she was reeling round the little stage, a pillar of live flame. Shriek after shriek pealed from her throat as the fire bit into her beautiful body. She fell prone and blazing like a funeral pyre: the audience surged forward on to the stage, and Manuel, grasping my arm, hurried me out of the theatre. He was terrified out of his wits at the danger we had escaped, so was I; but my terror was due to being an eye-witness of the horrible doom which had befallen that cruel woman.
The next morning a gipsy carrying a bag came to my hotel. On being shown into my room, he shook Hugh’s head out of the bag, and most earnestly advised me to leave Seville.
“Your life is not safe here, Senor,” he said hurriedly. “Lola bade me bring you this. She has paid for her wickedness—she is dead. If our people knew you were the cause of her accident they would surely kill you.”
“Yes, she died at six o’clock this morning. She bade me urge you to fly. She was unwilling to have another man’s death upon her soul.”
“How did she recognise me?”
“She saw you with the man she killed, both in London and in the English country.”
“Why did she torture my cousin so?”
“To punish him for having slain her lover. She and Pepé the hunchback followed him to Gibraltar, to Malta, to Italy, to England. When you went away with the Senor whom they killed they waited in London and watched your house.”
“I know; I know. But how did they gain admission to it?”
“By paying much money to those who looked after it, Senor.”
So I was right after all. Jabez and his wife had been concerned in the matter, and no doubt had paid their own passages to America with the money they had received from Lola.
“The people showed Lola and Pepé all the secret places of the house; and so, Senor, they were able to watch you and yet remain hidden themselves. Lola grew tired of torturing the Senor. She was told by the woman that you would take him to London; so she made Pepé play you over the house while she cut off the Senor’s head.”
“Did she kill him in his sleep?”
The gipsy looked at me with an ambiguous smile.
“Nay, Senor; how should I know? Lola was cruel; it may be that she woke him to taunt him before she cut his throat.”
“Lola Fajardo was a terrible woman, Senor, and she is beyond your English law. Leave Seville, Senor, or you also will die. I go, Senor; good-bye.”
I took his advice. There was nothing more to detain me in Seville. There was one question, though that I wished now I had asked; I had quite forgotten it: Why did Lola dance in the long gallery on that night? It may have been nothing but sheer devilry.
I wished now most fervently that I had shot her there and then. But that was not to be. She was preserved for a more terrible death even than that. She died in agony in the prime of her beauty, and all I can say is that she richly deserved her fiery doom. I took back Hugh’s head to England, and placed it in his coffin, poor soul. And then I did my best to forget the Red Dancer and her devilries. But, as this story is sufficient to show, I have not yet succeeded.
On hoardings, in fields, on the covers of magazines, on the back sheets of newspapers, an advertisement headed “S.S.S.” appears with the regularity of the sun. Additional information is accorded to the curious by the expansion of these mystic signs into the words, “Sarah’s Salutary Sauce”—a condiment invented by Sarah Brag to tickle the palates of the epicures.
Her husband, a compositor in the office of a provincial journal, made a fortune out of it for both of them. He commenced quite in a small way by advertising it in the columns he set up, while Sarah, renting suitable premises in the town, personally manufactured her invention. The advertisements were read, the sauce was approved of, and as circles on the water its fame widened round the world. In twenty years Mr. and Mrs. Brag were almost millionaires, and having turned their concern into a limited liability company, retired to enjoy an old age of well-earned ease and comfort at Alliston Hall. “S.S.S.” did its work well, and for once fortune bestowed her favours on the deserving.
They were wholly unlike the millionaires of commerce or of fiction, these two. For they were neither anxious to get into society nor desirous of displaying their wealth with ostentation. Mr. Brag, indeed, had rubbed off some of his natural roughness whilst shouldering his way through the world, but Sarah his wife was as much a cook as she had been when she presided over the kitchen of Alliston Hall. Now she sat in the drawing-room, and could without doubt have set up as a fine lady had she so desired. But her heart was ever in the back premises, and her visits there were by no means infrequent. She remained always the uneducated, rough, warm-hearted woman, devoted to her home and to her husband. I knew her value better than anyone, save perhaps Helen; and both of us were extremely fond of her, and indeed of Mr. Brag also. They were a typical Mr. and Mrs. Boffin.
But who am I, you will ask—and who is Helen, too? Well, I who tell you this story am Geoffrey Beauchamp, an idle Oxonian and private secretary to Mr. Brag.
When I left Balliol, my father, failing in business, took his loss of money and reputation so seriously that he died of a broken heart, and joined my mother in the next world, whither she had long preceded him. Finding myself an orphan, penniless, and without a profession, I cast about for employment. I answered an advertisement for a secretary. In this way it was that I became acquainted with Mr. Brag. For three years past I have looked after his affairs—that is to say, I have written his letters, advised him as best I could, and have stood between his too kindly soul and the hungry horde of money-hunters. And he on his part has treated me more like a son than a paid servant, which I have not failed to appreciate. So comfortable a position and so kindly a friend come not to every man.
Then there is Helen. She is looked upon as the daughter of the house, as indeed she is, seeing that she was born at the Hall.
When Sir Ralph Alliston died after a spendthrift career, he left his only child without a penny. The Hall was sold, and the proceeds went to pay off the mortgages and the rest of the debts. So Helen, poor helpless girl, had no choice but to go out as a governess. But Sarah Brag soon changed all that. She remembered Helen as a child, and when the Hall was purchased by the money made out of “S.S.S.” she sought out the orphan and insisted upon her returning.
“As my own child.” explained the good soul; “seen’ that ‘J’ and me ain’t bin bless’d with babies. Not that I’m a lady, my dear, nor could ever have a daughter like you. But we’ll put it like that to satisfy the ‘conveniences’ of society.”
What could Helen do but accept an offer so kindly and so liberally made. So she came back to her ancestral home, and found existence made as pleasant for her as Mr. and Mrs. Brag could make it. Then it came about that as I was young and Helen altogether charming we fell in love with each other, much to the delight, be it said, of our patrons. Eventually it was arranged that I should be Helen’s husband, and that she should expect to inherit the substantial profits from “S.S.S.”
“And if I might advise Mr. Beauchamp,” said Mrs. Brag, beaming, “you should take the name and arms of Alliston, by right of ‘Elen here; so that when we are dead and gone the old family will still be in the old place where they have been for Lord knows what number of years.
“Think,” cried Mrs. Brag, jubilantly, “of the ancestors you’ll have. Why there’s a church chock full of ‘em—all knights and bar’nites. Fine, ain’t it?”
I agreed that it was “fine,” and with Helen’s consent, indeed at her express wish, I promised the worthy couple to take the name of Alliston when I should lead the last scion of the family to the altar. And this was the position of affairs when the ghost came; and I do not think there were four happier people in the whole world up to that time. Lady Marian spoilt it all.
Lady Marian was the ghost’s name. She had been a Georgian beauty a couple of hundred years ago—had rustled in silken brocade in the midst of Jacobite conspiracies. Her husband had preferred King George to King James, and desirous of keeping his head and property had given her to understand as much. But it would seem that excitement was the breath of Lady Marian’s nostrils and she made the Hall a centre of intrigue, which included the midnight visits of Jesuit priests, of French emissaries from his Majesty over the water, and of sulky Squires who cursed the Hanoverian in their cups.
Sir Walter Alliston, being a jealous husband as well as a loyal subject, disapproved of his wife’s pranks, and accused her of using politics for the masking of intrigues against his honour and her own. The lady, being of high spirit, denied the accusation, and swore never again to speak to her husband. He, more furious than ever, kept a close watch upon her, and one evening found a masked gallant leaving her apartments. Without a moment’s hesitation he ran the intruder through with his rapier. When he tore off the vizor he found to his horror that the victim was Lady Marian herself, disguised for some excursion. Dying, she cursed him and his, and declared that she would haunt him and his descendants evermore.
“And she’s kept her word!” said Mrs. Brag, who told me the story, “for when Sir Walter died she walked down the picture gallery the night before. She always comes to tell when one of the family is to die. I ‘eard as she was seen just before ‘Elen’s father went off, and when Lady Alliston died in giving birth to that dear girl I saw the ghost myself.”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Brag! The are no such things as ghosts,” I said.
“Oh, ain’t there, but there is. I tell you, as I’m a livin’ breathin’ woman I saw the Lady Marian gliding along the picture gallery in brocade and ‘igh-’eeled shoes, just as she wore when alive.”
“Have you seen the ghost since you bought the Hall, Mrs. Brag?”
“God forbid, my dear; for if Lady Marian comes again it will only be to take away ‘Elen, seein’ as she’s the last of them.”
As Mrs. Brag, with the superstition of an uneducated person, firmly believed in the warning apparition. I was not surprised on returning from a month’s holiday in Switzerland shortly before Christmas, to find her in a state of great alarm at the reappearance of her bugbear. Two weeks before my return Lady Marian, brocade, high-heeled shoes, cane and all, had twice been seen in the picture gallery—on each occasion at the midnight hour.
Mrs. Brag was certain that it meant Helen’s death, and unable utterly to keep feeling of any kind to herself, had succeeded in infecting the whole house with her fears. Not a servant would enter the Long Gallery, as it was called, after dark; and even Mr. Brag, sceptic as he was, became uneasy when he came to think of what it might mean.
The girl herself did not look so well as when I had left for my holiday. She was pale and thin, and singularly silent. Her eyes, too, seemed unnaturally bright. After Mrs. Brag had delivered herself of the story, and had stated her intention of calling in the vicar to exorcise the ghost, I was left alone in the drawing-room with Helen.
“My darling, you look ill,” I said, clasping her in my arms; “surely you do not believe in all this nonsense.”
She shivered. “I don’t know,” she said, nervously. “Both the housekeeper and the butler have seen the ghost. Mrs. Brag is always talking about it, and really I am beginning to think there must be some truth in it”
“Nonsense! nonsense! All this talk and fuss has made you nervous and ill; hasn’t it, dear?”
“Yes, Geoffrey; I was quite well until the ghost came.”
I saw very plainly how matters stood. Helen was sensitive and highly strung, and Mrs. Brag’s foolish talk had wrought her up to such a pitch that the tortured nerves reacted on her delicate body. She was never a strong girl, but she was always very healthy. Worry was evidently what had made her ill. I no longer wondered that the Allistons had died when Lady Marian was rumoured to have appeared. They were a nervous race. I realised therefore that if I did not do something to excorcise this spirit, if such it were, Helen would become seriously ill, and might even die.
“It is a good thing I returned,” I said to Mr. Brag, when Helen retired to dress for dinner. “That girl will die if this sort of thing goes on.”
“I dessay, I dessay, Geoffrey; but how do you propose to stop it?”
“Find out the trick, to be sure.”
“But how do you know it’s a trick, Geoffrey?”
“I’m sure of it. Tell me, have you seen the ghost?”
“Lor’ no. I ain’t a coward, Geoffrey, but wild ‘orses wouldn’t drag me to that gallery at night. I ain’t seen it, but Parsons and Mrs. Jackson ‘ave.”
“Or think they have. What they have seen is some one dressed up as Lady Marian, mark me. Or else they suffer from hallucination. Parsons is sober, I know.”
“Oh, yes; and even if he ain’t, Mrs. Jackson is. She never touches a drop to my knowledge. No, ‘tain’t drink, whatever it is.”
“And they both declare that they have seen the ghost?”
“Lor’, yes. They take their oaths they have.”
“Then it must be a trick. And if I catch the person who is playing it I’ll—well, I’ll make the false ghost a real one. Will you let me take charge of this matter, Mr. Brag?”
“Of course, Geoffrey. I was just waitin’ for you to come back. Find out what’s wrong, and knock all this stuff out of my old woman’s head. She’s mostly in hysterics o’ nights.”
“And no wonder when Helen looks so ill. Believe me, ghosts went out when gas came in. I think I shall manage to prove to you that this spectral Lady Marian is very substantial flesh and blood.”
“But she may not be,” urged Mr. Brag, somewhat dubiously. “Lots of these ‘igh families ‘ave their ghosts to see ‘em into the next world, I believe. Besides, who could be playin’ this wild trick?”
“Ah, that’s just what we have to find out.”
But it was not so easy to find out. I questioned Mrs. Jackson and Parsons in the most exhaustive manner. They corroborated each other’s story with such verisimilitude and wealth of detail as to leave no doubt in my mind of their good faith. Evidently they had seen a brocaded lady in the picture gallery; but, of course, it could be no such thing as a visitant from the other world. That was where they went wrong. I was certain it was someone playing a trick.
“Oh, you may laugh, sir,” said Mrs. Jackson. She was such a stiff old dame. “But I do assure you that I saw the ghost with my own eyes. I was coming through the long gallery from Miss Alliston’s room and in the moonlight it came on, clack, clack, clack, in high-heeled shoes. I could hear distinctly the rustle of the dress, and as it swept past me I smelt a perfume like that of dried roseleaves. It was Lady Marian sure enough, as I saw from the portrait in the gallery. I fainted dead away, Mr. Beauchamp, sir; and when I came to myself it was gone.”
I confess to feeling a trifle uncomfortable at all this. Then Parsons took up the story.
“I didn’t faint, sir, not bein’ a woman,” said he, “but my flesh was mighty creepy as it went past. I stared at it like a stuck pig, though it was plain enough in the moonlight. It vanished all of a sudden by the painted winder at the end of the gallery.”
“What were you doing in the Long Gallery at that hour, Parsons?”
“Comin’ from master, sir. He’d a bad cold, and I took him up some ‘ot rum and water. I wouldn’t go to that there gallery again, sir, for all the crown jewels. It was a ghost, sure enough.”
“Oh, was it!” said I, showing plainly by my tone that I did not think it was. “Call the servants Parsons.”
In a few minutes all the domestics in the house were assembled, and a very white-faced crowd they were. Many of them would have been frightened away from the Hall had it not been that the place was such a good one. I suppose, too, it was a case in which they felt there was comfort in numbers. I harangued them pretty freely for what I termed their nonsensical fears.
“Men and women come to years of sense,” I went on, “well—I’m surprised. How can you believe such rubbish. Some one of you is playing a trick; and who it is I shall find out, so beware all of you.”
Of course they protested vehemently. But that was to be expected. “However,” I said, “you can take this warning from me. I shall watch in the gallery myself with a straight-shooting revolver, and if that ghost appears it shall have a taste of it. I am not going to have your master and mistress and Miss Alliston frightened by this silly trick.”
Again they all protested. But I sent the lot of them away with more blood in their cheeks. Then I turned upstairs to dress for dinner. As I did so I noticed a pretty, timid-looking young woman whose face I did not recognise. She glanced at me uneasily, and was evidently disturbed.”
“Who are you?” I asked, abruptly, pausing before her.
“Jane Roirdan, sir,” she replied with a curtsey. “ I am new here.”
“What are you?”
“Under-housemaid, sir. Oh, please, sir, do you really think there is a ghost?”
“No, you silly girl. The dead never return to this world.”
“Please, sir, what about the Witch of Endor and Samuel, sir?”
“Oh, you are a theologian, I see. Well we won’t discuss that apparition. You must just look upon that as a miracle and not be afraid.”
She shuddered, and looked over her shoulder apprehensively.
“I am terribly afraid, sir, it’s no use my denying it. I shall ask mistress to let me go.”
“You will ask nothing of the kind,” said I in my most peremptory manner. “Your going would only be the signal for general flight. You’ll stay here like a sensible girl, until all this mystery is cleared up.”
“Oh, sir, but will it be cleared up?”
“Of course it will, and by a very substantial leaden bullet, too. Now get on with your work and don’t be a fool.”
I saw that there was only one way to deal with the thing, so that I spoke more brusquely to the girl than I would have otherwise done. Besides, she irritated me; she seemed so absolutely terrified with fear. She was calculated to infect the rest of them, though they seemed bad enough as it was. I went off to dress in no very good humour.
Mr. Brag’s want of common sense over this affair amazed me. Usually he was a cool headed and logical man as was conclusively proved by the position to which he had attained. Yet apparently he was as nervous and distaught now, as any of the women. The ghost seemed to have been too much for him; to have knocked the grit out of him, so to speak. He was no more fit than a baby to deal with the situation. I put down his short-coming at this juncture in no small degree to his lack of education.
Then there was the constant chatter of his wife, of whom this element of the supernatural had taken firm hold. She never ceased talking about it, and I suppose the strongest mind is in the end influenced by reiteration. It seemed as if Mr. Brag’s were becoming unhinged.
I was glad that I returned so opportunely. At least if I could throw no light on the subject I could go to work with a cool head and an unprejudiced mind to clear it up.
Mrs. Brag continued to talk of little else but the ghost, whose appearance she seemed to think was quite in keeping with the season. It was astounding the numbers of legends she seemed to have accumulated. Headless phantoms, churchyard apparitions, ghosts in armour, and clanking chains and “presences,” who she said could not be seen but only felt in the most horrific way—upon all these she descanted in the most appalling manner. Helen shuddered, Mr. Brag shook his head portentously, and I must confess that even I felt uncomfortable. The old lady seemed so to environ us with the atmosphere of the supernatural that when a coal dropped from the fire we all jumped, and she shrieked. It was really a most terrible state of things especially for Christmas.
I asked her about Jane Riordan. My question fortunately turned the subject, for it seemed that Mrs. Brag had a good deal to say about this young woman.
“Ah,” she said, “hers is a sad history, my dear. Her father and mother were fellow-servants of mine when I was cook here. The name wasn’t Riordan, for that’s Jane’s married name. Craik’s what we called ‘em—’Enry and Liza Craik, butler and housekeeper.”
Helen looked up with interest. “Henry Craik?” she said, “why that was the man who stole my mother’s jewels!”
“The same, my dear. Oh, he was a bad one he was; but yet you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in ‘is mouth to look at ‘im. Liza was always sayin’ as ‘e ‘d die in goal and disgrace ‘er, and ‘e did.”
“Were the jewels recovered Mrs. Brag?”
“No, Geoffrey, they weren’t. My Lady missed ‘em one morning after a ball ‘ere, when the ‘ouse was full of guests. The whole box was stolen—five or six thousand pounds’ worth, no less; and she only saved what she wore at the ball. All kinds of people were suspected of ‘aving gone to ‘er room and taken ‘em, but no one thought as Craik had done it.”
“I heard something of the story myself,” observed Mr. Brag. “He was caught selling a bracelet, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, J., he was. He got leave to visit a dying friend in London, the old fox; and the friend was a pawnbroker, and ‘e told the police, seein’ as ‘e recognised the bracelet from the ‘and bills put about. Craik was arrested and sent to goal for years. He died there, and they never got anything out of ‘im. Where he hid the jewels no one knows, and no one ever will, my dears; for twenty years ‘ave gone by since they were stolen.”
“And how does Jane Riordan come to be here?” I asked.
“Her mother died the other day and sent her to me, my dear. ‘Liza and I were born in the village and lived here for years as ‘ousekeeper and cook. I can’t say as I liked ‘er over much, she was sly and deceitful; but I don’t think she had anything to do with Craik stealing the jewels. He was bad enough to do that by himself. When he died in goal Liza wrote to me, and I sent her money to bring up Jane. Then Jane married a bad husband, who left ‘er and when Liza died she came ‘ere and asked me to ‘elp ‘er for ‘er mother’s sake. So I made ‘er under-‘ousemaid. I think she’s a fool, Geoffrey, but honest enough.”
“She appeared to be nervous, however.”
“And no wonder with this ‘orrid ghost,” cried Mrs. Brag, looking round. “I tell you what, J., if you don’t get the parson to exorcise that thing, I’ll leave the ‘ouse, that I will.
“Steady, old lady, we must see what Geoffrey can do first. He’s watching in the Long Gallery tonight.”
Oh, Geoffrey, the ghost ‘ll ‘ave you for sure.”
“The ghost will have a dose of lead, Mrs. Brag. If you hear a shot, don’t be alarmed.”
“But you can’t shoot ghosts, Geoffrey, they’re shadows, my dear. You can see through ‘em.”
“I daresay. I never saw one myself. But this ghost is pretty substantial I’ll be bound. But tell me, Mrs. Brag; was anything ever found out about the jewels?”
“No!” said Helen, before the old lady could answer. “I remember my father searched everywhere for them and offered a big reward. He saw Craik, too: but he refused to say what he had done with them, and Mrs. Craik protested she knew nothing about it. They have been lost for years now.”
“H’m I wonder if Jane Riordan knows anything about them.”
“That she don’t,” said Mrs. Brag, with energy. “Liza was an honest woman I know; and the gal seems straight enough. If they’d ‘ad the jewels they wouldn’t ‘ave lived in poverty so.”
“Still, Craik might have told his wife where he concealed them.”
“No Geoffrey, dear. She’d ‘ave come to my Lady or Sir Ralph about them, and got paid for bringing ‘em back. If she knew anything she’d ‘ave told for ‘er own sake: for she was as poor as poor. Jane told me the most ‘arrowing tales of ‘ardship.”
“I’ll question Jane myself,” said I, after some thought. “If these jewels could be recovered they would suit Helen very well.”
Helen laughed and Mrs. Brag beamed.
“If its jewels she wants I will give ‘er ‘eaps. Won’t I, J.?”
“She’s only to ask and to ‘ave,” said Mr. Brag; “but I wish I saw you more rosy and ‘ealthy, my dear.”
“I’m afraid this ghost is upsetting my nerves terribly,” said Helen; “do what I will I can’t help thinking about it”
“Oh, J., can’t we ‘ave some ‘oly water and get it away?” implored Mrs. Brag.
“‘Oly water, no. I won’t have no popery here, Sarah. S.S.S. shall never go to fatten the priests if I can ‘elp it. I’m surprised at you, I am.”
“She is over-wrought, Mr. Brag,” said Helen, rising. “Indeed, I think we all are, with this horrid Lady Marian about. Come along to bed, Mrs. Brag. I’ll come up with you.”
“You’ll have to stay with me all night, my dear,” whimpered the old lady, “for I don’t know as Geoffrey firin’ off pistols won’t be as bad as the ghost. Are you goin’ to stay up too, J.?”
“There is no necessity,” I interposed. “I can watch quite well alone. When Mr. Brag hears a shot he can come to me if he likes.
“Oh, I’ll come fast enough,” said the old man, sturdily; ‘tain’t flesh and blood I’m scared of, though I don’t like the other thing. However, if the blessed thing belongs to this world or the next it’s quite certain we’ve got to put a stop to its goin’s on ‘ere. If you don’t catch it, Geoffrey, we’ll shut up the house and go abroad. I’m getting quite skeery myself, and I ain’t got over much nerve to speak of.”
“Well, let me try my hand at exorcising the thing, Mr. Brag. If I can’t manage it we’ll do what you say. Helen will die if this sort of thing goes on.”
“Lord, you don’t think it’s come for ‘er?”
“No, I don’t. It is some trick, I tell you. Leave me to find it out,”
Mr. Brag shook his head doubtfully and retired to bed in his turn. Left alone I started on an exploration of the house with a lamp in one hand and a revolver in the other. I examined all the doors and windows, and found them securely bolted and barred. I looked into what rooms I could, from cellar to attic, and found them empty. It was quite clear that beyond the inmates of the house there was no one. Then I made for the happy hunting ground of the ghost.
It had lately been snowing, but now the night was frosty and clear. A bright moon dispelled the darkness and the white world without was as clear as day.
The Long Gallery stretched the whole length of the west wing. On one side a row of tall windows admitted a good light on to the pictures on the opposite wall. There was a fair collection of these, but the Allistons had never been sufficiently artistic in their tastes, or sufficiently acute in their judgment, to acquire masterpieces.
The portraits of Helen’s ancestors were of most interest to me. There was a long series of them, dating from the Tudor time and representing some of the best work of the masters. These were let into the oak panelling with their gilded frames, and could not be detached from the wall. At the further end of the gallery was an ornate window of stained glass, and through this the moonlight fell, now weaving coloured arabesques of the floor and portraits. Here I paused before the picture of Lady Marian Alliston.
She must have been a supremely beautiful woman, this Jacobite conspirator, with the high spirit and strong will. Here she was portrayed as tall and stately of figure. A proud expression was on her almost swarthy face, and in the slenderest of white hands she gripped a walking-cane. In a dress of rich brocade, with jewels on neck and arms, red-heeled shoes, and the towering head-dress of the period, she looked every inch a queen, and in her day must surely have moved and ruled as one. I could imagine those imperious brows frowning at the mention of the Elector! I could fancy those firm lips speaking the curse on her too hasty husband. There was something about this fair dead woman which reminded me of Beatrix Esmond; filled with the joy of life and born to dominate by the power of beauty and intellect. Yet she failed as Thackeray’s heroine failed; but died more nobly, in the prime of loveliness without withering out into sad old age. Had Sir Walter’s rapier not struck through the proud heart she might have been a Sarah Jennings. As it was she was thwarted by Fate; and it was her sad destiny to appear as a bird of ill-omen to those who sat in her seat of pride. Yet I could imagine her wrath when alive at the idea that her fair phantom would descend to scaring an old cook and her plebian husband. How ironical a fate!
But all this preamble leads to nothing. Although I watched in the gallery until dawn I saw no ghost. It was bitterly cold; and the vigil was uncomfortable and in vain. Lady Marian did not appear. I did not even hear the rustle of her skirts, much less set eyes on her face; and when I descended to breakfast, after an hour or so of sleep, it was to laugh at the superstitions of my friends.
“It is as I thought,” said I. “Parsons and Mrs. Jackson both dreamed they saw the phantom. Lady Marian is too wise to revisit the scene of her death.”
“Ah, but she don’t appear every night,” protested Mrs. Brag, wisely. “You wait, Geoffrey. She’ll freeze your blood yet.”
“Not while she knows that an armed watcher has his eye on her, Mrs. Brag.”
“You still believe it is a trick, Geoffrey?”
“If Lady Marian’s phantom is not merely the creation of Parson’s and Mrs. Jackson’s dreams, I still believe it is a trick.”
But trick or no trick, all my vigils were in vain. Night after night for quite two weeks I watched in that infernal gallery for the ghost which never came. Yet notwithstanding my disappointment I could not rid myself of the feeling that there was some mystery about the apparition. It was possible that my public announcement to shoot the so-called ghost had scared the person who, I truly believed, represented it. With this idea I went on a new tack, and once more assembled the household.
“I have watched for fourteen nights, more or less,” I said, “and no ghost has come to scare me. Therefore, I believe Mr. Parsons and Mrs. Jackson have been deceived in thinking they saw one. There is no phantom here, so you can all set your minds at rest. For my part,” and this was the most important point of my speech, “I intend to watch no more. If Lady Marian comes again she must go without an audience. Now all of you go away, and let me have no more of this rubbish.”
Butler and housekeeper were both indignant at my aspersions, but they knew better than to protest openly, and went away with the rest of the servants to grumble in secret. An air of calm pervaded the table, and Mrs. Brag began to pluck up courage. Also Helen, to prove what was undermining her health, became more cheerful and less hysterical. My common sense had exorcised the ghost so far, but it had not solved the mystery. Determined to fathom this I still continued to watch in the gallery. But no one knew of my vigils, not even Helen; so if the trickster came, he or she, whatsoever it might be, would find me waiting.
For two or three nights the gallery was empty as the palm of my hand. But on the fourth night my chance came, and with it the ghost.
It was about midnight, and the moon shining through the clear glass of the side windows and reflecting her light from an expanse of snow made the gallery almost as brilliant as day. I was hidden behind a curtain, midway along the gallery, and half drowsily was looking out into the maze of shadow and silver radiance. Suddenly in the absolute stillness I heard a faint sound. It was a tapping of heels, the rustle of silk skirts, and in a moment under the painted window I saw the ghost. It appeared from nowhere, and I must confess it startled me very considerably.
It was Lady Marian sure enough. I was sufficiently close to it to see that. There she stood, with the tall head-dress and cane, and rich brocaded gown, exactly as she was represented in her portrait. I caught just a glimpse of her face, but it was not sufficient for me to say with certainty whether it was identical with that in the picture. But the figure was certainly the same. I sat quite still and watched, and waited, one finger ready on the trigger of my revolver.
With the clacking sound described by Mrs. Jackson it came down the gallery. The stick tapped, and the long train rustled, and the moonlight played upon the rich hues of the brocade. It did not come near me, but kept close by the range of the family pictures, fingering the frames and passing its white hand over the surfaces. At times it stopped, and with bent head scrutinised more closely the faces of the portraits. Then it began to glide back more swiftly than it had come. I rose, perhaps too incautiously, and I must have made some noise, for before I could raise my revolver to take aim the ghost started, retreated rapidly towards the painted window, and vanished.
Yes, before my very eyes it vanished. I hurried to the spot where I had last seen it, but not a trace of anything could I find. Unless it had dropped through the floor or had passed through a solid wall I could not see for the life of me how it had got away. Could it be a true phantom after all? No, my reason wouldn’t allow such a supposition. Beyond doubt it was flesh and blood—some member of the household got up to resemble Lady Marian. I was more than ever perplexed.
I related everything to Mr. Brag next morning. But he kept my story carefully from his wife and Helen. They were recovering their spirits somewhat, and it would not do to damp them again by saying that I had seen the thing myself. Mr. Brag, indeed, was considerably agitated at this seeming confirmation of the apparition, and it was as much as ever I could do to talk him out of the conviction that spiritual it was.
“But what on earth can it be, man?” he said.
“Well,” I replied, “I have some sort of idea, but at present I won’t state it lest I should prove to be wrong. I propose that you watch with me to-night, Mr. Brag, and together we’ll see if we can’t unmask the ghost.”
“But do you think it will come again tonight?”
“I can’t say. Perhaps not. It may be that the trickster, whoever it may be, has had a fright and will delay further operations for a while. It is someone in the house, I am convinced of that. When I announced that I would watch nothing was seen of it. But directly I said I would give up watching, Lady Marian appears. What we must do is to watch regularly, Mr. Brag; even should it not appear for a week or more.”
It turned out that I was right. Night after night we concealed ourselves behind the curtain, I with my revolver, Brag with a large dinner bell, with which he intended alarming the house when Lady Marian was captured. This went on for no less than ten nights. Then I took Mrs. Brag and Helen into confidence and arranged a pretended departure from the house. I went off to London with great fuss and ceremony. But I got out of the train at the first station and returned to the hall by road secretly. And at eleven o’clock that night Brag and I were in our hiding place once more. And it was Christmas Eve, the very time when ghosts should be abroad, according to legend.
“Now,” I whispered, “the ghost is off its guard; take my word for it he or she, whichever it is, will come.” Brag said nothing, but gripped viciously at the handle of his dinner-bell.
It fell out as I had anticipated. Shortly after midnight Lady Marian reappeared in the same guise as before. I could hear Brag’s teeth chattering as he saw the apparition. The moonlight was as strong as it had been on the previous occasion, and Lady Marian, clacking and tapping as before, moved through it in precisely the same way. She glided along by the pictures and fingered the frames. Suddenly we heard her give a joyous exclamation, and there was a sliding sound as of something pushed back. A portrait vanished, and a black cavity was seen in its place.
Now was the time. I jumped up, and poising my revolver fired as truly as I could, and at the same moment Brag’s bell clanged out vigorously. There was a shriek and a hurried scamper. Then as before the ghost of Lady Marian vanished before we could reach the spot.
“Where the deuce has she gone?” cried Brag, who was still ringing his bell hard.
“Through a sliding panel,” I replied, guessing the means of exit was through the cavity.
As I lighted the lamp there was more noise and pattering of feet, and the half-dressed servants in all stages of déshabille and alarm came crowding into the gallery. Some carried lights, others pokers and sticks, but one and all were as frightened as they well could be.
And no wonder; for the clamour of Brag’s bell was enough to wake the dead. Then came Helen and Mrs. Brag fully dressed, for they both had waited up to witness the success of my scheme.
And it was a success—greater than I had dared to dream. As I said, a picture—that of Lady Marian had vanished—that is it had slid back into the wall, leaving a cavity which we proceeded to examine.
Therein we found an iron box fast locked. But Brag soon had it torn open, to find that it contained velvet-lined drawers and trays all heaped with the most splendid jewellery. Gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds —the mass glittered like a rainbow.
“See, Helen, your mother’s long lost jewels. So this is what the ghost of Lady Marian came for.”
“My gracious!” cried Mrs. Brag, dropping on her knees. “Look, my dear, all my Lady’s jewels! You’ll wear them at your wedding after all.”
But Helen did not look at them. She just stared at me, nervous and shaking.
“Geoffery, who is the ghost?”
“Cannot you guess? Jane Riordan.”
“Impossible! Isn’t she here?”
“No, miss,” said Parsons, glancing round at the servants, “she ain’t with us.”
“Oh, Geoffrey, I hope you haven’t shot her.”
“Serve ‘er right if ‘e ‘as,” cried Brag. “But don’t cry, my pretty, she went through another sliding panel. Come, Geoffrey, let us look.”
“The spring is in the frame, Mr. Brag. I’m sure of that.”
Instantly a dozen hands were busy with the frames, and we soon came upon a spring in that of a picture at the far end of the gallery. It opened noiselessly, and I stepped into the open space, followed by Brag bearing the lamp. We proceeded along a narrow passage, ascended a flight of stone steps and finally emerged through another sliding panel into the back part of the house. On our way we picked up the tall cane, the grey wig and head-dress and the brocade skirt.
“She stripped herself to get away,” said Brag, nodding. “Let us go to her room. She has one to herself, you know. Asked my old woman to give her one as a special favour; and for Eliza Craik’s sake she got it.”
The room was reached and we found it empty, with the last remnants of the disguise on the floor. On going to the back door we discovered that it was open, and through it Jane Riordan had vanished into the night never to return.
So it was that I exorcised the ghost of Lady Marian. On Christmas Day at breakfast we discussed thoroughly the stirring events of the night. Mrs. Brag was filled with anger at the way in which Jane Riordan had tricked her.
“I wonder how she knew about my Lady’s jewels,” she said.
“Oh, there’s no difficulty in guessing that,” I replied. “The father must have told his wife where he had hidden them. I daresay he intended to fetch them himself when he came out of goal. But he died before his sentence expired. However, he let his wife know, and she, of course, told Jane, who came here and tried to get them by masquerading as Lady Marian’s ghost.”
“And Eliza must have told her that story, Geoffrey. We often talked of the ghost. Oh, what a wicked woman!”
“But I wonder why Mrs. Craik, being poor, did not try to get the jewels for herself. She would hardly wait twenty years before doing so.”
It was Helen who said this, and I who replied.
“Well, I expect Mrs. Craik was either afraid, or did not learn from her husband behind which picture the jewels were hidden. I expect her reason was the last; for Jane, as I told you, went up and down the wall fingering the frames in order to find the right one. That was why she appeared so often in the gallery. Had she known the true hiding-place one appearance and visit would have done. I see now that she feigned fear to me in order to ward off suspicion. From her looks I never thought she would be so clever.”
“Ah, my dear,” said Mrs. Brag, “she married a scamp, and I daresay, after hearing the story from ‘Liza’ he put her up to the trick.”
“She brought the dress with her, I suppose?”
“She must have; and it was to carry on her wicked pranks that she made such a point of having a separate room.”
“I wonder how she knew of the secret passage,” said Brag.
“Liza again,” cried his wife. “She was years here before I came, and so was Craik. I daresay they found the secret passage together and made use of it when they stole the jewels. And now I come to think of it, my dears, it was an actor Jane Riordan married. Oh, I’m well quit of her, I am.”
"Yes, thank goodness she’s gone,” said Brag.
“We don’t want no row about the thing. We’ve got the jewels, and Helen shall wear them on her wedding day.”
“And what’s more, we’ve got rid of the ghost,” said I, smiling. “I don’t think you can ever believe in ghosts again after this, eh, Mrs. Brag?”
“No, Geoffery, I can’t. I daresay the ghost of Lady Marian that I saw myself was either Craik or his wife dressed up. No, I’ll never believe in ghosts again.” Nor did she.
So this was our Christmas ghost, which was no ghost. But true or false it was a very seasonable apparition; and brought to Helen the Christmas gift of her mother’s jewels. She wore them at her wedding with me shortly afterwards; for next Christmas there was no Miss Alliston, but a pretty Mrs. Beauchamp. Nor was there any ghost. Lady Marian, in the person of Jane Riordan, had fulfilled her mission, and we never saw her again.
There are some memories so terrible, that when they recur to the unthinking brain, they have the power to make one retrace its steps, and return once more to the moment when the events of which they are the tragic shadows took place.
They are portions of a man’s life, and when he least suspects their presence, they suddenly display themselves to his shuddering gaze.
Every son of Adam, be his life ever so blameless, has, in his time, visited Hell, and brought from thence a memory which, filling the visionary scope of his mind’s eye, haunts him for evermore. He shrinks back appalled, he would fain shut out the horrible phantom; but look he must, for by his side it remains, mocking his futile efforts to exorcise its ghastly being. At times it fades into the unseen, only to return at some untoward moment with troublous persistence.
My haunting memory is of a red star,—nay, no planetary splendour do I indicate by such a term, neither Mars nor Aldebaran, nor fiery Sirius, but an earth-begotten star which nightly burned from the topmost window of a tall tower. Behind, a clear evening sky; in front, a sombre mass of turret, and gable and battlement, clustering round the base of a lean minaret, which from its height gave forth a crimson gleam of angry seeming.
On the black waters of the morass encircling the building it flared with baleful savagery, piercing the sullen darkness of the night. Seated at the window of the inn, I could mark it dominating the whole scene with its malign influence. I saw it then, I see it now, and under its malevolence a man lying prone on the quaking surface of the marsh, gazing palid-faced wild-eyed at the ebon pool, on whose breast float traitor bubbles, telling of horror and of death.
The window of a chemist’s shop, the commonplace signals of a great railway station, or the starboard lights of a channel steamer, each brings to my mind the memory of that red star. Then do I turn cold with fear. Then do I seek in theatre, in dance, in travel, a forgetfulness of that tall tower with its scarlet eye. In vain my quest for oblivion; for the horror thrusts itself unannounced before my mental gaze. I leave the present, I return to the past, there to find the red star burning like an unquenchable witch-light.
This bizarre episode of my life occurred some years since, when I was on a walking tour in Essex. An artist by profession I combined business with pleasure by sketching a great deal during my desultory wanderings, so when I arrived at the little village of E—I was rejoiced that I had a good record to show to Hadrian.
He was an author. One whose pen (more graphic than my pencil) had brought him fame. I was delighted when he proposed that we should, in partnership, write and illustrate a small book of English strollings. Hitherto my ambition had been confined to mere dilettantism, but now the offer of Hadrian inspired me with the desire for a certain notoriety (scarcely to be called fame), and I impatiently awaited his arrival at our appointed meeting-place, the Golden Plover Inn.
Business had detained him in town, else had we journeyed in company; but as it was, I sauntered for a whole fortnight through the pleasant English counties, in the hope that he would join me ere I reached E—. No such overtaking occurred, and at The Golden Plover I awaited his coming.
The landlord was an oddity, with a twist of originality in his character, and showed himself, notwithstanding a certain stateliness of demeanour, disposed to be companionable. At the conclusion of my supper I sat by the casement of the parlour with a consoling pipe, while the host—John Ruth was his name—stalked stiff as Malvolio about the room. This hinting at sociability being at the moment much to my taste, I invited him to crack a bottle of port in my company. Nothing loth he accepted the invitation. Thus having mutually arranged for a pleasant evening Ruth went off to his cellar, and I, in a pleasing state of weariness, begotten by a long day on my legs, viewed the landscape from the parlour window.
A prospect more wild, dreary and eloquent of desolation, could scarcely be conceived. In the uncertain light—for it was now the twilight hour—it took on an unwholesome look which struck a chill into my being. The village was not far from the sea, and the uncanny seeming of the outlook was the more accentuated by the hollow boom of unseen waves. I could hear but could not see these complaining breakers, and this hidden presence, betraying itself only by dreary moanings, seemed a fitting type of the intangible horror which environed The Grange.
The inn being at the end of the village, there was no dwelling beyond save this cumbrous mass rising portentously against the luminous sky. Past my window ran the hard line of the high road, beyond this a stretch of sullen marsh spreading like a witch garden in front of the mansion. On a slight rise it bulked disproportionately in the landscape, and from its blackness a tall, lean tower shot upward, as though the house were lifting a warning finger. As is the case with some faces, a history is suggested by some houses, and I felt sure that a gruesome story was attached to this sullen mansion lying betwixt marsh and sea. The dull roar of the waves might have told the story, or I might have gained some legendary fragments from the sighing wind, but unversed in nature’s voices I could translate neither boom nor sigh, and was therefore compelled to apply for information to the landlord. At this period of my reflections he entered the room, with the port and candles, much to my relief, for the influence of that lonely house was depressing in the extreme.
“What is the name of the place?” I asked abruptly, as he set down his burden on the table.
“That, sir,” replied Ruthy with stately slowness, “is called The Grange, where Lady Selwyn dwells.”
“What! Is anyone bold enough to live in that tomb?”
“It is a tomb!” assented the landlord with a certain apprehension. “I only trust it is nothing worse.”
“What do you mean?”
Ruth shook his head significantly, poured out two glasses of wine, and pushed one towards my end of the table.
“It is a God-forsaken place, sir, and they do say haunted. I am not superstitious myself, Mr. Faloise, but I feel the horror of that house. Something in that house,” he added earnestly, “cries bitterly at night. It is neither of earth nor of heaven, and it moans — moans in the darkness like a lost spirit.”
His words chilled me with a feeling of vague horror. I would have spoken but that he reflectively sipped his wine and pursued his speech.
“Why should a rich and beautiful lady shut herself up in that dreary house? Why should she live in solitude and only come out at night-time? She is young, she is beautiful; but long years of horror have aged her face and cursed her soul. What is the Thing that moans in the darkness? I have asked her when she has come here but she has made no reply. Yet, Mr. Faloise, at every visit I can see a fresh mark of hell on the beauty of her face.”
“She comes out at night, you say?”
“Only at night! When the red star shines!”
“The red star?”
“Look!” he cried, clutching my arm with one hand, and pointing through the window with the other.
I felt a certain qualm of horror, and mechanically turned my eyes towards the Grange. There, from the height of the tower, burned a fierce red light, which in the gathering darkness did indeed look like an evil star.
“Every night it shines,” resumed Ruth, wiping his brow. “Every night the Thing moans. No ones live there, save Lady Selwyn and her old servant, yet when they come to this place the red star shines, the Thing cries. Hark!”
A faint wailing cry swept past the house and died away in the distance. We looked at one another in silent dread, and once more Ruth wiped his brow.
“It goes on like that,” he said, hastily finishing his wine, “constantly. For two years it has been going on. I will never get used to it, Mr. Faloise. I wish the whole of that accursed house would sink deep in the morass.”
“Ay! Facing the mansion is no firm land, but merely a quaking bog, the crossing of which means death to the unwary. Behind is the sea, in front is the marsh; so you see, Mr. Faloise, those who dwell in that house are well defended.”
“Defended!” I echoed, puzzled, at the strangely chosen word. “Why should the house be defended?”
“You now know as much as I do,” replied Ruth obstinately; “you have seen the red star, you have heard the Thing crying. There is some hellish secret about The Grange, Mr. Faloise, but no one can reveal it save Lady Selwyn—”
“Ah! what is that?” I cried, with a thrill of fear, as a dark figure flitted past the window, followed by the dancing light of a swinging lantern.
“It is Lady Selwyn and her servant,” said the landlord, laying aside his pipe; “they come nightly for provisions—wine and such like. Excuse me for a moment, Mr. Faloise.”
With this he vanished, and I was left alone to ruminate over the strange history he had told me—no history either, but rather a suggestion of mystery, of infinite dread. I looked at the menacing tower, at the red star flaring in the windy night. This hinting of nameless horrors was too much for my nerves. Suddenly, overcome by an overwhelming curiosity I left the window, I left the room, and sought the keeper of the secret—Lady Selwyn.
Draped in a long black cloak, she was standing in the porch with the lantern bearer, an old woman who I guessed was her servant. The yellow light of the candle held by the landlord struck full on her face. Beautiful exceedingly was that countenance, but on the lovely face and in the eyes lurked the apprehensive look of a hunted beast. Ruth hearing my steps, turned suddenly, thereby throwing the light on to my features. The next instant, with a strange cry, Lady Selwyn darted forward like a madwoman. Laying her thin hands on my shoulders, she devoured my face with her eyes. I felt her shaking through the whole length of her body, but so thunderstruck was I that the Medusa beauty of her face turned me, as it were, to stone.
“Who are you?” she asked, in a low, fierce voice, pressing hardly on my shoulders.
“Hugh Faloise—an artist,” I stammered, thinking it best to humour her caprice. “I am here on a walking tour.”
“Go away at once,” hissed Lady Selwyn, shaking me like a reed. “Do you hear me? Go away.”
On uttering these words she faced round abruptly as to depart, then snatching the light from Ruth held it to my face.
“His hair! his eyes! his mouth!” she muttered eagerly. “So like him once. Heavens! to think what he is now.”
A convulsive shudder shook her from head to foot. Dropping the candle, she drew the hood of her cloak over her face and fled away into the night, followed by the woman with the lantern. We were left in darkness (for the candle had been extinguished), thunderstruck at the episode. Then past the house floated that moaning cry, and with one accord we dashed back into the parlour.
“I shan’t stay here another week,” said Ruth with an oath; “it’s killing work.”
The whole affair was so weird, that I could not blame him for his fear. Indeed I also was trembling, and it took two glasses of wine to restore my courage.
On recovering my nerve I pulled out my sketchbook.
“What are you going to do, sir?” asked Ruth, observing my action curiously.
“Draw Lady Selwyn’s face from memory.” While I did so, he looked over my shoulder, seemingly disinclined to leave my company. Two years had not reconciled him to the evil atmosphere of the place. I did not wonder at that, but I did wonder how it was he was not in a lunatic asylum. Two days would have been enough for me, not to speak of two years. I have no relish for devildom. Lady Selwyn’s eccentric conduct had upset me thoroughly. I could hardly draw the portrait; not that I had forgotten the face, but because my hand was shaking. This sort of thing in a lone inn slackens a man’s nerve and renders him incapable of doing justice to his profession. Mine was that of an artist, but no one would have thought so had they seen the portrait, drawn from memory, of Lady Selwyn. When I say no one I mean no cultured person, for Ruth said it was a speaking likeness. But then he was not an artist and I was; whereby I saw the faults and he did not. However, horrors considering, it was passable and pleased me mightily.
“Ruth,” said I, signing my name to the drawing “I am going to stay here and investigate.”
“Investigate what, sir?”
“This mystery. Light, voice, and woman. A most unholy trinity.”
“You’ll find nothing, sir,” said the landlord, emphatically. “I have tried for a year and failed.”
“Oh! well, I will try for a year also and shall not fail.”
Ruth pointed towards the red star.
“It is like a danger signal,” he said, solemnly. “Better leave it alone, sir.”
I wish I had taken his advice—now.
* * * * * *
I made a discovery that night; one which surprised me largely. When a man has reached the age of thirty years without knowing the inner meaning of the word “love” he has a right to feel surprised on acquiring that knowledge without study. I did not seek love, on the contrary love—in the person of Lady Selwyn—hunted me out: consequently I was not a free agent in the matter. At the time I hardly analysed the affair in this fashion for the discovery was somewhat overwhelming. I tossed on an uneasy pillow all night wondering what disease had seized me, and matters were hardly improved by my lighting the candle at intervals to look at the picture. All the horror of red star and wailing voice was forgotten by me, my brain being fully occupied by the thought that Lady Selwyn was a beautiful woman whom I adored. I offer no opinion on this matter, but simply set down the existing facts.
Being in this dazed condition I was naturally anxious to confide my troubles to someone. Ruth was scarcely an inviting repository. I knew nobody in the neighbourhood, and self-communion was unsatisfactory; therefore the most obvious course was to await the coming of Hadrian. Somewhere about noon he duly arrived, without any apologies for his tardiness; but this omission on his part I waived, being only too thankful to see his dour countenance.
By dour I do not mean exactly ill-natured, for Hadrian had some geniality in his disposition, though it did not show itself in his face. Fortunately I knew that this index to his mind was a bad one, else I had not made him my confidant. As it turned out, he did not receive my story so well as I had expected, but this I put down to his jealousy in the matter of friendship.
Hadrian was a good physiognomist, and anxious for his unbiased opinion I said nothing about Lady Selwyn, but slipped the portrait in with the rest of the sketches. In a few minutes Hadrian, as I expected he would, asked to see what work I had done, so I placed the whole lot before him and waited the result in silence. He went to work in his usual ungracious manner, making remarks complimentary and otherwise—mostly otherwise. In due course he came across the portrait and to my astonishment shewed an unexpected acquaintance with the original.
“Why Faloise,” he said, turning towards me, sketch in hand, “where have you seen Lady Selwyn?”
“Do you know her, Hadrian?”
“Excellently well! She was the heroine of that queer story of two seasons ago.”
“What queer story?”
“Oh, I forgot. You were in India at the time,” said Hadrian, replacing the sketch in the portfolio. “However, I can tell you the whole history— but first let me hear how you came to make her acquaintance.”
I would rather have heard the London history first, and then narrated the sequel; but Hadrian, as I knew of old, was as obstinate as a mule. Unless I gratified his curiosity he certainly would not gratify mine, so with quick dispatch I told him all that had taken place on the previous night. The important detail of my falling in love I withheld for the present. I might as well have told it at once, for I saw Hadrian guessed the truth from my tell-tale cheeks. However, he made no sign of such knowledge, but, when I had finished the story, looked out at the Grange intently through the window.
Naturally I expected to be directly addressed, but in place of this Hadrian began a monologue as though he were alone. At first I felt indignant, but as his soliloquy seemed pertinent to the subject, I listened.
“Apparently,” observed Hadrian, to himself, “she saw the likeness between Varst and Faloise. That accounts for her emotion. She loved Varst deeply, and when he died buried herself in this tomb. Now a ghost in the person of Faloise has revived that love given to a dead man; so it is not unlikely she will transfer her affections to the living. Faloise resembles the non-existing Varst greatly. Doubtless she will love him. The question is—will Faloise love her?”
“Faloise does love her,” I broke in impetuously, whereupon Hadrian, contrary to his usual gravity, burst out laughing.
“So! I have caught you in a trap, Faloise. Yes, I am aware that you love this woman. Your cheeks, your eyes were eloquent Now your tongue betrays you. Faloise,” he added, touching my breast with an emphatic forefinger, “had I not tricked you into this confession you would have held your peace.”
“Indeed, you are wrong. I intended to tell you as soon as you arrived.” Hadrian, taking out his watch, glanced at the dial with a mocking smile.
“I have been with you close on an hour and you have told me—nothing. So much for your intention. You love this woman?”
“Yes, I do!”
“And you would marry her?”
“If she would have me!”
“You talk like a child!” said Hadrian, roughly, “marry a woman of whom you know nothing,—whose face you have hardly seen! A woman who, as you can see for yourself, conceals some shameful secret in that house. Don’t be a fool, Faloise!”
“Calling me names will not alter my determination!” I rejoined, a trifle nettled; “tell me what you know about her and I will judge for myself.”
Hadrian bit his fingers—a trick with him when annoyed—then, without further preamble, burst out into the story of Lady Selwyn.
“She is a young widow!” he began with a jerk of his head, by which I knew how angry he was. “A young widow not without attractions, as you know, nor without money, as you don’t know. More than two years ago—I may say three—when I was in town, and you were in the East, she buried her first husband and fell in love with Paul Varst, artist. It was said she had been in love with him before she married Sir Peter Selwyn’s title and fortune, but at all events, no sooner was the old man buried than she became engaged to Varst. He resembled you greatly, and like you, was an artist, which I think you must admit is a curious coincidence. During Lady Selwyn’s period of mourning he went to the East as you did. Unlike you —and this is the first point of difference between you —he returned from thence afflicted with some disease.
I don’t know the name of the disease, but it killed him, and may be said to have killed her, seeing how she has shut herself up in yonder tomb to mourn him. You, my friend, are very like Varst, so I should not feel surprised if she fell in love with you. In her eyes, remember, you are Varst redivivus. My advice to you is to escape her snares by immediate flight. As to your red star, I cannot divine its meaning, nor do I think it worth troubling about. All I know for certain is that Lady Selwyn loved Varst, and as you resemble Varst she will assuredly love you. So there you have the story. Sufficiently common-place, is it not?”
“Yes! and sufficiently reputable also,” I interrupted hotly. “I see nothing to condemn in her conduct and much to praise. She must be a loving woman to mourn so truly for the dead. By your own showing my resemblance to Varst gives me a chance of success, and as I love her, I see no reason why I should not become her husband.”
“I trust you will not be so foolish, Faloise.”
“Pray do not argue further. My mind is made up.”
“And so is mine,” he rejoined, angrily springing from his chair. “If you intend to make a fool of yourself, I wash my hands of the whole business. Give up this idea, Faloise, or I leave you for ever.”
“As you please,” I answered, cutting short the discussion, and with that left the room.
When I returned Ruth informed me that Hadrian had gone.
Presumably it was jealousy which caused him to act in this foolish way. He could not bear to think that a woman should come between us; but as a woman had done so, he considered himself affronted, and departed in anger. It would be useless to deny that I was sorry for this breach between us. I do not make friends easily, and Hadrian was my closest companion. Notwithstanding my regret, I was too much in love to brood long over this severance, and dismissing Hadrian’s folly from my mind, addressed myself to the task of solving the red star mystery.
I wonder if there is a perverse fate who ever makes things go contrary to what we wish. In my case I was inclined to take this view of Providence, for I wanted Lady Selwyn to visit the Golden Plover as usual, but she never made her appearance. The old woman came for such necessaries as were required, but Lady Selwyn remained in seclusion, I spent my days in walking up and down the high road in front of the morass and my nights in the parlour waiting for her coming, but neither by day nor by night did I see her. Ruth informed me that before my arrival she nightly paid a visit to the inn. Seeing that she did so no longer I was forced to blame either that suppositious fate, or my likeness to Paul Varst, deceased.
Each day I haunted the high road, watching that detestable house, each night I sat in the parlour eyeing that red star and listening to the Thing wailing. I got used to both in the end, showing that even horrors can become stale. Ruth usually kept me company, and we talked of many things—of Lady Selwyn among others—but I learned no more than I had been told on the first night. And all this time I was in a perfect fever of excitement
This unsatisfactory life went on for about a week. At the end of that time the old woman brought a letter in which Lady Selwyn implored me to go away. I took no notice of this, but haunted the high road as usual, whereupon the next night brought me another letter ordering me to depart. I heeded the command as little as I had done the entreaty. Then there ensued a perfect deluge of notes, imploring, ordering, requesting, beseeching. Lady Selwyn ran through the whole gamut of a woman’s arts in wheedling a man to do her bidding.
It was all of no avail. I was as obstinate in staying, as she was in hiding. Neither of us would give in. At last she did. Towards the end of the second week she unexpectedly made her appearance in the parlour, ordered John Ruth out of the room, and gave me a warm quarter of an hour.
“If you are a gentleman, Mr. Faloise, you will leave this place,” she said indignantly. “I have written you at least a dozen letters, of none of which you have taken any notice.”
“Really, Lady Selwyn, I do not see why I should leave this place,” I answered mildly. “Is it reasonable to expect me to do so?”
“You are driving me mad.”
For answer she covered her face with her hands, and burst into tears. I advanced to soothe her, but on touching her shoulder she sprang up with a terrified gesture.
“No! No! Do not touch me. I cannot bear it. Oh! if you only knew my story!”
“I do know your story. That you loved Paul Varst, who is dead, and that I resemble Paul Varst.”
“Who told you this?” she asked with a quick intake of the breath.
“I learned it inadvertently. Is it because I resemble Paul Varst that you wish me to go?”
“Yes! yes! You are so like him. You have his eyes, his voice. To me you are as a spectre. Paul Varst was like you, and now—”
“He is dead, and you mourn his loss in that dreary mansion. Surely you have suffered enough and can forget the past.”
She shivered, spreading out her hands with a gesture of despair.
“No! I can never forget the past.”
“Let me teach you to do so?”
“What do you mean, Mr. Faloise?” she cried, shrinking back from my outstretched arms.
“That I love you.”
“For God’s sake say no more.”
I caught her to my breast before she could avoid me.
“I must speak, Lady Selwyn. I love you! I love you! The moment I beheld your face in the porch yonder I loved you. I drew your picture from memory—from the memory of my heart. I resemble Paul Varst. Love me for his sake if not for my own.”
She thrust me back with such violence that I reeled against the wall.
“How dare you insult me!” she panted, clenching her hands. “You are a stranger. I know nothing of you and yet—and yet you dare to speak of love to me —to me,” striking her breast with closed fist, “who am vowed to the dead.”
“I cannot help myself. I am a coward, acting as I do; but blame the lover, not the man. I should go away when you bid me! I cannot! I dare not! The sight of your face has ruined my life! If I leave you I die! You are killing me—yes, killing me. Can you not see how I suffer?”
The angry light in her eyes softened to the mild radiance of pity. Crossing the room she laid her hand on my bowed head.
“Poor fellow! You suffer. I also suffer. But we must both suffer in silence. I am under the ban of hell.
“What do you mean? That house—”
“I dare tell you no more. The red light warns me to hold my peace.”
“What does it mean?” I said, again grasping her poor thin hands.
“It means the tortures of hell,” she whispered with slow terror. “I have seen a soul writhing in the grip of fiends. Pray to God you may never look upon such sights as sear my eyes. We must meet no more, Mr. Faloise. Let me bear my curse alone.”
“Nay, I will help you to bear it.”
“You cannot. It is too horrible! Let me go, Mr. Faloise. I cannot! I dare not love you!”
“Then, you do love me?”
Without a word she bent forward and kissed my cheek. At that moment we heard the wailing of the accursed thing, whereupon, with a burst of hysterical laughter, she fled from the room. I followed with speed, but she had already vanished in the darkness, nor could my implorings call her back to my arms.
The next night she failed to appear, but the old woman brought me another letter. “Pity my weakness, and go,” were the contents, and the paper was stained with tears. Those tears decided my course. Nothing now would induce me to leave the place without soothing this sorrow. I swore to enter the Grange, to enter that room from whence shone the red light, to discover what it was that wailed so horribly. I sacrificed my soul to keep that oath, but I kept it.
After a haggard night I walked up the road at dawn to examine the morass. If possible I desired to cross it and enter the Grange, but as I stood hesitating on the verge of the unsteady ground a woman cried aloud. On looking up I saw Lady Selwyn balanced above the black water, and in less than a minute she was by my side.
“Go away, Mr. Faloise,” she panted, pushing me backward. “What do you wish?”
“To enter the Grange.”
“Impossible. It is death to enter.”
“Nevertheless I will enter.”
“For what reason?”
I whispered my reply in her ear, as though it were too awesome to be spoken aloud.
“I wish to marry you. That house holds some horrible secret, which is blighting your life. Let me in. Tell me what it is, and I will free you from its influence.”
“There is no secret,” she denied, with downcast eyes.
“There is! I am determined to find out its mystery. Why does that red star shine from the tower at dusk? What is it that moans in the darkness?”
“You are killing me,” she gasped, pressing her hand to her side. “Go away, I implore you, Mr. Faloise. I dare not tell you anything.” Then, with sudden defiance, “I shall not tell you anything, nor will I see you again.”
I would have folded her in my arms, but with a sudden spring she placed a portion of the morass between us.
“You will sink!” I cried, sick with horror, as the ground quivered under her light weight.
“No; I guide myself by the white stones!” she called back. “Good-bye, Mr. Faloise. Do not come here again. It means death to you and to me.”
With this she vanished into the house, and daunted by that horrible marsh I dared not follow her. Slowly I returned to the inn. The east was red with the dawn, but redder than the east burned the star from the tall tower.
* * * * * * *
I determined to force my way into the Grange that night. Devoured alike by love and curiosity, my state of mind was favourable to the enterprise. That it was a desperate one I gathered from the hints thrown out by Lady Selwyn. The half hysterical life of the past two weeks, in place of destroying my nerve, had screwed up my courage to a point of reckless daring. I knew that such artificiality would sooner or later collapse, but before the collapse came I swore to discover the secret of the red star. Of such resolve I told no one, not even Ruth, but making some trivial excuse for talking a walk, strolled up to that morass which formed so effective a defence to the Grange.
In the soft June twilight the sullen marsh spread its sliminess before me. The inky pools of black water, the unhealthy green of the vegetation, the grave-yard richness of the mould, all filled me with repugnance. It was like a grave, and for aught I knew might be mine, seeing that I was ignorant of the secret crossing. Lady Selwyn had guided her course by the white stones, so for such land marks I looked. They dotted the blackness irregularly, but by following their eccentric curvings I made sure to arrive safely on the other side. I am not religious, but as I shivered on the edge of that possible grave, and noted the evil gleam of the red star, I put up a hurried prayer for protection. Then I set a cautious foot on the spot indicated by the first stone.
The treacherous ground quivered like a jelly as the black bog water oozed sluggishly round my feet. Prudently trying every resting-place in advance with my stick, I sprang from one stone to another, ever feeling the quaking of the quagmire. There was no sign of life about the house, and though I half expected Lady Selwyn to issue forth with warning cries, she did not make her appearance. Several times my heart was in my mouth as I slipped on the spongy soil; but in the end I was safely across, and found myself on firm ground. I now stood fairly committed to the adventure, for the morass was my rubicon, yet for the moment I felt qualmish. My body counselled retreat but my soul inclined to pushing forward in the teeth of danger. Urged on by this desire, I marched boldly towards the low brick wall of the house.
It ran the whole length of the facade, and the rusty iron gate in the centre was closely barred. By looking through the narrow railings I could catch a glimpse of the front door. It stood wide open, as though Lady Selwyn deemed the morass a sufficient protection from the outside world; so seeing that there was but one obstacle to overcome, I plucked up heart. One portion of the dilapidated wall afforded perilous foothold. Of this I took advantage, and not without some abrasions of the knees, managed to clamber over. I then found myself directly under the red eye of the tower. It seemed to my distempered fancy to follow my movements in a stealthy manner, but undaunted by the bogey of superstition, I hurried forward to the open door.
Within was a mighty hall, with a wide staircase ascending into upper glooms, and so ghostly did it look that for the moment my spirit quailed. On recollecting, however, that the house was but tenanted by two weak women, I felt ashamed of my momentary panic, and stole to the foot of the staircase. I did not know in which portion of this vast place Lady Selwyn resided, but judging that she would live above the unwholesome miasma of the morass, I decided to seek her on the first floor.
Just as I placed my foot on the stair, I heard the noise of descending feet and had barely time to draw back into the shadow, when a woman appeared on the landing. It was not Lady Selwyn, but her servant, going, as I judged from the basket on her arm, to the inn for provisions. She glided past me like a ghost, and having unlocked the iron gate, crossed the morass with an air of confidence which showed her to be thoroughly conversant with the dangerous way. The gate was left wide open; so here, if I chose to take it, was my chance of retreat; but I was bent on accomplishing my desire, and, giving myself no time for coward reflection, rapidly mounted the stairs.
Through the dingy windows filtered the doubtful light, creating within an atmosphere rather less luminous than was without. Still when my eyes became accustomed to the semi-gloom I managed to get about with considerable ease, but where I went I do not know to this day. My sole idea was to find Lady Selwyn; therefore I took no stock of my surroundings, but hunted blindly through room and echoing corridor. I descended stairs here, I went up others there, down long passages I ran, and hesitated in rooms bare of furniture, but I saw nothing. Up to this period of my life I had never felt the horror of loneliness, having been always within hail of my fellow creatures. I felt it now. Seated, through weariness, on the floor of an empty apartment, I was seized with a deadly feeling to which I can put no name. It made me shiver and turn sick. I felt myself environed by empty space. Methought there was no man in the world save I.
Then the Thing came. I can put no name to that either. It did not show itself visibly, but there it was, not at any particular spot but all round me. A faint sickly odour corrupted the atmosphere. My mouth was parched with nervous heat, and the perspiration rolled down my back. The twilight had condensed into a thick darkness, and I in the midst thereof was seated forlorn, forgotten of God and man. I could see nothing, I could hear nothing, but it was there, whatever it was, on all sides. I clutched my knees and shivered, while it moved invisibly around. Then I knew the sufferings of lost souls.
How long I was under this malign influence I cannot tell, but it seemed to me that I sat for hours shivering in the clinging darkness. The climax came when it began to whimper. I felt my flesh creep. At the second whimper I shrieked with horror.
Scarcely had my voice died away when I heard the sound of someone approaching, and Lady Selwyn entered the room bearing a lighted candle. The nerve of the woman was astonishing. Schooled, I suppose, by the horrors constantly surrounding her, she showed no fear, but moved swiftly towards me. I looked up, shaking like a leaf, and the light revealed my face.
“Mr. Faloise!” she cried, falling back a pace. “In God’s name how did you enter?”
Paying no attention to her question, I clutched her dress in a paroxysm of fear.
“What is it that cries in the darkness? Hark!”
Again I heard that indescribable sound, and she heard it also, for her white face blanched still whiter.
“Go! go!” she whispered, dragging me to my feet. “Ask nothing. Go!”
“I will know your secret!”
The sound again, but this time in angry tone, like the snarl of a dog.
“If you don’t go I cannot protect you,” she cried in alarm, and seizing my arm hurried me from the room.
In her presence I recovered my courage, and would have spoken, but she shook her head for me to keep silent. Leading me through the lonely passages, she made no pause until we found ourselves in the entrance hall. It did not follow us, for when we arrived at the foot of the staircase I felt a certain sense of relief, as though the invisible presence had departed.
“The door and the gate are both open,” said Lady Selwyn rapidly, “go at once and re-cross the marsh by the white stones.”
“Tell me what it all means!”
“Since you know so much, you may as well know all, Mr. Faloise, but you will regret your curiosity to your dying day.”
“It is too late now for regrets. Tell me all!”
“When I do, swear that you will leave this village at once and keep silence.”
“So much for your love,” she said bitterly. “I see your curiosity has overpowered that feeling.”
“Hush! speak no more on that subject. What is the matter?”
“Heaven’s!” I whispered, looking apprehensively around: “it is here again!”
“I know that,” she replied composedly, “but you will not see it.”
“What is the thing that cries?”
“Paul Varst!” said Lady Selwyn, putting her hand to her breast.
“But he is dead!”
“No, he is not dead. He lives here. Shut out from the world for ever. The living dead.”
“What is the reason?”
She put her lips to my ear and whispered one word. It curdled my blood with horror and I cried out.
Again I heard the Thing moan, but this time its moaning shaped itself into human speech.
“Paul Varst! Paul Varst!” It wailed pitifully. “Once he was like you. Pray God you may never become like him. A leper! A leper! An outcast! Oh, my punishment! My punishment!”
The voice died away in a heart-breaking sigh. Fear staying my speech, I interrogated Lady Selwyn with a look.
“Now you know the truth,” she said, weeping bitterly. “He was my lover, but contracted this frightful disease in the East. On his return to England it manifested itself. I loved him too well to leave him. Spreading a report of his death I brought him secretly to this place and condemned myself to share his living death.”
“But the red star?”
“He cannot bear the light of heaven to reveal his deformity, even to himself. The windows of his room are of red glass, through which the lamplight shines at night.”
“Oh, my punishment! My punishment!” moaned the invisible thing. “I suffer in life what others suffer after death. Away! away! or you will become even as that which was once Paul Varst.”
I clutched Lady Selwyn’s arm, and tried to drag her to the open door. “Come away! come away from this accursed house.”
The thing whimpered angrily, and a look of alarm overspread her face.
“I cannot! I dare not! Go! Go! There is danger.”
“Leave that living corpse, I beg of you. It is accursed.”
“Ah! Ah! Ah!” moaned the voice, “do not leave me—do not leave me. You loved me once—do not leave me.”
The horror beat against the wall, and fearing lest it should reveal itself I dragged Lady Selwyn nearer the door by main force.
“Never mind it. Come away! Quick! Quick!”
“I dare not,” she gasped, hanging back. “I dare not. He would kill me, and I loved him.”
“Once, but not now. Paul Varst is dead. You love Hugh Faloise!”
The thing overheard my remark, and its voice arose in a howl of fury. With a cry of fear Lady Selwyn fell half fainting into my arms. In another moment I was out of the gate with my burden, trying to cross the morass.
I heard the whimpering of the Thing in pursuit but dared not turn my head. The cool air revived Lady Selwyn, and midway in the marsh she began to struggle.
“Let me go! Let me go! He wants me. Paul! Paul!”
It answered with the roar of a wild animal, and before I knew of its proximity Lady Selwyn was wrenched from my arms. She made a horrible noise, scarcely human, and I turned. Its face was looking straight at me.
“Oh, Heavens!” I screamed, and fell face downward on the quaking earth.
I must have fainted, but as my head had fallen partially into the water, I speedily recovered. All was still. A few bubbles on the near pool showed where it had sunk with its living burden. Wrapped in each other’s arms the dead and the living had gone down into that loathsome quagmire.
I looked up with an ashen face. The Red Star was shining over their grave.
Gossip consists commonly of lies; yet occasionally, by acute observers grains of truth may be discerned in the untrustworthy mass. As a specimen of how iron of fact intermingles with clay of falsehood, may be instanced the rumours relative to Professor Carberry, his wife, and young Mr. Vale. It was said —and with good reason—that Carberry coveted Vale’s celebrated mummy of the XX. Dynasty, while Vale envied the professor his wife.
The Camford cynics suggested an exchange as conducive to the happiness of all parties. A sale, and the Professor would gain possession of the desired mummy; a divorce, and Mrs. Carberry would be free to become Mrs. Vale. But to the proposed course there was one objection: Vale was a poor man, and could better support a dried-up corpse, which had no needs, than extravagant Mrs. Carberry, who was said to have many. Into the ostensible truth of this latter assertion creeps falsehood.
Despite outward evidence to the contrary, Lucy Carberry was not extravagant. She had no chance of being so; for her husband kept the purse, and was niggardly in doling out its contents. He allowed a meagre sum for household expenses, a still smaller amount for clothes befitting the wife of a Camford University Professor, and not a single penny for pleasure or relaxation. Out of means barely sufficient for necessaries, Mrs. Carberry was supposed to provide the miracle of a lavish table, and achieve the impossible of a fashionable appearance. If the meals were not dainty and plentiful, if the wife was not dressed with taste and refinement, Carberry made it his business to be disagreeable, and became so to the point of ill-treatment. It was a life of blows in private, smiles in public; and poor pretty Lucy had a wholesome dread of her domestic tyrant.
Why, when, or where she married him no one knew. One day the newly-wedded pair unexpectedly took up their abode in Camford—of which scholastic town Carberry was an old resident, and a professor of Michael’s College—and so great was the contrast of her fair loveliness and his dour blackness that they speedily became known as Beauty and the Beast. Carberry himself was a wizen little man with a large head and a lined yellow face, suggestive of evil instincts kept under by force of will. He had malicious black eyes, a wisp of black moustache straggling over thin lips, and a lean small-waisted figure, straight and nervously alert. His smile and speech were cynical, his dress scrupulously neat, and in every way he was the antithesis of his pretty soft girl-bride.
She, poor soul, was one of those delicate timid women who require attention and kindness to bring out their good qualities. Lucy was a flower which bloomed best in sunshine; a tender blossom susceptible to the least chill in the atmosphere. Pink and white in complexion, blue-eyed and golden-haired, she was emotional and charming; at once angel and martyr. Carberry, grim realist as he was, did not understand her in the least. He termed her a sentimental fool, and crushed her innocent aspirations with sneering cynicism, so that within a few months of her marriage Lucy lost her angelic wings, and became a domestic martyr, whose daily life was one of torture and silent endurance. She had not even a child to comfort her bruised heart, and the Carberry household represented a sort of domestic hell, wherein the wife was the damned, the husband the devil. And alas, alas! God was deaf to the prayers of this tortured woman.
The professor and his victim—a more appropriate name than wife—kept silent as to their meeting, and wooing, and subsequent marriage. Only John Vale knew the truth, and he gained his knowledge first hand.
“I was sold,” exclaimed Mrs. Carberry to him. “Sold by my mother like any slave in the East, and into a worse bondage. We lived at Bournemouth, mother and I. Father had been dead three years, and we supported ourselves by keeping a boarding-house. Mr. Carberry came to stay there one summer and took a fancy to me. I can’t say that it was love,” interpolated Mrs. Carberry, “for my husband does not know what that word means. I hated him from the first and refused his offer, but mother was talked over by him, and she forced me into the marriage. I was sold as a slave to this learned Pasha, and a slave he makes of me. Oh, I wish I were dead! I do! I do!” And the wretched little woman concluded the miserable story with a burst of tears.
It can be seen from this outburst that to the unhappy wife Vale was more than an acquaintance. He was a friend, and if the truth must be stated, his friendship showed signs of developing into yet closer relationship. Vale had no idea to what lengths this intimacy might go, but without intending anything definite, he had permitted himself—in the most innocent manner, be it said—to drift into a somewhat anomalous position. Friendship between a young man and a pretty woman is the most dangerous of all relationships, and Vale was aware that Mrs. Carberry claimed more of his time and thoughts than was consistent with the attitude—morally and socially—he ought to preserve towards her. Moreover the miserable life she led with an exacting and tyrannous husband aroused his pity, and that passion, according to Shakespeare, is akin to love. One false step and the result might be dangerous.
John Vale was the son of an enthusiastic Egyptologist, who had squandered a large fortune upon an archaeological collection. He had educated his son to succeed to his treasures and labours, but to his disgust John evinced distaste for mummies, coins, tombs, papri, and such-like. Also he cherished literary ambitions, and wished to make his mark as a novelist. Vale senior censured, urged, implored, commanded Vale junior to have done with such trifling: but the son was as obstinate as the father, and the breach widened between them. Finally John took up journalism in London, and Mr. Vale remained at Camford sulking amid his antiquities. In due time the Egyptologist died, and the journalist returned to learn that beyond the house, and a mummy of the XX. Dynasty, he was heir to—nothing. Vale had left his collection to the Camford Museum, and John found himself a pauper. He had been cut off with a mummy instead of the proverbial shilling, “in the hope,” said the will, “the sight of this marvellously embalmed Princess of the XX. Dynasty may induce my son John to devote his attention to the civilisation of Ancient Egypt.” Needless to say John declined to violate his taste by adopting this posthumous advice. However, he retained possession of his ironical legacy.
Professor Carberry, who long had coveted this special mummy, desired to purchase it, but to his surprise John refused the most advantageous offers. He was quite determined, he said to live in the house, and earn his livelihood by literary work; also to keep the famous mummy which, in itself, represented the fortune he should have inherited. Being a reserved young man he refused further information, and Carberry marvelled at what seemed to him to be the ridiculous decision.
“Bless me, Vale!” said he with acerbity, “why should you adopt this dog-in-the-manger attitude? You don’t care for the mummy and I do: you require money and I offer it to you. Why not then consult your own interest and sell?”
“No, Professsor. I shall keep the mummy to remind me that my father squandered twenty thousand pounds on such-like rubbish.”
“Don’t disparage those whose tastes differ from your own,” retorted Carberry with some dryness; “in my eyes your mummy is worth two hundred pounds. Come, I’ll let you have that sum for it.”
“No! I have made up my mind not to sell!”
“Obstinate man! I’ll increase my offer to guineas. It’s worth consideration!”
“I dare say: and worth more than the mummy,” said John. “However, I can only thank you, and decline your proposal.”
Carberry was vexed and showed it by frowning. Then he smiled and held out his hand. “Well, Vale, if you won’t sell you won’t,” said he, “but if you should change your mind, let me know. My offer will remain open. And Vale,” added the Professor, with a backward glance, “come and see us when you have nothing better to do.”
John did not accept this cordial invitation at once, as he had no great love for Carberry and his whims. But one afternoon at a garden party he saw a pale and delicate face which fixed his wandering attention. Forthwith he begged his hostess for an introduction, and shortly found himself walking and talking with Mrs. Carberry. The Professor was not present, otherwise he would have resented the long conversation which took place between the pair. Both Vale and Lucy were mutually attracted to one another; and after a few moments they were chatting confidentially together as though they were friends of years standing.
“I don’t know why I tell you these things,” said Lucy, stopping in the middle of a description of her taste in books. “I am sure they do not interest you.”
“But Indeed they do, Mrs. Carberry. I am enjoying our conversation more than I dare tell you.”
“Ah, that is because you are what the Italians call ‘simpatica.’ ”
“It is the first time such a term has been applied to me,” laughed John. “I am not what you term a ladies’ man. The Professor is, I understand.”
“Is he? That is news to me.”
She said this so bitterly that Vale was surprised, and glanced sideways at her charming face. The rosy colour induced by the pleasant conversation had died out, the soft eyes had hardened, and the mobile lips were firmly set in a thin line of scarlet. When Carberry was mentioned Lucy could govern her speech by limiting it to a few cold and careless words, but the expression of her face was beyond her control; and the opinion she entertained of her husband could be read thereon without difficulty. John saw dread and hate in every line of the pretty countenance; and also he deduced fear from the nervous and hurried way in which her eyes travelled round the sunlit lawn. He concluded from such evidence that Mrs. Carberry both feared and hated her husband. And in this conclusion he was absolutely right.
With considerable tact he turned the conversation into another channel, and soon he was confirmed in his opinion of her matrimonial feelings by seeing the face relax and the eyes soften. When Carberry came to take his wife away—which he did in a particularly gracious and smiling manner— Vale noted the Medusa-like transformation once more. When speaking to him Lucy’s face had been full of change and colour and charm, when leaving with her husband it was a mask of stone, hard and colourless. Only the expression of the eyes betrayed how terrified was the soul hidden in that slender body. These things afforded Vale food for much reflection on his way home.
“I knew that Carberry was a brute,” he mused, taking the most extreme view of the Professor’s character. “He tyrannises over that poor little woman. She looked like a dove caught in a snare when her husband appeared. It is a case of joy abroad and grief at home I suspect; but a few enquiries will soon enlighten me on that point.”
In this supposition he was wrong, for his few enquiries did nothing of the sort. To all the gossips of Camford he applied artfully for information and from all the gossips—on the best authority—he heard the same story. Professor Carberry was an amiable genius married to a brainless doll. He was the most delightful companion in the world, but he required a clever woman to understand and appreciate him; and Mrs. Carberry—by unanimous opinion—was not a clever women. She was pretty, in a washed-out way, she had a few social tricks like a well-bred poodle, and a feeble stream of parrot-like chatter. But brains? Where was Mr. Vale’s talent for character-reading to look for brains in that Dresden china nonentity? On the whole the verdict of Camford womanhood was dead against Lucy.
John, in his own mind, declined to accept this verdict as final. He saw that the Camford ladies grudged Lucy her acquisition of an eligible bachelor, and in revenge were determined to deny her possession of all feminine graces likely to account for the marriage. To learn the other side of the question Vale determined to use the invitation he had received from the Professor, and in pursuance of this idea he called forthwith on Mrs. Carberry. Again the mutual attraction declared itself between the pair, and they spent a most delightful hour together, notwithstanding the inconvenient presence of Carberry himself. In response to an appealing glance from Lucy—she did not dare to put her wish into words—John again repeated his visit. Ultimately, as controlled by some irresistible fate, the young man fell into the habit of passing the greater part of his spare time in the company of Mrs. Carberry. Busy bodies noted the fact, and informed the Professor, who merely shrugged his shoulders, and said that his wife liked to be amused. Nevertheless he thought sufficient of the hint to keep a close watch on the progress of this new acquaintanceship. It was at this point that Camford cynics suggested exchange of wife for mummy.
Ignorant of gossip and espionage the lovers—as they tacitly were—drifted into a knowledge that they could not live without one another. For a considerable time Lucy shrank from revealing her domestic misery, but finally she spoke out, and the indignation with which Vale received her confession drew them still closer together. Carberry made no attempt to end their friendship, but blinking like some sly beast of prey, he kept himself informed of all that was going on. At length the inevitable happened; a look too much, a sigh too long, and John declared his passion. Lucy listened, hesitated, and was lost.
How Carberry learned the actual truth—which at the present time was innocent enough—it is impossible to say. But learn it he did, and then cast about for some means whereby to punish the rebellion of his white slave and the presumption of her lover. The Spanish blood in his veins—his mother was from Catalonia—incited him to frenzy, and without considering that it was his own brutality which had alienated his wife, he determined upon revenge, and that of the most merciless. To accomplish this he feigned ignorance of the stolen glances and secret interviews of the pair; yet he noted the former, and knew when, where, and at what time the latter took place. Indeed he was actually present at one in the role of eavesdropper; and, in accordance with the proverb, he heard little good of himself.
John was drinking afternoon tea with Lucy, and the short November twilight was drawing to night, so that the room was almost in darkness. Mrs. Carberry was seated before the small tea-table, and Vale, cup in hand, was leaning against the mantel-piece, while the fire diffused a coppery glow upon scene and actors. Hidden like a tiger in a jungle, Carberry crouched behind the half-closed folding door, which opened into the inner drawing-room, and drank in every word. He heard sufficient to convince him that as yet the relationship between the pair was one of ardent friendship merely; but the discovery that they were innocent of offence only added fuel to his wrath. Nor was this allayed by hearing what the two determined upon at the interview.
“I tell you what, Lucy,” said John, enraged by the recital of fresh brutality, “you can’t live any longer with this slave-driver. Come with me to London.”
“But the world!” said Lucy, piteously.
“Never mind the world; it is of ourselves and of our happiness that we must think. As soon as you can get a divorce we will be married, and then we can defy the world. I am poor, it is true, but I have brains, and no doubt will be able to earn sufficient for our support. I love you—you love me; and you will be happier with me than with this reptile of a Carberry.”
The listening reptile repaid with a silent curse this plain speaking, and settled himself more comfortably to listen. It was to his advantage to do so.
“We must arrange the matter at once,” John was saying when the listener again caught the drift of the conversation. “You know how I love you, my poor darling. I cannot bear to think of your remaining in this wretch’s power. Say ‘yes,’ and we will go to London this week.”
“But Mr. Carberry will pursue us.”
“What of that? I’m not afraid of the rat!” said John, with a contemptous memory of the Professor’s stature. “A dozen Carberrys can’t hurt me.”
“I have no money!” objected Lucy. “Nor have you, John.”
“I have a plan to get sufficient,” said her lover, by this time on his knees. “Leave it all in my hands, dearest. You love me?”
“Better than all the world, darling.”
“Then leave Carberry, and come with me.”
“Oh, John! John!” She threw her arms round his neck. “You will never leave me, you will be good to me!”
“Always! always! I shall devote my life to making you happy!”
Then the pair fell to castle-building, and talking of a golden future, while Carberry crept away maddened with wrath and shame. Determined upon revenge, he saw as yet no mode to accomplish it befittingly. Ordering John Vale out of the house was too contemptible a means, beating Lucy had staled by repetition, and Carberry was as anxious to devise some new punishment sufficiently cruel, as Xerxes was to discover a new pleasure. Chance put a weapon into his hand the next day, when he received a letter from Vale offering to sell the mummy for two hundred pounds.
“So this is how the money is to be obtained,” sneered Carberry, taking in the situation. “The kid is to be seethed in its mother’s milk. I am to supply funds for my own dishonour. Very good! Vale has suggested a trap into which he will fall himself.”
Undoubtedly, morally speaking, the Professor had right on his side. Vale had no business to take his wife off him, and to trap him into supplying funds for the purpose of the elopement. But morality must at times give way to the law of humanity. Carberry treated his wife like a brute, and—so cunning he was in his attitude—the wretched woman had no redress by law; indeed, she had not the spirit to apply for redress even if it had been obtainable. Vale could only rescue her from a state of bondage and misery by breaking the law of morality, and there was something grimly just in his obtaining money from the husband to save the wife from further brutality. Both Lucy and John were acting wrongly—but look at the provocation. The rule anent the casting of stones may be applied in this instance.
However, Carberry esteeming himself a wronged man, proceeded with his plans for revenge. He wrote a polite note to Vale, intimating that he would call with a cheque that evening, and would bring back with him the case containing the mummy. Upon receipt of this John saw Lucy, and arranged with her to leave for London the next day, meeting her at the railway station for that purpose. Carberry lurking in the garden overheard what was determined upon, and chuckled to think what might happen—should his plans prove successful—before the elopement took place. He even taunted and tortured his unhappy wife, whom he had driven into sin, by a reference to the sale of the mummy before he left to keep the seven o’clock appointment “I wonder why Vale sold me his mummy after all?” he said artfully.
“Perhaps he wants money,” suggested Lucy, faintly.
“No doubt,” said Carberry, grimly. “Do you know why?”
“I! no—no! how—how should I know?”
“Oh nothing! Only I thought that Vale told you everything. Well, I must go,” added the Professor, going to the door. “It’ll be back in an hour, mummy and all.”
“In—in an hour?” murmured Lucy,
“Yes. I want you to see the mummy, my—my love. It is a wonderful example of embalming, and will probably surprise you.”
Grinning like a monkey, yet with an undercurrent of ferocity, Carberry took his departure, leaving his wife in a half-fainting condition. She could not understand his endearing expressions, his gentle voice and significant smiles; they all seemed to be so many signals of danger. Of old she knew them as precursors to shameful treatment, and she shuddered to think of what she might undergo before she fled to the shelter of Vale’s broad breast. Yet no idea of Carberry’s intentions crossed her mind, and she was perfectly unaware that he was employed in checkmating Vale’s plans. When she gained a knowledge of the truth, it was too late.
Outside it was raining heavily, and Mrs. Carberry walked restlessly about the room, listening to the downpour. Occasionally a flicker of blue lightening flared through the room, and a sullen roll of thunder passed over the house. The disturbance of the elements, the ominous behaviour of her tyrant, the expectation of the change in her life—all made Lucy uneasy, and she wished again and again that the morrow, with its hope of release, would come.
“Oh, John, John!” she whispered, with hands clasped to a beating heart, “I wish you were here—I wish we were away. I am afraid—afraid!—terribly afraid!”
She would have gone to bed had she dared, but the fear of punishment lay heavily upon her; so she sat by a dying fire, listening for the sound of footsteps through the storm. At nine she heard the door open, the trampling of many feet, and the bumping of a heavy case being dragged into Carberry’s study. With a sudden start she woke to the fact that the mummy had arrived, that her vigil was over; and she went out to speak with her husband as he was paying and dismissing the men who had brought the case. Then they departed, the sound of wheels died heavily away, and Carberry looked steadily at his pale-faced wife. There was danger in his regard.
“May I go to bed now?” asked Lucy, submissively, keeping her eyes fixed on the floor.
“No. I wish you to see my new treasure,” Something in his voice, hoarse and broken, made her look up, and she started back with a low cry.
The light of the candle he was holding revealed a white and distorted countenance; there was a frown on the forehead and a look of menace in the eyes, while the cruel expression lurking about the line of his thin lips terrified her into a shriek. At her ejaculation he gripped her savagely by the hand, and smiled grimly. It was not a pleasant smile.
“Why do you look so?” he demanded quietly. “Why do you cry out?”
“Never mind my face, woman; mind your actions. If I wasn’t in the best of tempers at getting that mummy I’d—” He raised his fist, but as she shrank away terrified, he dropped it again, and continued his speech. “I have paid a long price for what is in that case. Come and look at it!”
“The mummy! I don’t like looking on such horrors.”
“All the same, you must look,” growled Carberry, pushing her into the study. “You’d rather look upon Vale, I suppose.”
Lucy made no reply to this taunt, lest she should betray herself, but sat down and stared nervously at the rough deal case which leaned against the wall. Carberry was already unscrewing it, and the poor woman braced herself up to see the remains of the ancient Princess who had lived, and loved and sinned so many years ago. To get a good working light the Professor had placed a lamp on the near table, adjusting the shade so that the glare should fall directly upon the square face of the case. The rest of the room was in semi-darkness, and Lucy’s emotions —which were those of nervous dread—were veiled by shadow. There was something grim and gruesome and terrible about the scene.
Suddenly the loosened lid of the case fell outward Carberry’s feet; and the glare of the lamp revealed what lay within. It was not the mummy. Lucy rose slowly to her feet; and like a bird fascinated by a snake she moved slowly across the room. She looked at her husband, and again at the contents of the case. Then a whisper issued softly from out her pale lips.
“Dead!” assented Carberry, cruelly. “Your lover John Vale. Dead!”
“Yes I killed him. Ah! you jade, you and he thought to trick me. You laid your plans well, but I laid mine better. I knew that the money for which the mummy was sold was to be used for your flight. Do you think I took a cheque, or gold or notes in my pocket when I went to see John Vale this evening? No! I took a knife; and that knife,” he pointed a lean finger at the wound in the dead man’s breast, “that knife,” he repeated, “found his false heart. There is no flight for him or you. To him a dishonoured grave; to me revenge; to you—”
He paused in his furious speech to listen to the laughter which was rippling from Lucy’s lips. She smiled and laughed, and bent forward to kiss the cold lips of dead John Vale. At the repetition of this ghastly merriment Carberry laughed also.
“So!” said he, grimly, “your punishment has begun already. Your lover will go to the cemetery, you to an asylum. I’m sorry, my dear, I can’t stay to take you there, but I must provide for my own safety. In half an hour I leave Camford station for London, and then—the world is before me. As for you,” he added brutally, “Stay with your lover!”
Lucy again kissed the dead man, and when Carberry, leaving the room, cast a backward glance she was again laughing. Next morning the servants found Carberry absent; in the study a corpse, and a madwoman.
I shall never forget the terrible Christmas I spent at Ringshaw Grange in the year ‘93. As an army doctor I have met with strange adventures in far lands, and have seen some gruesome sights in the little wars which are constantly being waged on the frontiers of our empire; but it was reserved for an old country house in Hants to be the scene of the most noteworthy episode in my life. The experience was a painful one, and I hope it may never be repeated; but indeed so ghastly an event is not likely to occur again. If my story reads more like fiction than truth, I can only quote the well-worn saying, of the latter being stranger than the former. Many a time in my wandering life have I proved the truth of this proverb.
The whole affair rose out of the invitation which Frank Ringan sent me to spend Christmas with himself and his cousin Percy at the family seat near Christchurch. At that time I was home on leave from India; and shortly after my arrival I chanced to meet with Percy Ringan in Piccadilly. He was an Australian with whom I had been intimate some years before in Melbourne: a dapper little man with sleek fair hair and a transparent complexion: looking as fragile as a Dresden china image, yet with plenty of pluck and spirits. He suffered from heart disease; and was liable to faint on occasions; yet he fought against his mortal weakness with silent courage; and with certain precautions against over-excitement, he managed to enjoy life fairly well.
Notwithstanding his pronounced effeminacy, and somewhat truckling subserviency to rank and high birth, I liked the little man very well for his many good qualities. On the present occasion I was glad to see him, and expressed my pleasure.
“Although I did not expect to see you in England,” said I, after the first greetings had passed.
“I have been in London these nine months, my dear Lascelles,” he said, in his usual mincing way, “partly by way of a change and partly to see my cousin Frank,—who indeed invited me to come over from Australia.”
“Is that the rich cousin you were always speaking about in Melbourne?”
“Yes. But Frank is not rich. I am the wealthy Ringan, but he is the head of the family. You see, doctor,” continued Percy, taking my arm and pursuing the subject in a conversational manner, “my father, being a younger son, emigrated to Melbourne in the gold-digging days, and made his fortune out there. His brother remained at home on the estates, with very little money to keep up the dignity of the family; so my father helped the head of his house from time to time. Five years ago both my uncle and father died, leaving Frank and me as heirs, the one to the family estate, the other to the Australian wealth. So—”
“So you assist your cousin to keep up the dignity of the family as your father did before you.”
“Well, yes, I do,” admitted Percy, frankly. “You see, we Ringans think a great deal of our birth and position. So much so, that we have made our wills in one another’s favour.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, if I die Frank inherits my money; and if he dies, I become heir to the Ringan estates. It seems strange that I should tell you all this, Lascelles; but you were so intimate with me in the old days that you can understand my apparent rashness.”
I could not forbear a chuckle at the reason assigned by Percy for his confidence, especially as it was such a weak one. The little man had a tongue like a town-crier, and could no more keep his private affairs to himself than a woman could guard a secret. Besides I saw very well that with his inherent snobbishness he desired to impress me with the position and antiquity of his family, and with the fact—undoubtedly true —that it ranked amongst the landed gentry of the kingdom.
However, the weakness, though in bad taste, was harmless enough, and I had no scorn for the confession of it. Still, I felt a trifle bored, as I took little interest in the chronicling of such small beer, and shortly parted from Percy after promising to dine with him the following week.
At this dinner, which took place at the Athenian Club, I met with the head of the Ringan family; or, to put it plainer, with Percy’s cousin Frank. Like the Australian he was small and neat, but enjoyed much better health and lacked the effeminacy of the other. Yet on the whole I liked Percy the best, as there was a sly cast about Frank’s countenance which I did not relish; and he patronised his colonial cousin in rather an offensive manner.
The latter looked up to his English kinsman with all deference, and would, I am sure, have willingly given his gold to regild the somewhat tarnished escutcheon of the Ringans. Outwardly, the two cousins were so alike as to remind one of Tweddledum and Tweddledee; but after due consideration I decided that Percy was the better-natured and more honourable of the two.
For some reason Frank Ringan seemed desirous of cultivating my acquaintance; and in one way and another I saw a good deal of him during my stay in London. Finally, when I was departing on a visit to some relatives in Norfolk he invited me to spend Christmas at Ringshaw Grange—not, as it afterwards appeared, without an ulterior motive.
“I can take no refusal,” said he, with a heartiness which sat ill on him. “Percy, as an old friend of yours, has set his heart on my having you down; and —if I may say so—I have set my heart on the same thing.”
“Oh, you really must come, Lascelles,” cried Percy, eagerly. “We are going to keep Christmas in the real old English fashion. Washington Irving’s style, you know; holly, wassail-bowl, games, and mistletoe.”
“And perhaps a ghost or so,” finished Frank, laughing, yet with a side glance at his eager little cousin.
“Ah!” said I. “So your Grange is haunted.”
“I should think so,” said Percy, before his cousin could speak, “and with a good old Queen Anne ghost. Come down, Doctor, and Frank shall put you in the haunted chamber.
“No!” cried Frank, with a sharpness which rather surprised me, “I’ll put no one in the Blue Room; the consequences might be fatal. You smile, Lascelles, but I assure you our ghost has been proved to exist!”
“That’s a paradox; a ghost can’t exist. But the story of your ghost—”
“Is too long to tell now,” said Frank, laughing. “Come down to the Grange and you’ll hear it.”
“Very good,” I replied, rather attracted by the idea of a haunted house, “you can count upon me for Christmas. But I warn you, Ringan, that I don’t believe in spirits. Ghosts went out with gas.”
“Then they must have come in again with electric light,” retorted Frank Ringan, “for Lady Joan undoubtedly haunts the Grange. I don’t mind; as it adds distinction to the house.”
“All old families have a ghost,” said Percy, importantly. “It is very natural when one has ancestors.”
There was no more said on the subject for the time being, but the upshot of this conversation was that I presented myself at Ringshaw Grange two or three days before Christmas. To speak the truth, I came more on Percy’s account than my own, as I knew the little man suffered from heart disease, and a sudden shock might prove fatal. If, in the unhealthy atmosphere of an old house, the inmates got talking of ghosts and goblins, it might be that the consequences would be dangerous to so highly strung and delicate a man as Percy Ringan.
For this reason, joined to a sneaking desire to see the ghost, I found myself a guest at Ringshaw Grange. In one way I regret the visit; yet in another I regard it as providential that I was on the spot. Had I been absent the catastrophe might have been greater, although it could scarcely have been more terrible.
Ringshaw Grange was a quaint Elizabethan house, all gables and diamond casements, and oriel windows, and quaint terraces, looking like an illustration out of an old Christmas number. It was embowered in a large park, the trees of which came up almost to the doors, and when I saw it first in the moonlight—for it was by a late train that I came from London—it struck me as the very place for a ghost.
Here was a haunted house of the right quality if ever there was one, and I only hoped when I crossed the threshold that the local spectre would be worthy of its environment. In such an interesting house I did not think to pass a dull Christmas; but—God help me—I did not anticipate so tragic a Yule-tide as I spent.
As our host was a bachelor and had no female relative to do the honours of his house the guests were all of the masculine gender. It is true that there was a housekeeper—a distant cousin I understood—who was rather elderly but very juvenile as to dress and manner. She went by the name of Miss Laura, but no one saw much of her as, otherwise than attending to her duties, she remained mostly in her own rooms.
So our party was composed of young men—none save myself being over the age of thirty, and few being gifted with much intelligence. The talk was mostly of sport, of horse racings big game shooting and yacht-sailing: so that I grew tired at times of these subjects and retired to the library to read and write. The day after I arrived Frank showed me over the house.
It was a wonderful old barrack of a place, with broad passages, twisting interminably like the labyrinth of Daedalus; small bedrooms furnished in an old-fashioned manner, and vast reception apartments with polished floors and painted ceilings. Also there were the customary number of family portraits frowning from the walls; suits of tarnished armour; and ancient tapestries embroidered with grim and ghastly legends of the past.
The old house was crammed with treasures, rare enough to drive an antiquarian crazy; and filled with the flotsam and jetsam of many centuries, mellowed by time into one soft hue, which put them all in keeping with one another. I must say that I was charmed with Ringshaw Grange, and no longer wondered at the pride taken by Percy Ringan in his family and their past glories.
“That’s all very well,” said Frank, to whom I remarked as much; “Percy is rich, and had he this place could keep it up in proper style; but I am as poor as a rat, and unless I can make a rich marriage, or inherit a comfortable legacy, house and furniture park and timber may all come to the hammer.”
He looked gloomy as he spoke; and, feeling that I had touched on a somewhat delicate matter, I hastened to change the subject, by asking to be shown the famous Blue Chamber, which was said to be haunted. This was the true Mecca of my pilgrimage into Hants.
“It is along this passage,” said Frank, leading the way, “and not very far from your own quarters. There is nothing in its looks likely to hint at the ghost—at all events by day—but it is haunted for all that.”
Thus speaking he led me into a large room with a low ceiling, and a broad casement looking out on to the untrimmed park, where the woodland was most sylvan. The walls were hung with blue cloth embroidered with grotesque figures in black braid or thread, I know not which. There was a large old-fashioned bed with tester and figured curtains and a quantity of cumbersome furniture of the early Georgian epoch. Not having been inhabited for many years the room had a desolate and silent look —if one may use such an expression—and to my mind looked gruesome enough to conjure up a battalion of ghosts, let alone one.
“I don’t agree with you!” said I, in reply to my host’s remark. “To my mind this is the very model of a haunted chamber. What is the legend?”
“I’ll tell it to you on Christmas Eve,” replied Rigan, as we left the room. “It is rather a bloodcurdling tale.”
“Do you believe it?” said I, struck by the solemn air of the speaker.
“I have had evidence to make me credulous,” he replied dryly, and closed the subject for the time being.
It was renewed on Christmas Eve when all our company were gathered round a huge wood fire in the library. Outside, the snow lay thick on the ground, and the gaunt trees stood up black and leafless out of the white expanse. The sky was of a frosty blue with sharply-twinkling stars, and a hard-looking moon. On the snow the shadows of interlacing boughs were traced blackly as in Indian ink, and the cold was of Arctic severity.
But seated in the holly-decked apartment before a noble fire which roared bravely up the wide chimney we cared nothing for the frozen world out of doors. We laughed and talked, sang songs and recalled adventures, until somewhere about ten o’clock we fell into a ghostly vein quite in keeping with the goblin-haunted season. It was then that Frank Ringan was called upon to chill our blood with his local legend. This he did without much pressing.
“In the reign of good Queen Anne,” said he, with a gravity befitting the subject, “my ancestor Hugh Ringan, was the owner of this house. He was a silent misanthropic man, having been soured early in life by the treachery of a woman. Mistrusting the sex he refused to marry for many years; and it was not until he was fifty years of age that he was beguiled by the arts of a pretty girl into the toils of matrimony. The lady was Joan Challoner, the daughter of the Earl of Branscourt; and she was esteemed one of the beauties of Queen Anne’s court.
“It was in London that Hugh met her, and thinking from her innocent and child-like appearance that she would make him a true-hearted wife, he married her after a six months’ courtship and brought her with all honour to Ringshaw Grange. After his marriage he became more cheerful and less distrustful of his fellow-creatures. Lady Joan was all to him that a wife could be, and seemed devoted to her husband and child—for she early became a mother— when one Christmas Eve all this happiness came to an end.”
“Oh!” said I, rather cynically. “So Lady Joan proved to be no better than the rest of her sex.”
“So Hugh Ringan thought, Doctor; but he was as mistaken as you are. Lady Joan occupied the Blue Room, which I showed you the other day; and on Christmas Eve, when riding home late, Hugh saw a man descend from the window. Thunderstruck by the sight, he galloped after the man and caught him before he could mount a horse which was waiting for him. The cavalier was a handsome young fellow of twenty-five, who refused to answer Hugh’s questions. Thinking, naturally enough, that he had to do with a lover of his wife’s, Hugh fought a duel with the stranger and killed him after a hard fight.
“Leaving him dead on the snow he rode back to the Grange, and burst in on his wife to accuse her of perfidy. It was in vain that Lady Joan tried to defend herself by stating that the visitor was her brother, who was engaged in plots for the restoration of James II., and on that account wished to keep secret the fact of his presence in England. Hugh did not believe her, and told her plainly that he had killed her lover; whereupon Lady Joan burst out into a volley of reproaches and cursed her husband. Furious at what he deemed was her boldness Hugh at first attempted to kill her, but not thinking the punishment sufficient, he cut off her right hand.”
“Why?” asked everyone, quite unprepared for this information.
“Because in the first place Lady Joan was very proud of her beautiful white hands, and in the second Hugh had seen the stranger kiss her hand—her right hand—before he descended from the window. For these reasons he mutilated her thus terribly.”
“And she died.”
“Yes, a week after her hand was cut off. And she swore that she would come back to touch all those in the Blue Room—that is who slept in it—who were foredoomed to death. She kept her promise, for many people who have slept in that fatal room have been touched by the dead hand of Lady Joan, and have subsequently died.”
“Did Hugh find out that his wife was innocent?”
“He did,” replied Ringan, “and within a month after her death. The stranger was really her brother, plotting for James II., as she had stated. Hugh was not punished by man for his crime, but within a year he slept in the Blue Chamber and was found dead next morning with the mark of three fingers on his right wrist. It was thought that in his remorse he had courted death by sleeping in the room cursed by his wife.”
“And there was a mark on him?”
“On his right wrist red marks like a burn; the impression of three fingers. Since that time the room has been haunted,”
“Does everyone who sleeps in it die?” I asked.
“No. Many people have risen well and hearty in the morning. Only those who are doomed to an early death are thus touched!”
“When did the last case occur?”
“Three years ago,” was Frank’s unexpected reply. “A friend of mine called Herbert Spencer would sleep in that room. He saw the ghost and was touched. He showed me the marks next morning— three red finger marks.”
“Did the omen hold good?”
“Yes. Spencer died three months afterwards. He was thrown from his horse.”
I was about to put further questions in a sceptical vein, when we heard shouts outside, and we all sprang to our feet as the door was thrown open to admit Miss Laura in a state of excitement.
“Fire! fire!” she cried, almost distracted. “Oh! Mr. Ringan,” addressing herself to Percy, “your room is on fire! I—”
We waited to hear no more, but in a body rushed up to Percy’s room. Volumes of smoke were rolling out of the door, and flames were flashing within. Frank Ringan, however, was prompt and coolheaded. He had the alarm bell rung, summoned the servants, grooms, and stable hands, and in twenty minutes the fire was extinguished.
On asking how the fire had started, Miss Laura, with much hysterical sobbing, stated that she had gone into Percy’s room to see that all was ready and comfortable for the night. Unfortunately the wind wafted one of the bed-curtains towards the candle she was carrying, and in a moment the room was in a blaze. After pacifying Miss Laura, who could not help the accident, Frank turned to his cousin. By this time we were back again in the library.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “your room is swimming in water, and is charred with fire. I’m afraid you can’t stay there to-night; but I don’t know where to put you unless you take the Blue Room.”
“The Blue Room!” we all cried. “What! the haunted chamber?”
“Yes; all the other rooms are full. Still, if Percy is afraid—”
“Afraid!” cried Percy indignantly. “I’m not afraid at all. I’ll sleep in the Blue Room with the greatest of pleasure.”
“But the ghost—”
“I don’t care for the ghost,” interrupted the Australian, with a nervous laugh. “We have no ghosts in our part of the world, and as I have not seen one, I do not believe there is such a thing.”
We all tried to dissuade him from sleeping in the haunted room, and several of us offered to give up our apartments for the night—Frank among the number. But Percy’s dignity was touched, and he was resolute to keep his word. He had plenty of pluck, as I said before, and the fancy that we might think him a coward spurred him on to resist our entreaties.
The end of it was that shortly before midnight he went off to the Blue Room, and declared his intention of sleeping in it. There was nothing more to be said in the face of such obstinacy, so one by one we retired, quite unaware of the events to happen before the morning. So on that Christmas Eve the Blue Room had an unexpected tenant.
On going to my bedroom I could not sleep. The tale told by Frank Ringan haunted my fancy, and the idea of Percy sleeping in that ill-omened room made me nervous. I did not believe in ghosts myself, nor, so far as I knew, did Percy, but the little man suffered from heart disease—he was strung up to a high nervous pitch by our ghost stories—and if anything out of the common—even from natural causes—happened in that room, the shock might be fatal to its occupant.
I knew well enough that Percy, out of pride, would refuse to give up the room, yet I was determined that he should not sleep in it; so, failing persuasion, I employed stratagem. I had my medicine chest with me, and taking it from my portmanteau I prepared a powerful narcotic. I left this on the table and went along to the Blue Room, which, as I have said before, was not very far from mine.
A knock brought Percy to the door, clothed in pyjamas, and at a glance I could see that the ghostly atmosphere of the place was already telling on his nerves. He looked pale and disturbed, but his mouth was firmly set with an obstinate expression likely to resist my proposals. However, out of diplomacy, I made none, but blandly stated my errand, with more roughness, indeed, than was necessary.
“Come to my room, Percy,” I said, when he appeared, “and let me give you something to calm your nerves.”
“I’m not afraid!” he said, defiantly.
“Who said you were?” I rejoined, tartly. “You believe in ghosts no more than I do, so why should you be afraid? But after the alarm of fire your nerves are upset, and I want to give you something to put them right. Otherwise, you’ll get no sleep.”
“I shouldn’t mind a composing draught, certainly,” said the little man. “Have you it here?”
“No, it’s in my room, a few yards off. Come along.”
Quite deluded by my speech and manner, Percy followed me into my bedroom, and obediently enough swallowed the medicine. Then I made him sit down in a comfortable arm-chair, on the plea that he must not walk immediately after the draught. The result of my experiment was justified, for in less than ten minutes the poor little man was fast asleep under the influence of the narcotic. When thus helpless, I placed him on my bed, quite satisfied that he would not awaken until late the next day. My task accomplished, I extinguished the light, and went off myself to the Blue Room, intending to remain there for the night.
It may be asked why I did so, as I could easily have taken my rest on the sofa in my own room; but the fact is, I was anxious to sleep in a haunted chamber. I did not believe in ghosts, as I had never seen one, but as there was a chance of meeting here with an authentic phantom I did not wish to lose the opportunity.
Therefore when I saw that Percy was safe for the night, I took up my quarters in the ghostly territory, with much curiosity, but—as I can safely aver—no fear. All the same, in case of practical jokes on the part of the feather-headed young men in the house, I took my revolver with me. Thus prepared, I locked the door of the Blue Room and slipped into bed, leaving the light burning. The revolver I kept under my pillow ready to my hand in case of necessity.
“Now,” said I grimly, as I made myself comfortable, “I’m ready for ghosts, or goblins, or practical jokers.”
I lay awake for a long time, staring at the queer figures on the blue draperies of the apartment. In the pale flame of the candle they looked ghostly enough to disturb the nerves of anyone: and when the draught fluttered the tapestries the figures seemed to move as though alive. For this sight alone I was glad that Percy had not slept in that room. I could fancy the poor man lying in that vast bed with blanched face and beating heart, listening to every creak, and watching the fantastic embroideries waving on the walls. Brave as he was, I am sure the sounds and sights of that room would have shaken his nerves, I did not feel very comfortable myself, sceptic as I was.
When the candle had burned down pretty low I fell asleep. How long I slumbered I know not: but I woke up with the impression that something or some one was in the room. The candle had wasted nearly to the socket and the flame was flickering and leaping fitfully, so as to display the room one moment and leave it almost in darkness the next. I heard a soft step crossing the room, and as it drew near a sudden spurt of flame from the candle showed me a little woman standing by the side of the bed. She was dressed in a gown of flowered brocade, and wore the towering head dress of the Queen Anne epoch. Her face I could scarcely see, as the flash of flame was only momentary; but I felt what the Scotch call a deadly grue as I realized that this was the veritable phantom of Lady Joan.
For the moment the natural dread of the supernatural quite overpowered me, and with my hands and arms lying outside the counterpane I rested inert and chilled with fear. This sensation of helplessness in the presence of evil, was like what one experiences in a nightmare of the worst kind.
When again the flame of the expiring candle shot up, I beheld the ghost close at hand, and—as I felt rather than saw—knew that it was bending over me. A faint odour of musk was in the air, and I heard the soft rustle of the brocaded skirts echo through the semi-darkness. The next moment I felt my right wrist gripped in a burning grasp, and the sudden pain roused my nerves from their paralysis.
With a yell I rolled over, away from the ghost, wrenching my wrist from that horrible clasp, and, almost mad with pain I groped with my left hand for the revolver. As I seized it the candle flared up for the last time, and I saw the ghost gliding back towards the tapestries. In a second I raised the revolver and fired. The next moment there was a wild cry of terror and agony, the fall of a heavy body on the floor, and almost before I knew where I was I found myself outside the door of the haunted room. To attract attention I fired another shot from my revolver, while the Thing on the floor moaned in the darkness most horribly.
In a few moments guests and servants, all in various stages of undress, came rushing along the passage bearing lights. A babel of voices arose, and I managed to babble some incoherent explanation, and led the way into the room. There on the floor lay the ghost, and we lowered the candles to look at its face. I sprang up with a cry on recognising who it was.
It was indeed Frank Ringan disguised as a woman in wig and brocades. He looked at me with a ghostly face, his mouth working nervously. With an effort he raised himself on his hands and tried to speak—whether in confession or exculpation, I know not. But the attempt was too much for him, a choking cry escaped his lips, a jet of blood burst from his mouth, and he fell back dead.
Over the rest of the events of that terrible night I draw a veil. There are some things it is as well not to speak of. Only I may state that all through the horror and confusion Percy Ringan, thanks to my strong sleeping draught, slumbered as peacefully as a child, thereby saving his life.
With the morning’s light came discoveries and explanations. We found one of the panels behind the tapestry of the Blue Room open, and it gave admittance into a passage which on examination proved to lead into Frank Ringan’s bedroom. On the floor we discovered a delicate hand formed of steel, and which bore marks of having been in the fire. On my right wrist were three distinct burns, which I have no hesitation in declaring, were caused by the mechanical hand which we picked up near the dead man. And the explanation of these things came from Miss Laura, who was wild with terror at the death of her master, and said in her first outburst of grief and fear, what I am sure she regretted in her calmer moments.
“It’s all Frank’s fault,” she wept. “He was poor and wished to be rich. He got Percy to make his will in his favour, and wanted to kill him by a shock. He knew that Percy had heart disease and that a shock might prove fatal; so he contrived that his cousin should sleep in the Blue Room on Christmas Eve; and he himself played the ghost of Lady Joan with the burning hand. It was a steel hand, which he heated in his own room so as to mark with a scar those it touched.”
“Whose idea was this?” I asked, horrified by the devilish ingenuity of the scheme.
“Frank’s!” said Miss Laura, candidly. “He promised to marry me if I helped him to get the money by Percy’s death. We found that there was a secret passage leading to the Blue Room; so some years ago we invented the story that it was haunted.”
“Why, in God’s name?”
“Because Frank was always poor. He knew that his cousin in Australia had heart disease, and invited him home to kill him with fright. To make things safe he was always talking about the haunted room and telling the story so that everything should be ready for Percy on his arrival. Our plans were all carried out. Percy arrived and Frank got him to make the will in his favour. Then he was told the story of Lady Joan and her hand, and by setting fire to Percy’s room last night I got him to sleep in the Blue Chamber without any suspicion being aroused.”
“ You wicked woman!” I cried. “Did you fire Percy’s room on purpose?”
“Yes. Frank promised to marry me if I helped him. We had to get Percy to sleep in the Blue Chamber, and I managed it by setting fire to his bedroom. He would have died with fright when Frank, as Lady Joan, touched him with the steel hand, and no one would have been the wiser. Your sleeping in that haunted room saved Percy’s life, Dr. Lascelles: yet Frank invited you down as part of his scheme, that you might examine the body: and declare the death to be a natural one.”
“Was it Frank who burnt the wrist of Herbert Spence some years ago?” I asked.
“Yes!” replied Miss Laura, wiping her red eyes. “We thought if the ghost appeared to a few other people, that Percy’s death might seem more natural. It was a mere coincidence that Mr. Spence died three months after the ghost touched him.”
“Do you know you are a very wicked woman, Miss Laura?”
“I am a very unhappy one,” she retorted. “I have lost the only man I ever loved; and his miserable cousin survives to step into his shoes as the master of Ringshaw Grange.”
That was the sole conversation I had with the wretched woman, for shortly afterwards she disappeared, and I fancy must have gone abroad, as she was never more heard of. At the inquest held on the body of Frank the whole strange story came out, and was reported at full length by the London press to the dismay of ghost-seers: for the fame of Ringshaw Grange as a haunted mansion had been great in the land.
I was afraid lest the jury should bring in a verdict of manslaughter against me, but the peculiar features of the case being taken into consideration I was acquitted of blame, and shortly afterwards returned to India with an unblemished character. Percy Ringan was terribly distressed on hearing of his cousin’s death, and shocked by the discovery of his treachery. However, he was consoled by becoming the head of the family, and as he lives a quiet life at Ringshaw Grange there is not much chance of his early death from heart disease—at all events from a ghostly point of view.
The blue chamber is shut up, for it is haunted now by a worse spectre than that of Lady Joan, whose legend (purely fictitious) was so ingeniously set forth by Frank. It is haunted by the ghost of the coldblooded scoundrel who fell into his own trap; and who met with his death in the very moment he was contriving that of another man. As to myself, I have given up ghost-hunting and sleeping in haunted rooms. Nothing will ever tempt me to experiment in that way again. One adventure of that sort is enough to last me a lifetime.
If the members of Psychical Society choose to theorise on this story, they are at liberty to do so. It is authentic, and, so far as I can see, inexplicable, save by the admission of spiritual influence. Always excepting the present instance, I am unacquainted with the unseen world, and therefore do not profess to account for the unaccountable. Those connected with the Society aforesaid, which is, I understand, familiar with the laws governing spiritism, may perhaps place the matter in a more reasonable light, and if thus fortunate I trust they will furnish me with the explanation, as at present I dare not even hazard an opinion. “There are more things in heaven and earth,”—but that saying has been used many times as an excuse for ignorance.
I confess to being a doctor and sceptical as regards the supernatural—that is, I was sceptical, but this one intervention of the unseen has shaken my disbelief in the influence of the invisible. Nevertheless, I am not yet prepared to go to the other extreme and assume the existence of a hierarchy of ghostly presences ruling mortals from beyond the grave. My position is entirely neutral. I neither believe nor disbelieve, uphold nor condemn; but on the strength of my exorcism of the Marrit Grange ghost I admit a decided leaning to Hamlet’s view above quoted.
Taken in bulk medical men are decidedly sceptical.
They believe in nothing but what they can see, handle, or explain away. As a watchmaker does a watch, they can take the human frame to pieces and determine the necessity and function of each component part. The heart, reservoir of the blood; the veins, so many pipes conducting the nutritious fluid to all parts of the body; the brain, seat of the intelligence and register of internal and external happenings; the muscles, a network of elastic bands expanding and contracting with the desire of the controlling power. Of all these they have determined the existence, and the reason for such existence; but not having discovered a tangible soul in any portion of the body, they, in many cases, deny existence. The case argued syllogistically stands thus:— “A soul is necessary to an incorporeal existence.” “There is no soul discoverable.” Ergo, “there can be no incorporeal existence.” Thus in one sweep do these learned men dispose of ghosts and ghostdom.
If their view be the right one, then my experience at Marrit Grange is not to be explained by natural laws; if wrong, and the existence of the supernatural be assumed, then I may claim to have been utilised by spiritual influence for the furtherance of human justice. I decline to commit myself to any opinion in so delicate a matter, for the gratification of the public curiosity I set forth clearly all that took place at the Grange. Those who run can read; those who read can expound—if they can.
When my aunt Selina died, I was twenty-six years of age, and a duly qualified M.R.C.P. without a practice, without money, and without influence in high places to further me in my profession. I as her sole relative inherited her blessing, and the sum of two thousand pounds, with which nest-egg I proposed to improve my position. My friends advised the purchase of a practice in London, but I had no notion of sinking my all in so risky a speculation. Patients do not care to be sold like a flock of sheep, and naturally enough prefer to use their own judgment in selecting a doctor: consequently the purchaser of a practice is by no means sure of enjoying that for which he has paid. Some patients object to the new doctor, and decline his visits; others get well or die, in either of which cases they do not require him; and it generally ends in the unlucky interloper having to build up a new practice on the ruins of an old one. With these ideas I scouted the well meant advice and resolved to start “ab ovum.” Also as I did not like London it was my intention to leave the metropolis, and set up my tent in the wholesome country air.
I therefore banked my legacy, and travelled through southern England in search of a fairly unhealthy neighbourhood, where I might hope to find a sufficiency of sickly folks to physic in return for their guineas. After many weary weeks and still more weary railway journeys, I came to Denhampton, on the Sussex coast, where, attracted by the beauty of the neighbourhood, I resolved to make an end of my wanderings.
It was a rising watering-place but being yet in its infancy, had only one doctor to look after those who resorted to its breezy downs, and sandy beaches. There was ample room for another practitioner, and after exploring the locality, and making use of certain introductions, and asking innumerable questions, I came to the conclusions that here if anywhere, I would find opportunity of utilising my small fortune, and medical experience.
Absence from London was no exile to me, for country born and bred as I was, the smoky atmosphere of Bloomsbury was abhorrent to my lungs and the lack of green fields a weariness to my eyes. I infinitely preferred Denhampton, with its undulating downs, its chalky cliffs fretted by the Channel waves; and between the two that quaint little village expanded on three sides into rows of pleasant villas and desirable mansions facing the sharp sea breeze on windy heights. Moreover, Denhampton was growing rapidly, and I hoped to improve my fortunes at the same pace; so having decided my course, I sought for a residence with a sufficiently imposing door, whereon to affix my newly-graven brass plate.
Midway between old and new Denhampton stretched a broad road of no great length connecting the ancient village with the more modem town. On one side grassy fields sloped to the crumbling edges of the cliffs, on the other on a slight rise, some distance back from the highway, stood Marrit Grange. It was one of the oldest houses in that part of the country, a squat building of grey stone, fronted by a terrace, and girdled by lawns dotted with many trees, heavy boughed, and gnarled. From the iron gates giving on the road aforesaid, a winding drive led to the front door, which was placed immediately beside the terrace, and a truncated tower rising above this to no very great height, commanded a fine view of the Channel.
Neglected as were the grounds, and desolate as was the mansion—for it had been uninhabited for some considerable period—I conceived a fancy for the place.
It stood in its own grounds, it was quiet and retired; it suited my studious leanings, yet occupied an excellent position for one of my profession. Living here I would be equally placed between village and watering place, so could attend to possible patients in both without much trouble. All things considering, I did not hope to find a place offering more advantages, so went in search of the agent in whose hands, as I was informed by a board in the grounds, it was placed for letting.
Darver, the agent, was a solemn-looking creature, more like an undertaker than anything else and, welcomed my intimation that I proposed to practise in the town with a dry smile. Small as was this evidence of pleasure, it vanished altogether when I spoke of Marrit Grange, and he started at the mention of the name. Then his desire to do business swamped all other considerations, and he resumed his dry smile and buckram civilities. For some time he kept up this fine affectation of carelessness, but in the end an inborn love of gossip got the better of his desire to gain a tenant, and he warned me solemnly against the house. But that came later in our conversation.
“You wish to take Marrit Grange, I understand,” said he, eyeing me with some curiosity. “Aye, aye. It’s a fine place for a doctor that Midway between the two towns, you can physic your patients at your will. A healthy situation, too, dry and salubrious, with five acres of good land, and an orchard. A very desirable residence indeed,” he concluded with his dry smile, “and to be let furnished for ten years at a moderate rental!”
“I had not thought of taking it furnished,” I answered, after a pause, “but that will not stand in the way: always supposing that the furniture is decent”
“Oh, the furniture is as solid and plentiful as can be desired, Dr. Phelps,” he answered with a nod. “The last tenant left the house two years back, but I have had the place well looked after in case anyone took a fancy to living there. You’ll find it as spruce as a new pin and uncommonly comfortable. Maybe it is in your mind to look over the house?” he concluded with a glance, dubious and inquiring.
“Certainly; I should not think of making an offer without a thorough examination.”
“Sensible enough,” said he, selecting a bunch of keys from several dangling from the wall. “If you are not engaged we will walk over now. Just so.”
This proposition falling in with my views, I readily accepted the same, and in a few minutes we were on our road to the Grange. Darver, lean and lank, and wondrous grim, expatiated on the comfort of the house, the excellence of the position, and the moderation of the rent. When he informed me of this last I was a trifle surprised at the smallness of the sum demanded for so well-furnished and large a mansion.
We were then standing in the drawing-room, beside one of three French windows which overlooked a stone-flagged terrace, beyond which spread the lawn, girded by laurel trees. A sun-dial stood in the centre of the greenness, and broad shallow steps led from the terrace to the gravelled paths. On the other side of the laurels ran the road, and to right and left I could catch a glimpse of red roofs and lean chimneys. All this with the leaping waves of the Channel whitening in the distance, looked extremely cheerful under a bright sky filled with sunshine, and more than ever was I determined to secure the house. But the ridiculously small rent at once surprised me, and raised my suspicions.
“Are the drains all right, Mr. Darver?”
“Aye, Doctor, in perfect order.”
“H’m; the situation is healthy, the house comfortable,” said I dubiously; “why has it not been let before?”
“It has been let several times,” said Mr. Darver; “but the tenants left.”
“For what reason?”
“Because they were fools,” said he scoffingly “Not one of them stayed over the month.”
“The rent you ask is very small considering the advantages you offer.”
“Just so, Doctor. It’s a bargain not to be met with every day.”
“So much of a bargain that I think there must be some drawback!” said I, dryly; “come, now, Mr. Darver, is there anything wrong about this place?”
“Well, Doctor,” said he, jingling the keys; “it has been in my mind to tell you, so I’ll make a clean breast of it. This house is said to be haunted.”
I burst out laughing at this communication. The mountain had only produced a mouse after all.
“Bah! Ghosts went out with gas; you can’t frighten me with an old woman’s tale of that sort”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Darver, grimly; “several of the tenants were of the same way of thinking, but they left, bag and baggage, for all that”
“This is becoming interesting,” I said, with a scorn which I took no pains to conceal. “Do you believe in the ghost?”
“I can’t say. I never slept there,” was the laconic answer.
“Prevention is better than cure? Eh? Well, Mr. Darver, in what form does the ghost make its appearance—winding sheet, rusty armour, brocaded gown, or what?”
“It’s an invisible ghost,” replied Darver; “nothing is seen—nothing is heard—but something is felt.”
The explanation was so ridiculous that I made no further objection to concluding the bargain. This nonsense about supernatural influence was more than balanced by the advantages to be gained. Indeed, thinking of my lean purse, I mentally thanked the ghost for having reduced the rent to such small proportions.
“Well, Mr. Darver,” said I, promptly, “if no one else will take the house I am not afraid to do so. Let us walk back to your office and discuss the matter. On the way you can tell me the story, whence originated this belief that the Grange is haunted.
“Then you really intend to take this house,” exclaimed Darver, with considerable satisfaction.
“At once. As soon as the lease is signed I shall move in and commence practice. I hope to exorcise the ghost, and if I do the rent will, of course, remain at the same figure. The lease will place all that on a proper footing. Well, Mr. Darver, tell me the story and let me hear what I have to expect.”
“It has to do with a disappearance,” said Darver promptly. “A Mrs. Brunei lived here ten years ago. She was a wealthy old widow with a distrust of banks and investments, and so kept a large portion of her wealth in the house. Being of a miserly disposition, she kept only two servants,—a woman nearly as old, and quite as avaricious as herself, and a man who was considerably younger than either. They grubbed on here in a sparse fashion, and—well, to make along story short, the three of them disappeared one week and were never heard of again.”
“It is certainly strange that three people should disappear at one and the same time.”
“So everybody remarked,” replied Darver, shrugging his shoulders. “But whether the man murdered the two women, or they killed him and fled, it is hard to say. The heirs of Mrs. Brunei found no money in the house, so no doubt there was robbery mixed up in the affair.”
“A very unsatisfactory story,” I answered, “those three people could not have been murdered, or evidence of the crime would have been found. On the other hand, there was no reason as far as I can see, why they should disappear. However, I accept the tale for what it is worth, though I do not see the connection between this disappearance of three people and your ghost.”
“It is simple enough. The heirs of Mrs. Brunei let the house furnished, and it was speedily taken, being as you see in an excellent position. In less than a month the tenants cleared out, because they said an Influence pervaded the house, and made them get out of their beds and wander about the house. Moreover, they insisted that something or someone was invariably looking over their shoulders, when they talked, or ate, or read. In short, they declared that the house was haunted, and made them uncomfortable, so they cleared out. The next tenants told the same story, and acted in the same manner; so did the third lot till the belief became general that the Grange was haunted. Of course, the rumour depreciated the value of the place, as no tenant would lease the property. You are the first person for twelve months who has made up his mind to brave the superstition. That is,” added Darver, significantly, “if you are still of the same mind.”
“Am I a child to be frightened by a bogey?” I retorted smartly, “of course I am of the same mind. If this influence or ghost, or whatever you call it, can make a hardworked doctor keep midnight vigils, I may become a convert to spiritualism. However, as such a thing is not likely to happen, I accept the situation.”
Having come to this decision, I lost no time in acting in accordance therewith, and within a fortnight was installed at the Grange. My experience of the first night forced me to recognised that the former tenants had some excuse for leaving so ill-omened a mansion.
* * * * * * *
The drawing-room, as I have said, was lighted by three French windows, which opened on to the terrace. A large and lofty apartment it was, sparsely furnished in an old-fashioned manner, and pervaded by a chilly atmosphere, highly suggestive of ghosts. Here, if anywhere, the Influence was most likely to exercise its powers, and, anxious to test the truth of Darver’s extraordinary story, I waited in that apartment the whole of the first evening, expectant of the supernatural.
Notwithstanding the heat of June the room, long uninhabited, was so cold that I lighted the fire, and drawing my chair close to its cheerful blaze, meditated over a new medical work which had lately made its appearance. My nerves were strong, my scepticism confirmed, so I was quite prepared to face the power which had made exiles of the former tenants. Twice or thrice I glanced at the closed door expecting it to open, and admit the ghostly forms of Mrs. Brunei and her servants; but, needless to say, nothing of the sort happened, and it was close on eleven o’clock before I felt the first manifestation of the unseen. Then I became aware that someone was looking over my shoulder as I read. Turning suddenly round I saw nothing, as I expected; and, in the revulsion of feeling, I laughed at myself for the momentary panic which had seized me.
The same feeling occurred in ten minutes, and again I beheld nothing. Then the idea that there was something or someone in the room became rooted in my mind, and laying down my book, I paced slowly up and down the polished floor. One shaded lamp placed on a small table by the fire alone gave light to the vast apartment, and merely hollowed out a tiny gulf of light in the surrounding gloom. More lights were necessary for the adequate illumination of so large a space, but was I resolved on giving the ghost every chance, and judged it would find the semi darkness more congenial to its visitation. As the minute hand drew past eleven I became nervous.
My three servants were in a distant part of the mansion, and worn out by unpacking and arranging furniture, were doubtless sound asleep. In all that desolate place I was the only wakeful being, and, isolated in the chilly drawing-room in company with some invisible being, I own frankly that my nerves were rather shaken. In vain I reminded myself of my confirmed scepticism; that there were no such things as spirits, that I entirely disbelieved in the existence of the supernatural; it was all of no use, for the feeling that someone walked beside me grew stronger and stronger, till I was quite panic-stricken.
“Now,” said I aloud, and the sound of my own voice somewhat restored my courage, “now I am in a frame of mind likely to admit of apparitions appearing. If there is any spectre here, let him or her, or it appear.”
The ghost did not accept my invitation, and the silence seemed to deepen, though occasionally it was broken by the splutter of the fire. So strongly did the memory of that story and my present isolation from human intercourse work on my nerves that I unexpectedly found myself standing in the centre of the room, straining my ears to hear, straining my eyes to see. Of course, I neither saw nor heard anything to occasion me the least alarm; yet all the same I found a cold sweat on my forehead, and my hand trembled as I drew out my handkerchief.
Suddenly, and without the least warning, I heard a light footstep on the flagged terrace. It passed the first window, the second, and paused irresolutely at the third, which was furthest away from where I was standing. In that instant I pictured to myself an eye looking into the room through a chink in the Venetian blind, and surveying a solitary man struck motionless with panic in the semi-darkness. Never till that moment did I experience fear, for I can safely say that I am not a coward; but all my nerve and scepticism were not proof against that deadly qualm which gripped me at the moment. It lengthened to a century of agonised fear, and then by a strong effort I recovered the use of my limbs, and darted towards the third window. With inconceivable rapidity I whirled up the blind and flung open the window only to behold— nothing. Before me stretched the broad expanse of the terrace, the shallow steps, the green lawn with its central sun-dial, and the laurel hedges dark and sombre. Over all lay the cold moonlight still and white, but no sign could I see of any one, no sound could I catch of breathing or of footstep.
“Bah! I am a child,” said I, reclosing the window, but leaving the blind up so as to watch for a possible visitor; “my nerves are unstrung by this isolation. I shall go to bed, and to-morrow take steps to investigate the cause of these silly fears.”
The footsteps echoed no more, and curiously enough the feeling of a presence in the room passed away. I recovered my nerve, and having banked up the fire, took book and lamp and retired to bed. So far as I was concerned the ghostly visitation was over for that night. I was not sorry to leave the uncanny atmosphere of the drawing-room.
Safely in bed, I laughed at my fears and wondered how it was that my boasted scepticism had not been able to sustain me in the hour of trial. Yet I could not but admit that there was something about the drawing-room not to be explained by the ordinary laws of nature. The feeling of an invisible presence, the echoing footsteps, the deadly qualms, and consequent paralysis of action—all these hinted at the supernatural; I did not believe in ghosts; I laughed to scorn the tales of haunted houses; yet now that I was in one credited with possessing a spectre I felt uncommonly doubtful about my previous scepticism. With these thoughts in my mind I fell into an easy slumber.
At what time I woke I know not; as in putting out my hand for the matches I swept them on to the floor, and could not find them again. In the darkness I could not see the time, and so lay there wondering why I had so unexpectedly been aroused from sleep. It had not been a gradual awaking, but in the instant, I had opened my eyes and sat up in bed in full possession of my senses. Every nerve was tingling, every muscle was braced, every faculty was on the alert—for what I know not. The thick darkness was cold and heavy as I sat there qualmish and fearful; apparently forgotten of God, and given over to the powers of the air, in whose existence I had previously been a firm disbeliever.
In thought-reading the idea of what he is to do is impressed on the mind of the subject, by the person who wills the act. The thought grows and grows until the mind controls the body, and the individual so willed moves towards the desired goal as by an overpowering impulse, At this moment my feelings were precisely the same. Into my mind flashed a thought—whence I know not—which impelled me to rise, so, mechanically obeying the impulse which, I solemnly declare I was unable to resist, I sprang out of bed and threw my dressing gown over my shoulders. Thus scantily attired, with my bare feet taking a chill from the floor, I stood in the thick darkness; a mere instrument, my intelligence powerless in the grip of some unseen force. It was not a trance for I knew what I was doing, nor somnambulism, for my brain was quite open to external impressions. Here I, Edward Phelps, medical practitioner, sceptic, man of science, stood awaiting like a child the order of a power of which I saw nothing, knew nothing, heard nothing.
I had no time to think of Darver’s story, or of the Influence mentioned therein; for all my thoughts were directed to obeying the orders which seemed to steal imperceptibly into my mind. But a moment I paused by the bed, when in obedience to the over-conquering impulse—just like thought-reading—I moved towards the door. Out into the dark corridor I glided like a ghost. I turned to the right, descended the stairs, walked to the left and paused before the drawing-room door. As in Shelley’s poem, a spirit in my feet drew me onward, though to what end I could not conceive. All my efforts were powerless to shake off the imperious spell, and though I hesitated at the door (to struggle with the impulse) in the end I was compelled to obey.
I entered the drawing-room and saw the red glow of the fire shine on the polished floor. With an almost devilish dexterity I evaded the furniture—this seemed to be extraordinary in that I was not familiarly acquainted with its disposition—and moved towards the third window. The blind yet remained up, and I looked out on a white, cold world, still and weird. Again I struggled with the Influence; again it overmastered my reason, and I raised my hand to the latch of the window. Thence I walked on to the terrace, down the shallow steps, across the wet grass, and finally laid my hands on the cold stone of the dial. The impulse ceased, and I looked round in a bewildered fashion wondering what I was doing outside at that hour of the morning.
At that moment the moon threw the shadow of a man on the grass beside me. I turned with a cry and he leaped at my throat. Over and over he rolled on the sward, and I tried to save myself from his cruel fingers. Strong as I was, he was stronger, and at length he gained the mastery. Forcing me under he gripped my throat so that I could not cry out; then I lost all consciousness. The Influence had led me to my death.
* * * * * * *
I awoke to a consciousness of the external some three weeks later shorn, shaven, hollow-eyed, and weak. My memory stopped short at that struggle beside the sun-dial, the reason of which I was unable to conjecture, and I wondered how it was I was confined to a sick bed. Darver, who daily visited me soon enlightened me on that point,
“I am glad to see you better, Dr. Phelps,” said he, with his dry smile. “It was touch and go with you. Had not some passer-by on the high road been attracted by your cries and the sounds of your fighting, that man would have strangled you to a certainty.”
“Who was the man, Darver, and why did he wish to kill me?”
“There now, Doctor, that is the queer part of the whole aflair. That man is none other than Mrs. Brunei’s servant, who killed her nine years ago, for the sake of her money.”
“Impossible!” I gasped, utterly bewildered by this remarkable statement.
“Not at all; he has made a full confession of his crime. It appears that the female servant of whom I told you, was his mother. They both knew that Mrs. Brunei kept large sums in the house, and they resolved to rob her. Unfortunately for herself, she caught the pair red-handed, so to hide their guilt the son killed the old lady, and assisted by his hag of a mother, buried the body under the sun dial. Then they fled with their spoils to America, and there lived in comfort. Remorse haunted both, and the mother died while the son, always anticipating that his crime would be discovered, returned to Denhampton, and kept a close watch on the house.”
“To see if the body of his victim would be discovered, I suppose.”
“Precisely. He saw the tenants take the house and leave it, so deemed that his secret was safe. Then you took the place, and on your first night the murderer watched the drawing-room from the shadow of the laurels. He stole on to the terrace, and saw you standing in the centre of the room.”
“Ah,” said I, suddenly, recollecting the footstep. “I heard him stealing along the terrace on that night.”
“You did, and came to the window, but by that time he had regained his hiding place. He confessed this amongst other things. Then when you walked out of the house in the early hours of the morning, and went straight to the sun-dial, he thought that you had in some manner discovered his secret. You stood over the grave of Mrs. Brunei.”
“So he tried to kill me in order to hide his former crime?”
“Yes, but as I told you, some passers-by arrived on the scene, captured him, and saved you. He confessed, and we dug under the dial, where we found the skeleton of Mrs. Brunei. You have been ill for three weeks, but now will soon be well enough to appear in court and give evidence as to how you knew that the body was under the dial.”
“I did not know that—I knew nothing. That influence you spoke of, took me out of my bed and led me to the dial. I cannot account for it.”
“Then you believe my story,” said Darver, with a nod of satisfaction.
“I am forced to; sceptical as I am, there was something that led me to seek the grave of the murdered woman.”
“No doubt it was her spirit that led you to avenge her death.”
“Perhaps; I am not now so sceptical as I was. However, of one thing I am certain: now that the crime is discovered and there is a prospect of the criminal being punished, the ghost of Mrs. Brunei will no longer trouble Marrit Grange.”
“What! do you intend still to remain in the house?”
“I do. I have exorcised the ghost, and now intend to reap the benefit of my work.”
And in the end I did. Recovering from my sickness, I gave evidence which taken in conjunction with the murderer’s confession, put a rope round his neck. My story of the Influence which led me to the sundial was laughed at, and I have no doubt both judge and jury deemed my brain still weak from the effects of my illness. When the criminal was hanged I returned to Marrit Grange, and began my practice. Since that terrible first night I have never had occasion to complain of ghosts haunting the house. The spirit of the murdered woman was appeased by the punishment of her murderer. So ends my story. I cannot account for the matter, which is to be explained on no natural grounds. Perhaps the Psychical Society may help me to an understanding.
The average person does not credit the existence of ghosts. He prides himself on believing nothing but his own eyes, and if these deceive him into beholding a genuine ghost he excuses their so doing on the score of hallucination. You cannot convince the average person that there is anything beyond the actualities of this world. Certainly he professes a vague belief in immortality, but his conception is so shadowy, that he never faces it with any degree of confidence. He classes such credulity in the category of “things we are not meant to understand,” which hazy remark to his mind accounts for all matters in the way of religion. Take away this respectable theological view of the supernatural, and he scoffs at the idea of a phantom world.
I am an average person, a gross, fleshly, stolid, disbelieving St. Thomas of the present generation, and in accordance with the fitness of things, should subscribe to the comfortable creed above set forth. I don’t. Certainly I was once as materialistic as the average person could desire, but since I saw, and conversed with a bona-fide spectre, I have modified my views regarding psychology. She was so convincing that she left me no option, but to believe. There was no getting round her insistence.
It was a female ghost of the Banshee type, and I met her under the most prosaic circumstances. Priding herself on the verity of her ghostly being she needed neither moated grange, nor blue lights to compass her appearance, in fact she somewhat scornfully dispensed with such old-time accessories, and simply convinced me by a short conversation that she was what she pretended to be. The most sceptical would have attested her authenticity on oath, as I do now, and I was the most sceptical of persons—once.
Her name was Bridget. She was an Irish emigrant. I was always under the impression that ghosts, like fairies, could not cross running water save in an eggshell, but as I met Bridget in New Zealand she must have been an exception to this rule. She, however, made use of a ship in lieu of an eggshell, and complained bitterly of having been forced to take such a voyage in the interests of her profession. It had a good deal to do with hatred and revenge—she was Irish you see. As the interview was not without interest, I hereby set forth a careful report of the same for the benefit of the Psychical Society. Unless Bridget was a liar, her remarks may throw some light on the mysteries of the spiritual world, and those desiring further information had better apply to the nearest ghost-raiser. I don’t want to see her again. One such interview is enough for me.
Queenstown was the scene of this remarkable adventure. I am not referring to the Irish town of that name, but indicate thereby the pretty little sanatorium on Lake Wakitipu in New Zealand. It is amusing how very mixed one’s geographical ideas become in the colonies. Here for instance you sail up the Maori christened lake of Wakitipu, stay at Queenstown, the name whereof smacks of Cork, and see from the top of an Antipodean Ben Lomond, the range of the Southern Alps which have nothing to do with Switzerland. It is a trifle confusing at first, but when one gets used to the oddity of the thing it is handy to have spots so widely apart within hailing distance. It is only in Otago that you can go from Queenstown to Ben Lomond in ten minutes.
I was staying in Queenstown for the benefit of my health. Something to do with the lungs, I believe, but it is so long ago that I quite forget the exact disease from which I then suffered. Besides it is not material to this story. It must have been my lungs, however, because the doctor made me climb the lofty peak of Ben Lomond daily for the benefit of them. There I was accustomed to sit for hours among the ice and snow, watching the Earnslaw glacier flashing like a mirror in the sunlight, and the snowy range of the Southern Alps standing like fairy lacework against the clear blue of the sky.
When not climbing, I wandered about Queenstown, and employed my spare time in dodging the goats. There were a great many goats about the place as the unfinished condition of the town, rather favoured their existence. You walked down the main street and in two minutes found yourself among the hills—and goats. You surveyed a palatial hotel of the most approved “Grand” type and turned round to behold a goat-populated section gaping between a red brick chapel and a corrugated iron store. Or you could arrive in five minutes at the outskirts of the town, where the goats abounded among the white pebbles and sparse grass. Sometimes in such a place you met a man, more often a goat. I preferred the former myself as he sometimes invited me to have a drink, whereas the goats were all distinctly hostile. They are the most distrustful animals I know.
In common with other visitors, I put up at Farmer’s Hotel, where I was exceedingly comfortable. Every evening the steamer from Kingston arrived with fresh cargoes of tourists in search of health and scenery. They found both at Queenstown, which is the most romantic and salubrious place I am acquainted with. A trifle wild and lonely, but one must expect that sort of thing in a virgin solitude. I prefer it myself to an overcrowded play ground like Switzerland. At Queenstown there is no promenade, no band, no theatre, no casino, no bathing. For this latter the waters of the lake are too cold owing to its being fed by glaciers. When I was there, the principal amusements were riding, driving, climbing, and visiting the cemetery. I didn’t care about anticipating my funeral myself, but many people went there, and told me they enjoyed it greatly. It was so restful. I did not contradict that statement.
Sometimes we drove to Arrowtown and saw the pack horses in long lines climb the track leading to the Macetown reefs. The sight put me wonderfully in mind of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, for in the distance they looked exactly like mules laden with booty. Leaving Arrowtown there was some excitement in regaining Queenstown by the Shotover Bridge. It was a narrow structure with shallow sides which sprang across a tremendous abyss in the depths of which swirled a rapid stream. The approach was down an incline, and for the moment it seemed doubtful whether the horses would hit the bull’s eye of the bridge, or go over into the chasm. Our Jehu was a wonderful driver, and held his team well together, else I am afraid I would not now be writing this story. I never repeated the experiment. It is a mistake tempting Providence twice.
I conscientiously saw all there was to be seen in company with Nora and Michael. These two young scions of the Maguire family were staying at Farmers with their ancestral Banshee. I don’t think the landlord knew of this addition to his list of guests though Bridget did her best to let him know she was on the premises. She howled, whereon he called the innocent house dog bad names. I am afraid Bridget resented the mistake as a slur on her vocal abilities.
Nora told me all about herself and Michael. They had left Ireland some five years back and taken up their abode in Sydney on account of the brother’s health. He, poor fellow, was far gone in consumption, and even the tropical climate of Australia could do but little for his disease. Indeed so much worse did he become, that Nora was advised to try the curative effect of New Zealand air, and for this reason the young couple were staying at Queenstown. When I arrived on the scene they had already been there for some weeks, but Michael did not seem to benefit much by the change. On the contrary, he daily grew weaker and looked more like a shadow than a man.
One day I found her seated by his side in front of the hotel. He had fallen asleep in the warm sunshine, and Nora was dividing her attention between a book and the invalid. When she saw me, however, she softly arose from her seat and joined me in my walk.
“Do you think he looks better to-day, Mr. Durham,” she asked, anxiously.
“Oh, yes!” I replied trying to comfort the poor girl. “I see a decided improvement. If anything can cure him it will be this air.”
“I am afraid the disease has gone too far,” she answered with a sigh, “poor boy—to think of his coming all these miles only to find a grave.”
“Don’t think of such a thing, Miss Maguire.”
“I cannot help thinking, Mr. Durham. Since we have been here, twice have I heard the Banshee.”
“The Banshee! Did you not hear it wailing last night”
“I certainly heard a dog howling at the moon.”
“It was no dog,” said Nora mysteriously, “it was our Banshee.”
“My dear Miss Maguire how can you believe in such rubbish,” I remonstrated in a vexed tone. “there are no such things as ghosts.”
“So many people think, but I know there are ghosts.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“No! But I have heard the Banshee cry.”
“Nonsense, my dear young lady. Your nerves are out of order with over anxiety. Consult a doctor at once.”
“My nerves are not out of order,” she replied, doggedly, “I am in perfect health, and thoroughly in earnest. Why you admit yourself that you heard the cry.”
“I heard a dog howling, Miss Maguire. How can you be so superstitious. This is the nineteenth century. Ghosts went out when gas came in.”
I took no end of trouble to convince that girl. I promised to lend her a copy of Abercrombie’s Intellectual Powers, where she would find that ghosts are all humbug. I narrated several instances which had come under my notice of supposititious spectres, which had been thoroughly explained away. A logical person would have been convinced by my arguments. But she was a woman, and therefore not logical. All my talk was on this account so much waste of breath.
“Every old woman in Ireland knows the Maguire Banshee,” she said, triumphantly, “for generations the death of one of our family has been predicted by its wailing. My father was killed in the hunting field, and I heard it myself crying round the house on the previous night. When my mother died the Banshee wailed three times, and—”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” I interrupted emphatically, “not one word. The Celtic nature is excitable and prone to superstition. The howling of a dog, the whistling of the wind, the skrieking of a hinge would account for your Banshee. I am a man of sense, Miss Maguire; I laugh at the idea of such folly. Nothing would convince me of the existence of—”
At that moment I swear I felt a cold breath blowing against my cheek. The afternoon was warm and sunny with little or no wind, but for the moment the unexpected chill struck me dumb.
“What is the matter, Mr. Durham?” asked Nora, alarmed at the expression of my face, “are you ill?”
“Ill! no!” I replied, nervously, “but really you know, ha! ha! I believe you are infecting me with your superstition. I felt a cold breath on my face.”
“Now don’t say the Banshee, Miss Maguire, because I can’t and won’t believe such nonsense. My liver is probably out of order, and our conversation about spectres is apt to tell on the nerves. Let us talk of other things. Your family for instance!”
“There is not much to talk about there,” said Nora, smiling at what she evidently considered a weak explanation, “my family at one time were rich and numerous. Now we are the only two left, and I don’t think Job was poorer than we are!”
“Were all sold long ago. My father ran through all that remained of the property, and when he was killed we had nothing but a tumbled down Castle, and a few acres of barren bog. We sold this and with the money came out to Sydney. There through the influence of an old friend Michael obtained a good Government appointment. Then his health gave way, and we were advised to come on here.”
“And what do you intend to do when you go back,” I asked, revolving several philanthropic schemes in my mind.
“I don’t know! It is questionable if we do go back. I feel certain that Michael will die here, and then I shall be left alone here with but a few shillings.”
“Tut! tut! you must not talk like this,” said I blowing my nose to conceal some natural emotion evoked by her story, “the colonial heart is kind! the colonial hand is open. As to your brother. Hope for the best!”
“Mr. Durham!” said the girl solemnly, “twice have I heard the Banshee cry—the third time will be fatal.”
It was no use arguing against such obstinacy, so I held my tongue merely remarking that I hoped the Banshee wouldn’t wail. Then as it was growing chilly Nora took her brother inside and left me to my own reflections. They were anything but pleasant, for I felt certain that his foolish belief in the Banshee would aid in killing Michael, as surely as would his disease.
To think of such superstition being prevalent nowadays. Here was a well educated young lady living among sensible people, yet she believed in such rubbish as ghosts. It has been proved over and over again that there are no such things. A heavy meal, a tired body, a fanciful mind, and lo a ghost is created. Dyspepsia and hallucination are the parents of all goblins, which exist but in the imagination of their victims. People who see ghosts should write novels and thus work off their superfluous imagination. No wonder we need school-boards, when sensible men can tolerate such humbug. Logic and Arithmetic will cure such morbidity. No student of the exact sciences ever saw a ghost.
The breath of cold air! Well I own that puzzled me, but it might be ascribed to the nerves. The cause I am convinced was internal not external. It was a still sunny day, yet I felt a sensation of cold air on my left cheek. Nerves or liver! only! I am inclined to put it down to the latter, knowing how I suffer from that organ. A liver will make a man believe anything. Perhaps my ghostly interview was the result of a disordered liver, but no—Bridget was too convincing. You can’t explain away actualities and though Bridget wasn’t exactly an actuality, I certainly can’t explain her away.
After that eminently unsatisfactory conversation with Miss Maguire I took a sharp walk to shake the cobwebs out of my brain. Ghost-talk does endanger cobwebs in a man’s brain, and if you leave them there nobody knows what will happen—but I think Colney Hatch has a good deal to do with the future. Not caring to tend in that direction I walked those ghostly figments out of my memory and sat on a hill top admiring the scenery. The sun was setting and the white peaks were very rosy with his light. It was very beautiful, but very chilly, so not anxious to trouble my lungs with inflammation I returned to the hotel and dinner.
After the meal I went up to my room to put on warmer clothes, and there took place that remarkable visitation of which I speak. The bedroom was quite dark when I entered, and in place of lighting the candle I stood at the window staring at the wonderful white world without. A stream of moonbeams lay across the floor, and beyond the distant peak flashed the moon herself glimmering like a ghost. The comparison put me in mind of Nora’s absurd Banshee story, and the memory made me laugh. To my surprise the laugh was repeated in a thin starved echo. I turned round at the sound and saw a woman standing near the door. I am a modest young man, and the intrusion annoyed me.
“Madame.” I said in a dignified tone, “you have mistaken the room. How did you enter?”
“By the kayhole!”
“Heavens! what a voice. It was as thin as a whistle. And then she alluded to an entrance by the keyhole. I began to feel alarmed and passed my hand across my eyes to vanish the hallucination.
“Liver!” said I seeing the figure still there.
“Divil a bit,” retorted the lady who seemed a cloudy sort of person. “I’m the Maguire Banshee.”
I don’t like practical jokes, and thinking Nora was playing one on me ventured to remonstrate. Before I could say a word the figure glided, or rather floated into the stream of moonlight which lay across the floor. Then I saw it was no joke—it was no liver— it was a ghost!
A merciful baldness prevented my hair standing on end, but my flesh creeped, and I shook as though I had the ague. This apparition upset all my preconceived ideas, and reduced me to a sort of moral pulp. I felt a cowardly inclination to run away. The Banshee was between me and the door, and as the window was twenty feet from the ground I could hardly leave that way without becoming a ghost myself. I was therefore compelled to remain, and didn’t like the idea.
“Why don’t ye offer me a sate!” said the Banshee in an irritable tone, “is it insultin’ me ye’re afther doin’?”
I pushed forward a seat in great trepidation and she settled on it. I can’t say she sat down for she didn’t, but simply subsided thereon, like a cloud on a mountain-top. The cold beams of the moon shone full on her face, and the sight did not tend to steady my nerves. I don’t want to see another face like it.
It was a grey haggard countenance framed in wild elf locks of tangled red hair. Her mouth was all drawn to one side, and in her eyes dwelt a look of horror. Round her neck hung a fragment of rough rope, and from shoulders to heels streamed a cloudy white robe. The whole appearance of this being was vague and indistinct, the face being the only portion I could see with any degree of clearness. Sitting there in the chilly light, with her filmy dress undulating round her thin form, and her baleful eyes glaring from amid her tangled red hair she was a fearsome object to behold. I shivered and shook and turned away my eyes, but something I knew not what—ever compelled me to look at her again.
I don’t think she was a lady Banshee. Her language was too free, and her manners left much to be desired. Still she behaved in a very affable manner for her, and succeeded to a certain extent in dispelling my fear, though I was anything but comfortable during the interview. She spoke thoughout in a hoarse broken voice, alternating with a shrill whistling sound. Constant howling had evidently injured her vocal organs.
“So you don’t believe in my existence,” she said, eyeing me in a malevolent manner.
I began to protest, but she cut me short with a whistling sniff and shifted her mouth to the other side of her face.
“No deceit av ye plase. Didn’t ye say oi was an hallucination ye brutal Saxon.”
“You may be now for all I know,” I replied, resenting her rudeness.
She stretched out her arm which elongated itself like a marine telescope, and without moving from her seat clutched me by the wrist with chilly fingers. So cold was her touch that it burnt like fire, and I involuntarily shrieked with pain.
“Whist! ye spalpeen!” she said contracting her arm again. “Ye’ll athtracth attinshun and me reputashun ‘ull suffer if Oi’m discovered in a jintleman’s slapin’ room.”
“In that case you had better go away.” I suggested, anxious to rid myself of this nightmare.”
“Divil a bit,” she rejoined, composedly. “Oi’ve a mind to convarse wid ye about thim Maguires.”
“Why can’t you leave them alone. It’s impossible for a sick man to get sleep while you howl round the house like an insane hurricane.”
“Wud ye have me neglect me thrade,” said the Banshee, indignantly. “Tis me juty to wail worse luck. An’ as to slapin’ Mick Maguire ‘ull slape sound enough wan av’ these days, nivir fear.”
“Will he die!”
“Av’ coorse he’ll die. Haven’t oi criedth twice an’ ut-ll be the third toime this night. It’s not wastin’ me breath oi am.”
“Who are you?”
I laughed at the unsuitability of the name, whereupon the Banshee looked at me fiercely.
“Fwhat’s the matter wid the name!”
“It’s like a servant girl’s.”
“An’ why not. Wasn’t oi that same, sorr. Four hundher years ago oi sarved King Patsey Magireu av’ Ulster, the ancister av’ the prisint family no less.”
“But how did you become a Banshee!”
“Och whirra! whirra! willaloo!” she moaned, rocking herself too and fro, “wasn’t oi the pride av’ Ulster an’ didn’t King Maguire hang me bekaze oi’d nivir give up Taddy Donovan.”
“Did he want to marry you himself.”
“How shuld oi know! Maybe he didn’t care about Taddy liftin’ thim Kerry cows. An’ as Taddy wasn’t to be tuk, he hanged me, bad luck to him.”
“Did that hanging turn you into a Banshee.”
“D’y’ see this rope, sorr,” she said touching the fragment, “whin oi died oi tuk the bit wid me as a mimory an’ swore to haunt thim Maguires for ever-lastin’ till they all died. There’s only two now. Whin Mick goes there’ull only be wan. Whin she dies me juty ‘ull be ended for ivir.”
“But you can’t kill them.”
“Av’ coorse not, but I can warn thim of their sorrows. Oi’ve croied at their wakes for the last four hundher year in Ould Ireland.”
“Why did you come out here.”
“Bekaze thim two came. When a Banshee’s attached to wan family she has to hould on to thim like the divil. Where they go, she goes, so oi had to imigrate wid the Maguires bad cess to thim.”
“You don’t like the colonies!”
“Divil a bit. Oi’ve not met a single ghost of any consequence here. There’s no ruins to haunt an’ hathens like yoursilf don’t belave in us.”
“If you find things so unpleasant why don’t you go back to Ireland.”
“How shuld oi know. Whin Nora goes back oi’ll go back, but where she is I aim. Mick’s dying so me only reckinin’ on Nora. Maybe she’ll die too though,” added the Banshee, comfortably, “and thin I can return to me round tower.”
“What Round Tower?”
“County Down no less. Me family sate. Once ‘twas King Maguire’s, now ‘tis mine. Oi sit on it in the cove av’ the evenin’ an’ houl.”
“Pleasant for your neighbours.”
“Iviry wan to his juty,” replied the Banshee indifferently, “tis mine to howl an’ howl I do.”
“Yes! I’ve heard you!”
“An’ sid it was the dog. Oh oi heard your contimptuous spache.”
“Now look here!”
“Oi want nane av’ your bullyin’ av’ you plase. Respict age. Oi’m four hundher year ould.”
“Yes! you look it!”
“An’ so’d you if ye’d to pass nights howlin’ in the open air. It’s sorry oi am that I let ye see a rale live Banshee.”
“You’re hardly alive. However, I apologise for hurting your feelings. I’m not accustomed to entertain Banshees.”
“Maybe that’s true. No Saxon has a Banshee.”
“And no colony either.”
“Wait a few hundred years, sorr. Ye want ruins an’ family sacrats first. Thin the ghosts ‘ull come, but not in your toime.”
“I’m not sorry! I don’t like ghosts!”
“Maybe ye don’t belave in thim,” said the Banshee, tauntingly, “to-morrow ye’ll say ‘oive bin dramin’.”
“It’s not unlikely!”
“Oi’d like to lave some token av’ me visit,” she went on in a meditative tone, “couldn’t I lave five black finger marks on your wrist.”
“No, thank you,” I replied, shrinking back.
“Or turn your hair white,” she added, persuasively.
“Even you couldn’t do that. I’m bald!”
“Ah thin! I’ll lave the mark of a gory hand on your cranium.”
“I’m sure you wont. What’s the matter?”
For the Banshee had suddenly shot up as high as the roof.
“Whist!” she said shrilly. “Oi hear his breath failin’.”
“Michael’s. The cowld sweat is on his brow an’ the rattle is in his throat—it’s not long he’ll live anyhow. I must wail — an’ wail ‘Whirro!’ ”
“Let the man die in peace,” I urged, anxiously.
“Fwhat! wan av’ thim Maguires. Sorra a bit. Ye’ll hear me wailin’ soon.”
“Whist oi tell ye! whist. Oi’s goin’. ‘Tis not Banshees ye’ll scoff at agin oi’m thinkm’.’’
She spread herself through the room in a cold white mist, and I shrank terrified against the wall. In the white shadow I could see the glare of her fiery eyes like two danger signals. The fog gradually floated out through the open window and the eyes vanished. Then I heard a whistle outside, which I presume was Bridget’s way of saying good-bye. After that I went for some brandy.
The Banshee certainly succeeded in curing my scepticism regarding ghosts. I don’t want any further proof that they exist after seeing her. She impressed herself too strongly on my memory. Next time I see an Irish ghost, I would like a dozen or so of my friends to be present at the interview. Now when I hear the average person scoffing at the idea of spectres, as I used to do, I tell him my experience. As a rule he doesn’t believe me. Perhaps you who read this story don’t believe it either. But it’s true for all that.
When I had succeeded in pulling myself together— no easy task—I hurried at once to Michael’s bedroom, but was met at the door by Nora, who told me he was asleep. Unwilling to alarm her by a description of the Banshee’s visit, I held my peace and went out into the open air. Lighting a cigar, for I thought a smoke would soothe my nerves, I strolled up and down in front of the hotel. In a few minutes a young American who was staying there joined me, and though as a rule I found him a nuisance, yet on this occasion I was not ill-pleased with his company.
It was a bright moonlight night, and far in the distance arose the serrated peaks of the mountains. The iron roofs of the houses around glittered like frosted silver in the light, and here and there on the sullen lake glinted a flake of moonfire. All was wonderfully beautiful and absolutely still. Suddenly there sounded a long low wail which shivered pitifully through the air, and died away among the mountains. Then a second, closely followed by a third. I knew what that triple cry meant and stopped short in my walk.
“Dog howling, I guess,” said the young American! carelessly.
I heard a whistling sniff near me and turned to see the Banshee glaring at the young man. To him she was invisible and her speech inaudible.
“A dog howlin,” she said, angrily, “ an’ I nivir wailed so iligantly before.”
“Is he dead?” I asked, breathlessly.
“As a door nail,” replied the Banshee and vanished.
“Is who dead?”“ asked the American thinking I had spoken to him, “that young Irish fellow I—Hark, what is that?”
Another cry, but this time the utterance of a human throat. I hastened towards the hotel, and arrived at the door to meet Nora on the threshold.
“Did you hear it?” she gasped, throwing herself into my arms.
“Yes I heard it!”
“I told you the third time. Michael is dead.”
After that she fainted clean away, which action caused me but little surprise. I was pretty near collapsing myself.
* * * * * * *
Poor Michael was duly buried in the little cemetery under the shadow of the mighty hill. I attended the funeral, did my best to comfort Nora, and in the end supplied her with money to return to her Sydney friends. I presume the Banshee went with her, but of this I am not certain. Sometimes I heard from Nora in the months which followed her brother’s death. When I was at Te Aroha in the North Island last Christmas she wrote and told me she was married and had settled for good in Sydney.
This letter set me thinking about the Banshee. By her own showing she could not leave Nora, until she died, so as Nora had decided to stay in Australia, I presume, Bridget would also have to remain. From what I heard, Nora is not likely to die for some time so I am afraid Bridget must be very discontented. Here she has no ghostly friends, no Round Tower, and as yet no reason for wailing, so altogether she must be in a bad way.
One consolation she must have. She is the only Banshee in the colonies. None other is genuine.
I make no endeavour to explain this experience. Explanation of it is impossible. I can conceive no theory upon which to base even the most slender attempt. It baffles me, it has always baffled me and it will continue to baffle me. Yet the impress of the thing loses nothing of its vividness with time.
It is as clear before me now, as it was within a few hours of its event. I believe I heard a ghost knocking; I am certain I saw a ghost moving. “Indigestion, fancy, an overwrought and distorted brain,” you will say, no doubt.
I wish I could think it was. But it wasn’t. The sequel to that glimpse of the dead was too terrible, the cause too pertinent to the effect, to permit for one moment of any attribution to disorder, mental or alimentary. No,—What I saw was actual self-existent. I will set down the facts for you as they occurred, and you shall explain them away—if you can. Then, if you remain unconvinced—go to Gartholm, by the German Ocean, and hear what the folk there have to say. They are a stodgy people, incapable utterly of the most insignificant hyperbole. They will tell you this tale plainly as I tell it to you. They believe as I believe.
It was in the summer of ‘96. I was travelling in “woollens” for the great Huddersfield firm of Carbury and Crank. Furnished with a gig and a fast-trotting mare, it was my duty to exploit the more scattered parts of the country, where the railroad was still unknown and civilisation, as we use the term, tarried a while.
Gartholm is the name given to a certain wide, low-lying plain, shut in from the North Sea by mile upon mile of sandhills. They are heaped up like hummocks along the coast. It was along a kind of causeway running straight through many miles of grain that I drove that hot July. I had never been in these parts, and I rejoiced at such ample evidence of fertility. It argued prosperity for those around; hence good business for myself and my employers. I made up my mind to remain there for at least a month. I left in less than half that time.
As if the plain itself were not sufficiently damp and low-lying, the village of Gartholm had been built in a kind of central depression, immediately beside the river. In other respects it differed but slightly from the ordinary English village, save that there was no inn. Close by the tower of the rubble-built church there was a pot-house, licensed for the sale of liquor “to be drunk on the premises,” but I failed there to get sleeping room either for myself or Tilly, my weary mare.
Darkness was close upon us and I was worn out with my day’s drive. There seemed little prospect of comfort, even had I gained admittance to this miserable hovel. But that was denied me. The landlord, a bulky monumental lump of indolence, stood in the doorway and effectually blocked all entrance. A dozen or so of idlers collected to admire Tilly and amuse themselves at my expense. And I realised that there were worse fates than that of being cast upon an uninhabited island, even in this England of ours at the close of the nineteenth century.
While I was in this plight, arguing with the landlord and endeavouring to arrive approximately at the sense of his dialect, a being, human by contrast to those around, made his appearance from out the crowd, and approached my gig. He turned out to be the village schoolmaster, and those around called him “Muster Abram.”
“You are looking for a lodging?” he said, in a smooth and (by comparison) strangely civilised voice.
“I am,” I replied, soothing Tilly, who, small blame to her, in no wise appreciated her immediate surroundings. “I’m Dick Trossall, C.T. to Carbury and Crank, if you’ve ever heard of ‘em in this forsaken hole.”
“C.T.?” repeated Master Abraham interrogatively, cocking his one eye (he had lost the other) which was as bright as any robin’s.
“Commercial Traveller,” said I in explanation; “or bagman if you like it better. You don’t comprehend Queen’s English I see in these parts.”
“Hardly; when so abbreviated. But if it really be board and lodging you seek, you can get that only from Mrs. Jarzil at the Beach Farm.”
There was a murmur from those at hand, as he said the name, and, I thought, a somewhat dubious expression upon the faces of one or two. I did not on the whole, feel drawn towards Mrs. Jarzil and her farm, and I looked at the schoolmaster enquiringly. Utterly ignoring this, and vouchsafing me no reply, he proceeded straightway to climb into my gig, without so much as “by your leave.” There was neither modesty nor undue hesitancy about Master Abraham.
“We will get on then to Mrs. Jarzil’s farm,” said I. A touch from the whip and Tilly was off at a good spanking trot in the direction Master Abraham had indicated. In a few moments we were out of sight of the hangers-on and driving through the street into another causeway similar to the first. In the distance we could see the house lying under the lee of the sandhills. A dismal sort of place it seemed, and wholly solitary.
“Yes, yonder is the Beach Farm,” said the schoolmaster, “and Mrs. Jarzil.” He stopped suddenly, so that I turned to look at him.
“What on earth is the matter with Mrs. Jarzil?”
“Nothing, nothing—I was merely wondering, not so much if she could, as whether she would, accommodate you. You see Mrs. Jarzil had some trouble with her last lodger. He was a botanist. He called himself Amber—Samuel Amber. Some two years ago it was; he boarded at the Beach Farm, then suddenly he disappeared.”
“Disappeared? Good Lord! what do you mean?”
“Exactly what I say. He walked out of yonder house one night, and never returned.”
We were close to the house now. It loomed up suddenly in the mist, which lay thick and heavy over the sandhills. I felt horribly depressed. Apart from the intense gloominess of the surroundings, the damp and darkness and desolation, all of which had perhaps more than their due effect upon my jaded nerves, I was conscious of an indefinite sense of uneasiness. This one-eyed creature at my elbow made me decidedly uncomfortable. I have not a robust nervous system at the best of times, and he with his sinister innuendoes was fast gaining a hold upon me.
“There was a daughter, you see,” he went on, before I could speak.
“Oh, there was a daughter, was there?” I repeated somewhat relieved. It might be, after all, that he was nothing more than a mere scandal-monger. I fervently hoped so.
“Yes; and Mr. Amber made love to her—at least so it is supposed. At all events she disappeared, too.”
“At the same time as the man?”
“Lottie was her name,” continued Master Abraham, utterly heedless of my query, “and a pretty pink and white creature she was, with the loveliest golden hair. I used to call her Venus of the Fen. She was at the Farm when Amber first arrived. After a while he left, and she with him. He did not return for a twelvemonth, and then only to—to disappear.”
“What on earth are you telling me all this rigmarole for? I don’t care twopence for any of your Ambers and Lotties or Venuses either, for that matter. If the girl was as pretty as you say, I don’t blame the man for going off with her. I presume she was a willing party to the arrangement.”
“Mrs. Jarzil will have it that Amber forced her daughter to elope with him. You see he returned a year later—alone.”
“Well, what explanation did he make?”
“And what did the lady have to say to that?”
“Nothing. Amber took up his residence at the Farm as before, and remained there until—until he disappeared.”
Upon my soul I was beginning to feel thoroughly scared.
“Do you mean to tell me that Mrs. Jarzil got rid of him by foul play?”
“Oh, dear me, no; nothing of the kind. Mrs. Jarzil is a most religious woman.”
“Then what the; perhaps you will kindly make yourself clear. For what reason do you retail to me this parcel of rubbish?”
“Only this.” He laid his skinny hand upon my arm. We were turning into the drive which led up to the house. He pointed with the other hand towards the sand-ridge.
The man nodded. Then he whispered to me. “The Sand-Walker, you know.”
An elderly woman had come to the door and was standing there. The chief thing I noticed about her was her determinedly masculine appearance. For the rest she was a veritable study in half tone. Her hair, her dress, her complexion, in fact everything about her, was of various shades of grey. Her mouth denoted a vile if not a violent temper.
My reception was anything but cordial; in fact at the outset she refused altogether to take me in, but under the persuasive eloquence of Master Abraham she relented so far as to agree to board me by the week at what to me seemed an exorbitant charge. She was evidently grasping as well as religious—a highly unpleasant combination I thought. But in the circumstances I had no option but to accept the inevitable. It was a case of any port in a storm.
As I proceeded to drive round to the stable to put up Tilly—a thing which I invariably attended to myself—Master Abraham accompanied me. And somehow I was glad of even his company. There was not a living soul about. I asked him why this was.
“Mrs. Jarzil keeps no servants,” he replied. “She has not kept any since Lottie and Mr. Amber went away; or rather, to be precise, since Mr. Amber disappeared.”
“How is that?”
“She can get none to come here—or to remain if they do come. They are afraid of the Sand-walker.”
I asked him point blank what he meant. But I could get nothing out of him.
“Whatever you do, don’t go on to the beaches at dusk,” was all he said. Then he vanished. I say vanished advisedly, for though I ran after him to the door for the moment I could see no sign of him; I rushed on round the corner of the house, and came plump on to Mrs. Jarzil.
“Master Abraham!” I gasped.
Then Mrs. Jarzil pointed down the road, and I saw a flying figure disappearing into the darkness.
“Why does he run off like that?” I asked. I began to think I was losing my senses.
“Every one runs from Beach Farm,” replied the woman in the coolest manner possible, and with that she left me staring in amazement.
I don’t think anyone could dub me a coward, but this place unnerved me. Both within and without the house all was mysterious, weird, and uncanny. My spirits sank to zero and my nerves were strung up to a tension positively unendurable. Even the bright light from the kitchen fire filled me with apprehension. I could not touch food or drink.
Mrs. Jarzil, gliding about the room, in no wise reassured me. Masculine and ponderous as she was, the deftness and stealthiness of her movements were uncomfortably incongruous. She spoke not a word. She totally ignored my presence. I began to loathe the woman. But I determined that anything was better than the horrible suspense I was enduring. So I went straight for the thing which was making havoc of me.
“What is the Sand-walker, Mrs. Jarzil?”
At the moment she was polishing a dish cover. As I spoke it crashed on the floor. I never saw a woman turn quite so pale as she did then.
“Who has been talking to you about the Sand-walker?”
“Master Abraham,” was my answer. By this time she was visibly shaking.
“Fool!” she exclaimed. “A triple fool, and dangerous, too. See here, you Mr. Trossall. I am willing to board you, but not to answer your silly questions. And if you don’t like my house and my ways, you can leave them both. I can do without you. God knows I have had enough of boarders.” Though it was rash, and for all I knew dangerous, willy-nilly the name Amber slipped my tongue. But she had regained her self-possession now, and laughed contemptuously as she picked up the dish cover.
“I see Abraham’s been telling you my story. It is not a very pretty story, is it? Yes, Mr. Amber was a scoundrel. He carried off my daughter Lottie to London. Ay, and he had the boldness, too, to return here after his wickedness. I said nothing. It was my duty to forgive him, like a Christian, and I did. Although a mother, I am a Christian first. Poor Lottie! Poor child! I wonder where she is now.”
“Do you know where Mr. Amber is?”
“Yes, Abraham told you no doubt that he disappeared. One would think he had been caught up into the moon; the way the fools round here talk. Yet the explanation is perfectly simple. The man was accustomed to walk on the Beaches at night. There are quicksands there, and he fell into one.”
“How do you know that?”
“I found his hat by one of the worst of them. He had sunk. I am glad he did. He ruined my life and Lottie’s. But ‘Vengeance is Mine; I will repay saith the Lord.’ ”
“And this Sand-walker; who, what is it?”
“That does not concern you. I have told you enough. I am not going to answer all your silly questions,” she reiterated.
Not another word would she say. Still I felt somewhat relieved. Abraham had contrived to surround with an atmosphere of mystery what after all was purely an accident. I saw that now; and I was able to go to bed in a much more tranquil state of mind than I would otherwise have done.
My room was just off the kitchen. I hadn’t been in it more than half an hour when I heard Mrs. Jarzil at her devotional exercises. I could hear her reading aloud certain Biblical extracts of a uniformly comminatory character. Her voice was peculiarly resonant and booming. Her choice seemed to me to range from Deuteronomy to Ezekiel and back again. “And Thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
“And the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up; they and all that appertained to them went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them.”
“The wicked are overthrown and are not.”
So for half an hour or more she went on, until I was in a cold perspiration. Then she knelt down and prayed, I was in hopes she had unbosomed herself for the night at all events. But then followed such a prayer as I have never heard. The ban of Jeremiah was a blessing to it. She cursed Amber, dead though he was. She cursed her daughter and called down upon her unfortunate head such visitations that I confess I shuddered. The woman was raving; yet all the time I could hear her sobbing, sobbing bitterly. The whole thing was ghastly, revolting. I would have given anything to get away.
At last she ceased, and, I presume, went to bed; though how she could sleep after such an indulgence was a marvel to me. But perhaps now that she had so assuaged her wrath, exhaustion if not relief would follow. I hoped so. At all events she was quiet. After a while I got up, to make sure that my door was securely fastened. Then I scrambled back to bed, and fell into an uneasy fitful doze. So I got through the long night. I never once slept soundly, and when I awoke in the morning I felt but little refreshed.
With the light came the sense of shame. I was inclined to deal severely with myself for my—as they now appeared to me—absurd apprehensions of the previous night. I made up my mind then and there that I should be a downright coward if I carried out my determination to leave the place. My room was comfortable, and the food was good. And I rated myself roundly for being such an impressionable booby. Besides, I knew enough to make me curious to know more.
Albeit as silent as ever, I found Mrs. Jarzil civil and composed enough at breakfast. So although I had not succeeded in getting rid wholly of my aversion to the place, I started off in quest of business, saying that I would return about five o’clock.
I soon found out that so far as business went, at all events, I had fallen on my feet. The very excellent woollen goods of Messrs. Carbury and Crank appealed to these fen dwellers. They were a rheumatic lot. But that was more the fault of the locality than of themselves. At any rate the local dealers seized upon my samples with avidity, and I booked more orders in the day than I was accustomed to do in a week in some places. I returned therefore that evening to the Beach Farm in the best of spirits, but at the gate I encountered Master Abraham. He soon reduced them to a normal level.
“Well, how did you sleep?” he said, I thought with a twinkle in his eye.
“Like a top, of course; I always do.”
“You heard nothing at your window?”
“Of course not. What should I hear?”
“Then you didn’t go on to the Beaches?”
“Certainly not, I was only too glad to get to bed. Besides, were you not at particular pains to advise me against going there?”
“Yes, perhaps I was; and I repeat my advice. If you do, it will come to you at the window.”
“What in heaven’s name do you mean, man?”
“I mean the Sand-walker.”
At that moment Tilly made a bound forward—she hates standing—and there was nothing for it but to let her go. The schoolmaster took himself off, and I drove up to the door.
But I silently swore at that skinny Abraham for bringing back to me the uneasy feelings of the previous night. His warning still rang in my ears. I could not get rid of it. I was determined I would not pass the night in ignorance. I resolved to take the bull by the horns and face whatever there was to face then and there.
After a “high tea” (that was between six and seven o’clock) I mentioned casually to Mrs. Jarzil that I was going for a stroll. She neither bade me go nor stay; so over the sandhills at the back of the house I scrambled until I found myself on the sea shore.
The beach was very dreary. All was still, save for the gentle swash of the wavelets breaking in upon the ribbed sand. There was but little wind. To right and left of me there stretched an interminable vista of sand, vanishing only to blend itself in the distance with the heavy mists, which even at that season of the year hung around. The little land-locked pools were blood-red with reflection of the sun. Through the off-shore of the sea and sun were ablaze with crimson light, I felt an awful sense of desolation as I sat there in the dip of a sand-hill watching the departing sun ring its changes on the spectrum. The crimson merged to amethyst, the amethyst to pearl, until in sombre greyness the light shut down upon the lonely shore.
A mad purposeless impulse seized me. With a whoop I ran down the firm sand to the brink of the water. I stood there for some moments looking out to sea. When I turned, the mists were thick even between me and the sand-hills. Darkness came down fold over fold. Every moment the fog became more damp and clammy, the sense of desolation more intense. I was isolated from all that was human; from God for aught I knew.
Then I thought of the quick-sands—of Mr. Amber —of Mr. Amber’s hat found lying there; and I ran back, as I thought, to the sand hills. But I must have moved circuitously, for I could not reach even their friendly shelter. I lost my bearings hopelessly. Where the sea or where the hills I knew not. I rushed first this way, and then that, heedless and without design, intent only on escaping from the enshrouding mists, from the awesome desolation.
Suddenly the sands quaked under me. I stopped. The fate of Korah and his brethren flashed through my mind. My heart drummed loudly in the stillness. The mists grew thicker, the night darker. Then it was I saw It beside me.
At first I thought it was mortal—human—for its shape was that of a man. With an exclamation of thankfulness I endeavoured to approach it. But try as I might, I could not get near it. It did not walk, it did not glide, it did not fly. It simply melted in the mist, yet always visible, always retreating. That was the horror of the Thing.
My flesh creeped. I felt an icy cold through every pore of my skin. With awful insistence it was borne in upon me I was in the presence of the dead. Yet I was powerless. I could utter no cry. I could not even stop myself. On, on I went following that melting receding thing, until suddenly my foot stumbled on a sand-hill. Then It became mist with the mist, and I saw It no more. I scrambled up the hill and wept like a child.
How I reached the Beach Farm I cannot tell. I stumbled, blind with terror into the lamplight of the kitchen. I almost fell into Mrs. Jarzil’s arms. She uttered no word of surprise, but sat there staring at my terror-stricken face and quivering limbs, silent and unsympathetic. At last she spoke.
“You have seen the Sand-walker?”
“In God’s name what is it?”
“God has nothing to do with the Sand-walker,” she replied. “It is wholly of hell.”
I could speak no more that night. By help of some raw spirit I managed to pull myself together sufficiently to scramble into bed. The very sheets were a comfort to me; at all events they were between me and It.
I was utterly exhausted, and for a few hours I slept. I awoke suddenly with every nerve on the stretch, every sense acute almost beyond bearing. Mrs. Jarzil was vociferating in the kitchen, and sobbing between whiles. Then, as surely as I am a man and a Christian, I heard three loud knocks upon the window-pane. Mrs. Jarzil turned her imprecations into prayer. In her deep voice she boomed out verses from the Psalms: “Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.”
I could stand it no longer. I flung myself out of bed, wrapped the coverlet around me, and rushed into the kitchen. Mrs. Jarzil was kneeling. Her face poured with perspiration. She paused as I appeared. There were three loud knocks at the door.
“What—O God, what is it?” I cried.
Then she prayed again: “I will abide in Thy tabernacle for ever. I will trust in the cover of Thy wings.
I made for the door, but Mrs. Jarzil seized me by the arm.
“Don’t let him in, don’t let him in. He wants me. It is Amber, I tell you. It is Amber.”
“Amber! The Sand-walker!”
“Yes, yes. He is the Sand-walker. He wants me —down on the Beaches. If you open the door I am bound to go. He draws me; he compels me. But the Lord is my strength, and shall prevail against the powers of hell.”
I had to prevent her from unbarring the door. She flung herself upon it and fumbled with the lock in frenzy. I dragged her back fearful lest she should admit the thing outside. Gradually she grew more calm, until at last she stood before me with a composure almost as terrible to behold as had been her frenzy.
“I have resisted the Devil, and he is fled!” she said. “You can go to bed now, Mr. Trossall. You will be disturbed no more. There will be no more knocking, no—more—knocking.” She caught up the candle to go. I detained her till I took a light from it. Then I went to bed. I kept the light burning all night, but there was no more knocking.
Next morning not a word passed between us about what had occurred. I ate my breakfast and drove off to my business. In the main street I met Abraham. I hailed him.
“Is there no other place where I can find a lodging?” I asked him.
“Ah! so you have been on the Beaches?”
“Yes. I was there yesterday evening.”
“You have seen the Sand-walker?”
“For God’s sake don’t speak of it,” I said. For it terrified me even in the open day—here with the sunshine hot upon me.
“And you have heard the knocking?”
“Yes, I have heard everything—seen everything; let that suffice. Can I find another lodging, I ask you?”
“No; there is none other in the district. But why need you fear. It is she—not you, the Sand-walker wants, ay, and he’ll get her one night”
“You know this Sand-walker, as you call him, is Amber.”
“All Gartholm knows that. He has been walking for a year past now on the Beaches. No one would go there now for any money you could offer them—at least not after sun-down. I warned you, you remember.”
“I know you did. But nevertheless I went, you see. And this Sand-walker saved my life. For he led me back to the sand hills when I had lost myself hopelessly in the fog.”
“It’s not you he wants, I tell you, it’s she.”
“Why does he want her?” I asked.
The man’s tone was very strange.
“Ask of the quicksands!” he replied; and with that disappeared in a hurry. I was getting quite accustomed to this, and would have been surprised had he taken his leave in anything approaching a rational manner.
Now, you may perhaps hardly credit it, but I tossed a shilling then and there to decide my action in the immediate future. “Heads I go, tails I stay.”
The coin spun up in the sunlight. Tails it was. So I was to remain, and in that devil-haunted house. Well, at all events I was doing a brisk trade. There was some comfort in that.
During the next ten days I drove for miles over the district, and did uncommonly well everywhere. I found that the legend of the Beach Farm was universally familiar, and they all shook their heads very gravely indeed when they learned that I lodged there. In fact, I am not at all sure that this was not of assistance to me rather than otherwise. I became an object of intense interest, and, no doubt, of sympathy had I known it.
After that terrible night, there was a lull in the torment of the Sand-walker. Occasionally it rapped at the door or the window, but that was all. As for me I walked no more on the Beaches.
But the time was near at hand when the Devil would have his own. It came one evening about six o’clock. There had been heavy rain, and the marshy lands were flooded and the mists were thick around. Overhead all was opaque and grey, and the ground was sodden under foot. I was anxious to get home, and Tilly was doing all she knew.
“On arrival I looked after her as was my wont, first and foremost. When I had made her comfortable for the night I returned to the kitchen. To my surprise I found Mrs. Jarzil in conversation with a girl, in whom from Abraham’s description, meagre though it had been, I had no difficulty in recognising his Venus of the Fen. She was certainly pretty. I agreed with Abraham there. She was crying bitterly, whilst her mother raged at her. They both stopped short as I entered—a sense of delicacy, no doubt.
“Whatever is the matter?” I asked, surveying the pair of them.
“Oh, sir, you are mother’s new lodger, aren’t you?” said the girl. “Master Abraham told me as she had one. Do please ask her to hear reason, do, I implore you, sir.”
“I will allow no one to interfere with my private aflairs,” said Mrs. Jarzil, stamping her foot. “If you are wise you will not seek to make public your disgrace.”
“There is no disgrace. I have done nothing to be ashamed of, I tell you.”
“No disgrace? No disgrace in allowing yourself to be beguiled by that man—to be fooled by his good looks and soft speeches?”
“What do you mean, mother? I have nothing to do with Mr. Amber.”
“Liar, you ran away with him. What more could you have to do with him, I should like to know?”
Lottie’s spirit rose, and with it the colour to her cheeks. “I ran away with him? Indeed I did nothing of the kind. It was you who made me run away. You treated me so cruelly that I determined to go into service in London. I was sick to death of your scolding, and your preaching and praying, and this dismal house, and these horrible mists, and never a soul to speak to, sick to death of it I tell you. That’s why I went. Mr. Amber indeed!” (this with a toss of her head). “I have more taste than to take up with the likes of him. I met him as he was leaving here. I was walking, and he offered me a lift—”
“Abr’am saw you; Abr’am saw you both!” interrupted her mother savagly. “He told me you had eloped with the man.”
“That was a lie. I parted from Mr. Amber at the London railway station. From that time to this I have never set eyes upon him. For my own sake I made him promise to hold his tongue.”
“He did—he did!” cried Mrs. Jarzil, wildly. “God help him and me, he did. He returned here, but he said nothing—made no explanation. I believed he had ruined you. Now, oh now, I see it all. And you have ruined me.”
“Oh, mother, what do you mean?”
“Why did you not let him speak? Oh, why did you not write and explain. I believed—I thought he had robbed me of you— and I revenged myself upon him.
“Revenged yourself?” I cried. I began to have an inkling of what was coming. But Mrs. Jarzil paid no heed to me. She shook Lottie furiously.
“Do you know what your silence has cost me?” (She was beside herself now). “It has cost me my soul—my soul, I say. Oh, why did you let me believe him guilty? I killed him. I murdered him for your sake. It was not vengeance, it was not justice, it was crime—crime and evil.”
“Yes; I killed him. I swore he should pay for what he had done. His own curiosity did for him. I played upon it. I lured him to the quicksands.”
“The quicksands?” I repeated, horrified.
“I placed a lantern on the brink of the most dangerous of them,” the woman continued, feverishly. “He used habitually to walk on the Beaches at dark. His curiosity did the rest. He had to see what that light was. I knew he would. It was the last light he ever saw in this world. Yes, you call it murder. It was murder. But it was your fault— your fault. And now he walks, and taps at the door for me. He wants me; he wants me. I thought I had justice on my side—that I was avenging your disgrace; and I fought with my soul; oh, how I fought! But now—I see he is right. It is I who must now be punished. I must go. I must go. Oh, God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Lottie lay stretched on the floor. She had fainted. I placed myself between her mother and the door. I dared not let her out.
“Where would you go?” I cried, seizing her by the arm and frustrating a desperate effort to get away. She was fairly demented, and seemed possessed of strength almost demoniacal.
“To the Beaches—to my death. Let me go—let me go. An eye for an eye, I say—a tooth for a tooth. That is the law of God. Hark! Listen! He calls —he calls me.” (I could hear nothing but the howling of the wind.) “I must go, I must go, I must—”
She was too quick for me. Before I had time to stop her she was away into the desolate night. I rushed after her. In her present condition there was no knowing what she might do. Clearly her mind was unhinged. I could hardly see for the rain. It was nearly dark too. But on through the mire and the mist I went. I jostled up against a man. It was Abraham. I remembered it was he who had caused all this, and with the thought I lost control of myself. I gripped him by the throat.
“You dog—you liar! Lottie the girl has come back!”
“I—I—I know!” he gasped. “I was coming up to see her. Leave, me alone. What do you mean by this?”
“You deserve it, and more, you villain. You know well the girl did not go with Amber. You lied to her mother; you made her think so. You were in love with her yourself. The man’s death lies at your door more than at hers. She has gone to the Beaches—to her death, I tell you—unless she is stopped.”
Then I realised that I was wasting time. I hastened on, regretting deeply that my feelings had so got the better of me just then.
It was blowing half a gale, though it was not till I had crossed the sandhills that I realised it. Then the full blast of the wind struck me. It was as much as I could do to keep my feet. I could not see the woman anywhere, though I peered into the gloom until my head swam. Not a sign of her or any living creature could I see. There was nothing but the roar of the wind and the sea, and the swish of the driving rain.
Then I thought I heard a cry—a faint cry. I ploughed my way down in the direction whence I fancied it came. I became aware that Abraham had followed me. He was close behind me. Together we groped blindly on.
“He’ll get her this time!” shouted the man.
“Come on! Come on!” I roared at him. “Yonder she is.”
“And yonder the Sand-walker.”
The wretch hung back. Then a gust of wind, more concentrated and more fierce than before, seemed to rend an opening in the fog. Two shadows could be seen fluttering along—one a man of unusual height, the other a woman, reeling and swaying. She followed the Thing. As we gazed, a light appeared in the distance, radiant as a star. Its brilliance grew, and spread far and wide through the fog. The tall figure moved up to and past the light—the other following, always following.
She staggered and flung up her arms, and a wild and despairing cry rang out above the elements. And the light gradually died away, and the wind howled on, driving the mists across the sinking figure.
Slowly she sank into the sand, deeper and deeper. One last terrible moan reached us where we were, then she disappeared. For the moment the storm seemed to hush. Then all was darkness.
The Anchor Press, Ltd., Tiptree, Essex.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia