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Title: Collected Stories Author: B. M. Croker * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0605321h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2006 Date most recently updated: August 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Table of Contents
Some years ago, when I was a slim young spin, I came out to India to live with my brother Tom: he and I were members of a large and somewhat impecunious family, and I do not think my mother was sorry to have one of her four grown-up daughters thus taken off her hands. Tom's wife, Aggie, had been at school with my eldest sister; we had known and liked her all our lives.
She was quite one of ourselves, and as she and the children were at home when Tom's letter was received, and his offer accepted, she helped me to choose my slender outfit with judgement, zeal, and taste; endowed me with several pretty additions to my wardrobe; superintended the fitting of my gowns and the trying on of my hats, with most sympathetic interest, and finally escorted me out to Lucknow, under her own wing, and installed me in the only spare room in her comfortable bungalow in Dilkongha.
My sister-in-law is a pretty little brunette, rather pale, with dark hair, brilliant black eyes, a resolute mouth and a bright, intelligent expression. She is orderly, trim and feverishly energetic, and seems to live every moment of her life. Her children, her wardrobe, her house, her servants, and last, not least, her husband, are all models in their way; and yet she has plenty of time for tennis and dancing, and talking and walking. She is, undoubtedly, a remarkably talented little creature, and especially prides herself on her nerve and her power of will, or will power. I suppose they are the same thing? and I am sure they are all the same to Tom, who worships the sole of her small slipper. Strictly between ourselves she is the ruling member of the family, and turns her lord and master round her little finger. Tom is big and fair, of course, the opposite to his wife, quiet, rather easy-going and inclined to be indolent, but Aggie rouses him up, and pushes him to the front, and keeps him there. She knows all about his department, his prospects of promotion, his prospects of furlough, of getting acting appointments, and so on, even better than he does himself. The chief of Tom's department--have I said that Tom is in the Irritation Office?--has placed it solemnly on record that he considers little Mrs Shandon a surprisingly clever woman. The two children, Bob and Tor, are merry, oppressively active monkeys, aged three and five years respectively. As for myself I am tall and fair, and I wish I could add pretty; but this is a true story. My eyes are blue, my teeth are white, my hair is red--alas, a blazing red; and I was, at this period, nineteen years of age; and now I think I have given a sufficient outline of the whole family.
We arrived at Lucknow in November, when the cold weather is delightful, and everything was delightful to me. The bustle and life of a great Indian station, the novelty of my surroundings, the early morning rides, picnics down the river, and dances at the 'Chutter Munzil' made me look upon Lucknow as a paradise on earth; and in this light I still regarded it, until a great change came over the temperature, and the month of April introduced me to red-hot winds, sleepless nights, and the intolerable 'brain fever' bird. Aggie had made up her mind definitely on one subject: we were not to go away to the hills until the rains. Tom could only get two months' leave (July and August), and she did not intend to leave him to grill on the plains alone. As for herself and the children--not to speak of me--we had all come out from home so recently we did not require a change. The trip to Europe had made a vast hole in the family stocking, and she wished to economize; and who can economize with two establishments in full swing? Tell me this, ye Anglo-Indian matrons. With a large, cool bungalow, plenty of punkhas, khuskhus tatties,.ice, and a thermantidote, surely we could manage to brave May and June--at any rate the attempt was made. Gradually the hills drained Lucknow week by week; family after family packed up, warned us of our folly in remaining on the plains, offered to look for houses for us, and left by the night mail. By the middle of May, the place was figuratively empty. Nothing can be more dreary than a large station in the hot weather, unless it is an equally forsaken hill station in the depths of winter, when the mountains are covered with snow: the mall no longer resounds with gay voices and the tramp of Jampanies, but is visited y bears and panthers, and the houses are closed, and, as it were, put to bed in straw! As for Lucknow in the summer, it was a melancholy spot; the public gardens were deserted, the chairs at the Chutter Munzil stood empty, the very bands had gone to the hills!, the shops were shut, the baked white roads, no longer thronged with carriages and bamboo carts, gave ample room to the humble ekka, or a Dhobie's meagre donkey shuffling along in the dust.
Of course we were not the only people remaining in the place, grumbling at the heat and dust and life in general; but there can be no sociability with the thermometer above 100 in the shade.
Through the long, long Indian day we sat and gasped, in darkened rooms, and consumed quantities of 'Nimbo pegs', i.e. limes and soda water, and listened to the fierce hot winds roaring along the road and driving the roasted leaves before it; and in the evening, when the sun had set, we went for a melancholy drive through the Wingfield Park, or round by Martiniere College, and met our friends at the library and compared sensations and thermometers. The season was exceptionally bad, but people say that every year, and presently Bobby and Tor began to fade: their little white faces and listless eyes appealed to Aggie as Tom's anxious expostulations had never done. 'Yes, they must go to the hills with me.' But this idea I repudiated at once; I refused to undertake the responsibility--I, who could scarcely speak a word to the servants--who had no experience! Then Bobbie had a bad go of fever--intermittent fever: the beginning of the end to his alarmed mother; the end being represented by a large gravestone! She now became as firmly determined to go as she had previously been resolved to stay; but it was so late in the season to take a house. Alas, alas, for the beautiful tempting advertisements in the Pioneer, which we had seen and scorned! Aggie wrote to a friend in a certain hill station, called for this occasion only 'Kantia', and Tom wired to a house agent, who triumphantly replied by letter that there was not one unlet bungalow on his books. This missive threw us into the depths of despair; there seemed no alternative but a hill hotel, and the usual quarters that await the last comers, and the proverbial welcome for children and dogs (we had only four); but the next day brought us good news from Aggie's friend Mrs Chalmers.
Dear Mrs Shandon--she said---I received your letter, and went at once to Cursitjee, the agent. Every hole and corner up here seems hill, and he had not a single house to let. Today I had a note from him, saving that Briarwood is vacant; the people who took it are not coming up, they have gone to Naini Tal. You are in luck. I have just been out to see the house, and have secured it for you. It is a mile and a half from the club, but I know that you and your sister are capital walkers. I envy you. Such a charming place--two sitting-rooms, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a hall, servants' go-downs, stabling, and a splendid view from a very pretty garden, and only Rs. 800 for the season!
Why, I am paving Rs. 1,000 for a very inferior house, with scarcely a stick of furniture and no view. I feel so proud of myself, and I am longing to show you my treasure trove. Telegraph when you start, and I shall have a milk man in waiting and fires in all the rooms.
Yours sincerely, Edith Chalmers.
We now looked upon Mrs Chalmers as our best and dearest friend, and began to get under way at once. A long Journey in India is a serious business when the party comprises two ladies, two children, two ayahs and five other servants, three fox terriers, a mongoose and a Persian cat--all these animals going to the hills for the benefit of their health--not to speak of a ton of luggage, including crockery and lamps, a cottage piano, a goat and a pony. Aggie and I, the children, one ayah, two terriers, the cat and mongoose, our bedding and pillows, the tiffin basket and ice basket, were all stowed into one compartment, and I must confess that the journey was truly miserable. The heat was stifling, despite the water tatties. One of the terriers had a violent dispute with the cat, and the cat had a difference with the mongoose, and Bob and Tor had a pitched battle more than once. I actually wished myself back in Lucknow. I was most truly thankful to wake one morning to find myself under the shadow of the Himalayas--not a mighty, snow-clad range of everlasting hills, but merely the spurs--the moderate slopes, covered with scrub and loose shale and jungle, and deceitful little trickling watercourses. We sent the servants on ahead, whilst we rested at the Dak bungalow near the railway station, and then followed them at our leisure. We accomplished the ascent in dandies--open kind of boxes, half box half chair, carried on the shoulders of four men. This was an entirely novel sensation to me, and at first an agreeable one, so long as the slopes were moderate and the paths wide; but the higher we went, the narrower became the path, the steeper the naked precipice; and as my coolies would walk at the extreme edge, with the utmost indifference to my frantic appeals to 'Bector! Bector!'--and would change poles at the most agonizing corners--my feelings were very mixed, especially when droves of loose pack ponies came thundering down hill, with no respect for the rights of the road. Late at night we passed through Kantia, and arrived at Briarwood far too weary to be critical. Fires were blazing, supper was prepared, and we dispatched it in haste, and most thankfully went to bed and slept soundly, as anyone would do who had spent thirty-six hours in a crowded compartment and ten in a cramped wooden case.
The next morning, rested and invigorated, we set out on a tour of inspection; and it is almost worth while to undergo a certain amount of baking on the sweltering heat of the plains, in order to enjoy those deep first draughts of cool hill air, instead of a stifling, dust-laden atmosphere, and to appreciate the green valleys and blue hills by force of contrast to the far-stretching, eye-smarting, white glaring roads that intersect the burnt-up plains--roads and plains that even the pariah abandons, salamander though he be!
To our delight and surprise, Mrs Chalmers had by no means overdrawn the advantages of our new abode. The bungalow is as solidly built of stone, two storied, and ample in size. It stood on a kind of shelf, cut out of the hillside, and was surrounded by a pretty flower garden, full of roses, fuchsias, carnations. The high road passed the gate, from which the avenue descended direct to the entrance door, which was at the end of the house, and from whence ran a long passage. Off this passage three rooms opened to the right, all looking south, and all looking into a deep, delightful, flagged verandah. The stairs were very steep. At the head of them, the passage and rooms were repeated. There were small nooks, and dressing-rooms, and convenient out-houses, and plenty of good water; but the glory of Briarwood was undoubtedly its verandah: it was fully twelve feet wide, roofed with zinc, and overhung a precipice of a thousand feet--not a startlingly sheer khud, but a tolerably straight descent of grey-blue shale rocks and low jungle. From it there was a glorious view, across a valley, far away, to the snowy range. It opened at one end into the avenue, and was not inclosed; but at the side next the precipice there was a stout wooden railing, with netting at the bottom, for the safety of too enterprising dogs or children. A charming spot, despite its rather bold situation; and as Aggie and I sat in it, surveying the scenery and inhaling the pure hill air, and watching Bob and Tor tearing up and down playing horses, we said to one another that 'the verandah alone was worth half the rent'.
'It's absurdly cheap,' exclaimed my sister-in-law complacently. 'I wish you saw the hovel I had, at Simla, for the same rent. I wonder if it is feverish, or badly drained, or what?'
'Perhaps it has a ghost,' I suggested facetiously; and at such an absurd idea we both went into peals of laughter.
At this moment Mrs Chalmers appeared, brisk, rosy, and breathlessly benevolent, having walked over from Kantia.
'So you have found it,' she said as we shook hands. 'I said nothing about this delicious verandah! I thought I would keep it as a surprise. I did not say a word too much for Briarwood, did I?'
'Not half enough,' we returned rapturously; and presently we went in a body, armed with a list from the agent, and proceeded to go over the house and take stock of its contents.
'It's not a bit like a hill furnished house,' boasted Mrs Chalmers, with a glow of pride, as she looked round the drawing-room; 'carpets, curtains, solid, very solid chairs, and Berlin wool worked screens, a card-table, and any quantity of pictures.'
'Yes, don't they look like family portraits?' I suggested, as we gazed at them. There was one of an officer in faded water colours, another of his wife, two of a previous generation in oils and amply gilded frames, two sketches of an English country house, and some framed photographs, groups of grinning cricketers or wedding guests. All the rooms were well, almost handsomely, furnished in an old-fashioned style. There was no scarcity of wardrobes, looking-glasses, or even armchairs, in the bedrooms, and the pantry was fitted out--a most singular circumstance--with a large supply of handsome glass and china, lamps, old moderators, coffee and tea pots, plated side dishes and candlesticks, cooking utensils and spoons and forks, wine coasters, and a cake-basket.
These articles were all let with the house, much to our amazement, provided we were responsible for the same, The china was Spode, the plate old family heirlooms, with a crest--a winged horse--on everything, down to the very mustard spoons.
'The people who own this house must be lunatics,' remarked Aggie as she peered round the pantry; 'fancy hiring out one's best family plate and good old china! And I saw some ancient music books in the drawing-room, and there is a side saddle in the bottle khana.'
'My dear, the people who owned this house are dead,' explained Mrs Chalmers. 'I heard all about them last evening from Mrs Starkey.'
'Oh, is she up there?' exclaimed Aggie somewhat fretfully.
'Yes, her husband is cantonment magistrate. This house belonged to an old retired colonel and his wife. They and his niece lived here. These were all their belongings. They died within a short time of one another, and the old man left a queer will, to say that the house was to remain precisely as they left it for twenty years, and at the end of that time it was to be sold and all the property dispersed. Mrs Starkey says she is sure that he never intended it to be let, but the heir-at--law insists on that, and is furious at the terms of the will.'
'Well, it is a very good thing for us,' remarked Aggie; 'we are as comfortable here as if we were in our own house: there is a stove in the kitchen; there are nice boxes for firewood in every room, clocks, real hair mattresses--in short, it is as you said, a treasure trove.'
We set to work to modernize the drawing-room with phoolkaries, Madras muslin curtains, photograph screens and frames, and such like portable articles. We placed the piano across a corner, arranged flowers in some handsome Dresden china vases, and entirely altered and improved the character of the room. When Aggie had dispatched a most glowing description of our new quarters to Tom, and we had had tiffin, we set off to walk into Kantia to put our names down at the library and to enquire for letters at the post office. Aggie met a good many acquaintances--who does not who has lived five years in India in the same district? Among them Mrs Starkey, an elderly lady with a prominent nose and goggle eyes, who greeted her loudly across the reading-room table in this agreeable fashion:
'And so you have come up after all, Mrs Shandon. Someone told me that you meant to remain below, but I knew you never could be so wicked as to keep your poor little children in that heat.'
Then coming round and dropping into a chair beside her she said, 'And I suppose this young lady is your sister-in-law?'
Mrs Starkey eyed me critically, evidently appraising my chances in the great marriage market.
She herself had settled her own two daughters most satisfactorily, and had now nothing to do but interest herself in these people's affairs.
'Yes,' acquiesced Aggie, 'Miss Shandon---'Mrs Starkey.'
'And so you have taken Briarwood?'
'Yes, we have been most lucky to get it.'
'I hope you will think so at the end of three months,' observed Mrs Starkey with a significant pursing of her lips. 'Mrs Chalmers is a stranger up here, or she would not have been in such a hurry to jump at it.'
'Why, what is the matter with it?' enquired Aggie. 'It is well built, well furnished, well situated, and very cheap.'
'That's just it--suspiciously cheap. Why, my dear Mrs Shandon, if there was not something against it, it would let for two hundred rupees a month.'
'And what is against it?'
'It's haunted! There you have the reason in two words.'
'Is that all? I was afraid it was the drains. I don't believe in ghosts and haunted houses. What are we supposed to see?'
'Nothing,' retorted Mrs Starkey, who seemed a good deal nettled at our smiling incredulity.
'Nothing!' with an exasperating laugh.
'No, but you will make up for it in hearing. Not now--you are all right for the next six weeks--but after the monsoon breaks I give you a week at Briarwood. No one would stand it longer, and indeed you might as well bespeak your rooms at Cooper's Hotel now. There is always a rush up here in July by the two month's leave people, and you will be poked into some wretched go-down.'
Aggie laughed rather a careless ironical little laugh and said, 'Thank you, Mrs Starkey; but I think we will stay on where we are; at any rate for the present.'
Of course it will be as you please. What do you think of the verandah?' she enquired with a curious smile.
'I think, as I was saying to Susan, that it is worth half the rent of the house.'
'And in my opinion the house is worth double rent without it,' and with this enigmatic remark she rose and sailed away.
'Horrid old frump,' exclaimed Aggie as we walked home in the starlight. 'She is jealous and angry that she did not get Briarwood herself--I know her so well. She is always hinting and repeating stories about the nicest people--always decrying your prettiest dress or your best servant.'.We soon forgot all about Mrs Starkey and her dismal prophecy, being too gay and too busy to give her, or it, a thought. We had so many engagements--tennis parties and tournaments, picnics, concerts, dances and little dinners. We ourselves gave occasional afternoon teas in the verandah, using the best Spode cups and saucers and the old silver cake-basket, and were warmly complimented on our good fortune in securing such a charming house and garden. One day the children discovered to their great joy that the old chowkidar belonging to the bungalow possessed an African grey parrot--a rare bird indeed in India; he had a battered Europe cage, doubtless a remnant of better days, and swung on his ring, looking up at us enquiringly out of his impudent little black eyes.
The parrot had been the property of the former inmates of Briarwood, and as it was a long-lived creature, had survived its master and mistress, and was boarded out with the chowkidar, at one rupee per month.
The chowkidar willingly carried the cage into the verandah, where the bird seemed perfectly at home.
We got a little table for its cage, and the children were delighted with him, as he swung to and fro, with a bit of cake in his wrinkled claw.
Presently be startled us all by suddenly calling 'Lucy', in a voice that was as distinct as if it had come from a human throat, 'Pretty Lucy--Lu--cy.'
'That must have been the niece,' said Aggie. 'I expect she was the original of that picture over the chimney-piece in your room; she looks like a Lucy.'
It was a large framed half-length photograph of a very pretty girl, in a white dress, with gigantic open sleeves. The ancient parrot talked incessantly now that he had been restored to society; he whistled for the dogs, and brought them flying to his summons, to his great satisfaction and their equally great indignation. He called 'Qui hye' so naturally, in a lady's shrill soprano, or a gruff male bellow, that I have no doubt our servants would have liked to have wrung his neck. He coughed and expectorated like an old gentleman, and whined like a puppy, and mewed like a cat, and I am sorry to add, sometimes swore like a trooper; but his most constant cry was, 'Lucy, where are you, pretty Lucy--Lucy--Lu--cy?'
Aggie and I went to various picnics, but to that given by the Chalmers (in honour of Mr Chalmers's brother Charlie, a captain in a Gurkha regiment, just come up to Kantia on leave)
Aggie was unavoidably absent. Tor had a little touch of fever, and she did not like to leave him; but I went under my hostess's care, and expected to enjoy myself immensely. Alas! on that self-same afternoon the long expected monsoon broke, and we were nearly drowned! We rode to the selected spot, five miles from Kantia, laughing and chattering, indifferent to the big blue-black clouds that came slowly, but surely, sailing up from below; it was a way they had had for days and nothing had come of it. We spread the tablecloth, boiled the kettle, unpacked the hampers, in spite of sharp gusts of wind and warning rumbling thunder, Just as we had commenced to reap the reward of our exertions, there fell a few huge drops, followed by a vivid flash, and then a tremendous crash of thunder, like a whole park of artillery, that seemed to shake the mountains, and after this the deluge. In less than a minute we were soaked through; we hastily gathered up the tablecloth by its four ends, gave it to the coolies and fled. It was all I could do to stand against the wind; only for Captain Chalmers I believe J would have been blown away; as it was I lost my hat, it was whirled into space. Mrs Chalmers lost her boa, and Mrs Starkey, not merely her bonnet, but some portion of her hair. We were truly in a wretched plight, the water streaming down our faces and squelehing in our boots; the little trickling mountain rivulets Were now like racing seas of turbid water; the lightning was almost blinding; the trees rocked dangerously and lashed one another with their quivering branches. I had never been out in such a storm before, and I hope I never may again. We reached Kantia more dead than alive, and Mrs Chalmers sent an express to Aggie, and kept me till the next day. After raining as it only can rain in the Himalayas, the weather cleared, the sun shone, and I rode home in borrowed plumes, full of my adventures and in the highest spirits. I found Aggie sitting over the fire in the drawing-room, looking ghastly white: that was nothing uncommon; but terribly depressed, which was most unusual. 'I am afraid you have neuralgia?' I said as I kissed her; she nodded and made no reply.
'How is Tor?' I enquired as I drew a chair up to the fire, 'Better--quite well.'
'Any news--any letter?'
'Not a word--not a line.'
'Has anything happened to Pip'--Pip was a fox terrier, renowned for having the shortest tail and being the most impertinent dog in Lucknow--'or the mongoose?'
'No, you silly girl! Why do you ask such questions?'
'I was afraid something was amiss; you seem rather down on your luck.' Aggie shrugged her shoulders and then said:
'What put such an absurd idea into your head? Tell me all about the picnic,' and she began to talk rapidly and to ask me various questions; but I observed that once she had set me going--no difficult task--her attention flagged, her eyes wandered from my face to the fire. She was not listening to half I said, and my most thrilling descriptions were utterly lost on this indifferent, abstracted little creature! I noticed from this time that she had become strangely nervous for her.
She invited herself to the share of half my bed; she was restless, distrait, and even irritable; and when I was asked out to spend the day, dispensed with my company with an alacrity that was by no means flattering. Formerly, of an evening she used to herd the children home at sundown, and tear me away from the delights of the reading-room at seven o'clock; now she hung about the library until almost the last moment, until it was time to put out the lamps, and kept the children with her, making transparent pretexts for their company. Often we did not arrive at home till half-past eight o'clock. I made no objections to these late hours, neither did Charlie Chalmers, who often walked back with us and remained to dinner. I was amazed to notice that Aggie seemed delighted to have his company, for she had always expressed a rooted aversion to what she called 'tame young men', and here was this new acquaintance dining with us at least thrice a week! About a month after the picnic we had a spell of dreadful weather--thunderstorms accompanied by torrents. One pouring afternoon, Aggie and I were sitting over the drawing-room fire, whilst the rain came fizzing down among the logs and ran in rivers off the roof and out of the spouts. There had been no going out that day, and we were feeling rather flat and dull, as we sat in a kind of ghostly twilight, with all outdoor objects swallowed up in mist, listening to the violent battering of the rain on the zinc verandah, and the storm which was growling round the hills. 'Oh, for a visitor!' I exclaimed; 'but no one but a fish or a lunatic would be out on such an evening.'
'No one, indeed,' echoed Aggie in a melancholy tone. 'We may as well draw the curtains and have in the lamp and tea to cheer us up.'
She had scarcely finished speaking when I heard the brisk trot of a horse along the road. It stopped at the gate and came rapidly down our avenue. I heard the wet gravel crunching under his hoofs and--yes--a man's cheery whistle. My heart jumped, and I half rose from my chair. It must be Charlie Chalmers braving the elements to see me!--such, I must confess, was my incredible vanity! He did not stop at the front door as usual, but rode straight into the verandah, which afforded ample room and shelter for half-a-dozen mounted men.
'Aggie,' I said eagerly, 'do you hear? It must be--'
I paused--my tongue silenced by the awful pallor of her face and the expression of her eyes as she sat with her little hands clutching the arms of her chair, and her whole figure bent forward in an attitude of listening--an attitude of terror.
'What is it, Aggie?' I said, 'Are you ill?'
As I spoke the horse's hoofs made a loud clattering noise on the stone-paved verandah outside and a man's voice--a young man's eager voice--called, 'Lucy'.
Instantly a chair near the writing-table was pushed back and someone went quickly to the window--a French one--and bungled for a moment with the fastening--I always had a difficulty with that window myself. Aggie and I were within the bright circle of the firelight, but the rest of the room was dint and outside the streaming grey sky was spasmodically illuminated by occasional vivid flashes that lit up the surrounding hills as if it were daylight. The trampling of impatient hoofs and the rattling of a door handle were the only sounds that were audible for a few breathless seconds; but during those seconds Pip, bristling like a porcupine and trembling violently in even joint, had sprung off my lap and crawled abjectly under Aggie's chair, seemingly in a transport of fear. The door was opened audibly, and a cold, icy blast swept in, that seemed to freeze my very heart and made me shiver from head to foot. At this moment there came with a sinister blue glare the most vivid flash of lightning I ever saw. It lit up the whole room, which was empty save for ourselves, and was instantly followed by a clap of thunder that caused my knees to knock together and that terrified me and filled me with horror. It evidently terrified the horse too; there was a violent plunge, a clattering of hoofs on the stones, a sudden loud crash of smashing timber, a woman's long, loud, piercing shriek, which stopped the very beating of my heart, and then a frenzied struggle in the cruel, crumbling, treacherous shale, the rattle of loose stones and the hollow roar of something sliding down the precipice.
I rushed to the door and tore it open, with that awful despairing cry still ringing in my ears. The verandah was empty; there was not a soul to be seen or a sound to be heard, save the rain on the roof.
'Aggie,' I screamed, 'come here! Someone has gone over the verandah and down the khud!
You heard him.'
'Yes,' she said, following me out; 'but come in--come in.'
'I believe it was Charlie Chalmers'--shaking her as I spoke. 'He has been killed--killed---killed! And you stand and do nothing. Send people! Let us go ourselves! Bearer! Ayah!
Khidmatgar!' I cried, raising my voice.
'Hush! It was not Charlie Chalmers,' she said, vainly endeavouring to draw me into the drawing-room. 'Come in--come in.'
'No, no!'--pushing her away and wringing my hands. 'How cruel you are! How inhuman!
There is a path. Let us go at once--at once!'
'You need not trouble yourself, Susan.' she interrupted; 'and you need not cry and tremble---they will bring him up. What you heard was supernatural; it was not real.'
'No--no--no! It was all real. Oh! that scream is in my ears still.'
'I will convince you,' said Aggie, taking my hand as she spoke. 'Feel all along the verandah. Are the railings broken?'
I did as she bade me. No, though was wet and clammy, the railing was intact.
'Where is the broken place?' she asked.
'Now,' she continued, 'since you will not come in, look over, and you will see something more presently.'
Shivering with fear and cold, drifting rain, I gazed down as she bade mc, and there far below I saw lights moving rapidly to and fro, evidently in search of something. After a little delay they congregated in one place. There was a low, booming murmur--they had found him--and presently they commenced to ascend the hill, with the 'hum-hum' of coolies carrying a burden.
Nearer and nearer the lights and sounds came up to the vcry brink of the khud, past the end of the verandah. Many steps and many torches--faint blue torches held by invisible hands--invisible but heavy-footed bearers carried their burden slowly upstairs and along the passage, and deposited it with a dump in Aggie's bedroom! As we stood clasped in one another's arms and shaking all over, the steps descended, the ghostly lights passed up the avenue and disappeared in the gathering darkness. The repetition of the tragedy was over for that day.
'Have you heard it before?' I asked with chattering teeth, as I bolted the drawing-room window.
'Yes, the evening of the picnic and twice since. That is the reason I have always tried to stay out till late and to keep you out. I was hoping and praying you might never hear it. It always happens just before dark. I am afraid you have thought me very queer of late. I have told no end of stories to keep you and the children from harm--I have--'
'I think you have been very kind,' I interrupted. 'Oh, Aggie, shall you ever get that crash and that awful cry out of your head?'
'Never!' hastily lighting the candles as she spoke.
'Is there anything more?' I asked tremulously.
'Yes; sometimes at night the most terrible weeping and sobbing in my bedroom,' and she shuddered at the mere recollection.
'Do the servants know?' I asked anxiously.
'The ayah Mumà has heard it, and the khánsámáh says his mother is sick and he must go, and the bearer wants to attend his brother's wedding. They will all leave.'
'I suppose most people know too?' I suggested dejectedly.
'Yes, don't you remember Mrs Starkey's warnings and her saying that without the verandah the house was worth double rent? We understand that dark speech of hers now, and we have not come to Cooper's Hotel yet.'
'No, not yet. I wish we had. I wonder what Tom will say? He will be here in another fortnight.
Oh, I wish he was here now.'
In spite of our heart-shaking experience, we managed to eat and drink and sleep, yea, to play tennis--somewhat solemnly, it is true--and go to the club, where we remained to the very last moment; needless to mention that I now entered into Aggie's manoeuvre con amore. Mrs Starkey evidently divined the reason of our loitering in Kantia, and said in her most truculent manner, as she squared up to us:
'You keep your children out very late, Mrs Shandon.'
'Yes, but we like to have them with us,' rejoined Aggie in a meek apologetic voice.
'Then why don't you go home earlier?'
'Because it is so stupid and lonely,' was the mendacious answer.
'Lonely is not the word I should use. I wonder if you are as wise as your neighbours now? Come now, Mrs Shandon.'
'About what?' said Aggie with ill-feigned innocence.
'About Briarwood. Haven't you heard it yet? The ghastly precipice and horse affair?'
'Yes, I suppose we may as well confess that we have.'
'Humph! you are a brave couple to stay on. The Tombs tried it last year for three weeks. The Paxtons took it the year before, and then sub-let it, not that they believed in ghosts--oh, dear no,' and she laughed ironically.
'And what is the story?' I enquired eagerly.
'Well the story is this. An old retired officer and his wife and their pretty niece lived at Briarwood a good many years ago. The girl was engaged to be married to a fine young fellow in the Guides. The day before the wedding what you know of happened, and has happened every monsoon ever since. The poor girl went out of her mind and destroyed herself, and the old colonel and his wife did not long survive her. The house is uninhabitable in the monsoon, and there seems nothing for it but to auction off the furniture and pull it down; it will always be the same as long as it stands. Take my advice and come into Cooper's Hotel. I believe you can have that small set of rooms at the back. The sitting-room smokes, but beggars can't be choosers.'
'That will only be our very last resource,' said Aggie hotly.
'It's not very grand, I grant you, but any port in a storm.'
Tom arrived, was doubly welcome, and was charmed with Briarwood. Chaffed us unmercifully and derided our fears until he himself had a similar experience, and he heard the phantom horse plunging in the verandah and that wild, unearthly and utterly appalling shriek. No, he could not laugh that away, and seeing that we had now a mortal abhorrence of the place, that the children had be kept abroad in the damp till long after dark, that Aggie was a mere hollow-eyed spectre, and that we had scarcely a servant left, that--in short, one day we packed up precipitately and fled in a body to Cooper's Hotel. But we did not basely endeavour to sub-let, nor advertise Briarwood as 'a delightfully situated pucka built house, containing all the requirements of a gentleman's family'. No, no. Tom bore the loss of the rent and--a more difficult feat--Aggie bore Mrs Starkey's insufferable, 'I told you so.'
Aggie was at Kantia again last season. She walked out early one morning to see our former abode. The chowkidar and parrot are still in possession, and are likely to remain the sole tenants on the premises. The parrot suns and dusts his ancient feathers in the empty verandah, which re-echoes with his cry of 'Lucy, where are you, pretty Lucy?' The chowkidar inhabits a secluded go-down at the back, where he passes most of the day in sleeping, or smoking the soothing 'huka'. The place has a forlorn, uncared-for appearance now. The flowers are nearly all gone; the paint has peeled off the doors and windows; the avenue is grass-grown. Briarwood appears to have resigned itself to emptiness, neglect and decay, although outside the gate there still hangs a battered board on which, if you look very closely you can decipher the words 'To Let'.
For a period extending over some years, a notice appeared periodically in various daily papers. It read:
"To let furnished, for a term of years, at a very low rental, a large old-fashioned family residence, comprising eleven bed-rooms, four reception rooms, dressing-rooms, two staircases, complete servants' offices, ample accommodation for a Gentleman's establishment, including six-stall stable, coach-house, etc."
This advertisement referred to number ninety.
Occasionally you saw it running for a week or a fortnight at a stretch, as if it were resolved to force itself into consideration by sheer persistency. Sometimes for months I looked for it in vain. Other folk might possibly fancy that the effort of the house agent had been crowned at last with success-that it was let, and no longer in the market.
I knew better. I knew that it would never, never find a tenant. I knew that it was passed on as a hopeless case, from house-agent to house-agent. I knew that it would never be occupied, save by rats-and, more than this, I knew the reason why!
I will not say in what square, street, or road number ninety may be found, nor will I divulge to human being its precise and exact locality, but this I'm prepared to state, that it is positively in existence, is in Charleston, and is still empty.
Twenty years ago, this very Christmas, I was down from New York visiting my friend John Hollyoak, a civil engineer from Charleston. We were guests at a little dinner party in the neighborhood of the South Battery. Conversation became very brisk as the champagne circulated, and many topics were started, discussed, and dismissed.
We talked on an extraordinary variety of subjects.
I distinctly recollect a long argument on mushrooms--mushrooms, murders, racing, cholera; from cholera we came to sudden death, from sudden death to churchyards, and from churchyards, it was naturally but a step to ghosts.
John Hollyoak, who was the most vehement, the most incredulous, the most jocular, and the most derisive of the anti-ghost faction, brought matters to a climax by declaring that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to pass a night in a haunted house-and the worse its character, the better he would be pleased!
His challenge was instantly taken up by our somewhat ruffled host, who warmly assured him that his wishes could be easily satisfied, and that he would be accommodated with a night's lodging in a haunted house within twenty-four hours-in fact, in a house of such a desperate reputation, that even the adjoining mansions stood vacant.
He then proceeded to give a brief outline of the history of number ninety. It had once been the residence of a well-known county family, but what evil events had happened therein tradition did not relate.
On the death of the last owner-a diabolical-looking aged person, much resembling the typical wizard-it had passed into the hands of a kinsman, resident abroad, who had no wish to return to Charleston, and who desired his agents to let it, if they could--a most significant condition!
Year by year went by, and still this 'Highly desirable family mansion' could find no tenant, although the rent was reduced, and reduced, and again reduced, to almost zero!
The most ghastly whispers were afloat-the most terrible experiences were actually proclaimed on the housetops!
No tenant would remain, even gratis; and for the last ten years, this, 'handsome, desirable town family residence' had been the abode of rats by day, and something else by night-so said the neighbors.
Of course it was the very thing for John, and he snatched up the gauntlet on the spot. He scoffed at its evil repute, and solemnly promised to rehabilitate its character within a week.
I was charged by our host to serve as a witness--to verify that John Hollyoak did indeed spend the night at number ninety. The next night at ten o' clock, I found myself standing with John on the steps of the notorious abode; but I was not going to remain; the carriage that brought us was to take me back to my respectable chambers.
This ill-fated house was large, solemn-looking, and gloomy. A heavy portico frowned down on neighboring barefaced hall-doors. The elderly caretaker was prudently awaiting us outside with a key, which said key he turned in the lock, and admitted us into a great echoing hall, black as night, saying as he did so: "My missus has made the bed, and stoked up a good fire in the first front, Sir. Your things is all laid out, and I hope you'll have a comfortable night, Sir."
"No, Sir! Thank you, Sir! Excuse me, I'll not come in! Goodnight!" and with the words still on his lips, he clattered down the steps with most indecent haste, and vanished.
"And of course you will not come in either?" said John. "It is not in the bond, and I prefer to face them alone!" and he laughed contemptuously, a laugh that had a curious echo, it struck me at the time. A laugh strangely repeated, with an unpleasant mocking emphasis. 'Call for me, alive or dead, at eight o'clock to-morrow morning!' he added, pushing me forcibly out into the porch, and closing the door with a heavy, reverberating clang, that sounded half-way down the street.
I did call for him the next morning as desired, with the caretaker, who stared at John's commonplace, self-possessed appearance, with an expression of respectful astonishment.
"So it was all humbug, of course," I said, as he took my arm, and we set off for our club.
"You shall have the whole story whenever we have had something to eat," he replied somewhat impatiently. "It will keep till after breakfast--I'm famishing!"
I remarked that he looked unusually grave as we chatted over our broiled fish and omelet, and that occasionally his attention seemed wandering, to say the least. The moment he had brought out his cigar case and lit up he turned to me and said:
"I see you are just quivering to know my experience, and I won't keep you in suspense any longer. In four words--I have seen them!"
I merely looked at him with widely parted mouth and staring interrogative eyes.
I believe I had best endeavor to give the narrative without comment, and in John Hollyoak's own way. This is, as well as I can recollect, his experience word for word:
"I proceeded upstairs, after I had shut you out, lighting my way by a match, and found the front room easily, as the door was ajar, and it was lit up by a roaring and most cheerful-looking fire, and two wax candles. It was a comfortable apartment, furnished with old-fashioned chairs and tables, and the traditional four-poster bed. There were numerous doors, which proved to be cupboards; and when I had executed a rigorous search in each of these closets and locked them, and investigated the bed above and beneath, sounded the walls, and bolted the door, I sat down before the fire, lit a cigar, opened a book, and felt that I was going to be master of the situation, and most thoroughly and comfortably 'at home.' My novel proved absorbing. I read on greedily, chapter after chapter, and so interested was I, and amused-for it was a lively book-that I positively lost sight of my whereabouts, and fancied myself reading in my own chamber! There was not a sound. The coals dropping from the grate occasionally broke the silence, till a neighboring church-clock slowly boomed twelve! 'The hour!' I said to myself, with a laugh, as I gave the fire a rousing poke, and commenced a new chapter; but ere I had read three pages I had occasion to pause and listen. What was that distinct sound now coming nearer and nearer? 'Rats, of course,' said Common-sense-'it was just the house for vermin.' Then a longish silence. Again a stir, sounds approaching, as if apparently caused by many feet passing down the corridor--high-heeled shoes, the sweeping switch of silken trains! Of course it was all imagination, I assured myself-or rats! Rats were capable of making such curious improbable noises!
"Then another silence. No sound but cinders and the ticking of my watch, which I had laid upon the table."
"I resumed my book, rather ashamed, and a little indignant with myself for having neglected it, and calmly dismissed my late interruption as 'rats-nothing but rats.'"
"I had been reading and smoking for some time in a placid and highly incredulous frame of mind, when I was somewhat rudely startled by a loud single knock at my room door. I took no notice of it, but merely laid down my novel and sat tight. Another knock more imperious this time--After a moment's mental deliberation I arose, armed myself with the poker, prepared to brain any number of rats, and threw the door open with a violent swing that strained its very hinges, and beheld, to my amazement, a tall powdered footman in a laced scarlet uniform, who, making a formal inclination of his head, astonished me still further by saying:
"'Dinner is ready!'"
"'I'm not coming!'" I replied, without a moment's hesitation, and thereupon I slammed the door in his face, locked it, and resumed my seat, also my book; but reading was a farce; my ears were aching for the next sound.
"It came soon-rapid steps running up the stairs, and again a single knock. I went over to the door, and once more discovered the tall butler, who repeated, with a studied courtesy:
"'Dinner is ready, and the company are waiting.'"
"'I told you I was not coming. Be off, and be hanged!' I cried again, shutting the door violently.
"This time I did not make even a pretence at reading. I merely sat and waited for the next move.
"I had not long to sit. In ten minutes I heard a third loud summons. I rose, went to the door, and tore it open. There, as I expected, was the servant again, with his parrot speech:
"'Dinner is ready, the company are waiting, and the master says you must come!'
"'All right, then, I'll come,' I replied, wearied by reason of his importunity, and feeling suddenly fired with a desire to see the end of the adventure.
"He accordingly led the way downstairs, and I followed him, noting as I went the gold buttons on his coat, also that the hall and passages were now brilliantly illuminated by glowing candles, and hung with living green, the crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe and ivy reflecting back the light. There were several uniformed servants passing to and fro, and from the dining room, there issued a buzz of tongues, loud volleys of laughter, many hilarious voices, and a clatter of knives and forks. I was not left much time for speculation, as in another second I found myself inside the door, and my escort announced me in a loud voice as 'Mr. Hollyoak.'
"I could hardly credit my senses, as I looked round and saw about two dozen people, dressed in a fashion of the 18th century, seated at the table, set for a sumptuous Christmas dinner, and lighted up by a blaze of wax candles in massive candelabra.
"A swarthy elderly gentleman, who presided at the head of the board, rose deliberately as I entered. He was dressed in a crimson coat, braided with silver. He wore a white wig, had the most piercing black eyes I ever encountered, made me the finest bow I ever received in all my life, and with a polite wave of his hand, indicated my seat-a vacant chair between two powdered and embroided beauties, with overflowing white shoulders and necks sparkling with diamonds.
"At first I was fully convinced that the whole affair was a superbly matured practical joke. Everything looked so real, so truly flesh and blood, so complete in every detail; but I gazed around in vain for one familiar face.
"I saw young, old, and elderly, handsome and the reverse. On all faces there was a similar expression--reckless, hardened defiance, and something else that made me shudder, but that I could not classify or define.
"Were they a secret community? Burglars or counterfeiters? But no; in one rapid glance I noticed that they belonged exclusively to the upper stratum of society-bygone society. The jabber of talking had momentarily ceased, and the host, imperiously hammering the table with a knife-handle, said in a singularly harsh grating voice:
"'Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to give you a toast! Our guest!' looking straight at me with his glittering coal-black eyes.
"Every glass was immediately raised. Twenty faces were turned towards mine, when, happily, a sudden impulse seized me. I sprang to my feet and said:
"'Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to thank you for your kind hospitality, but before I accept it, allow me to say grace!'
"I did not wait for permission, but hurriedly repeated a Latin benediction. Ere the last syllable was uttered, in an instant there was a violent crash, an uproar, a sound of running, Of screams, groans and curses, and then utter darkness.
"I found myself standing alone by a big mahogany table which I could just dimly discern by the aid of a street-lamp that threw its meager rays into the great empty dining-room from two deep and narrow windows.
"I must confess that I felt my nerves a little shaken by this instantaneous change from light to darkness-from a crowd of gay and noisy companions, to utter solitude and silence. I stood for a moment trying to recover my mental balance. I rubbed my eyes hard to assure myself that I was wide, awake, and then I placed this very cigar-case in the middle of the table, as a sign and token that I had been downstairs--which cigar-case I found exactly where I left it this morning-and then went and groped my way into the hall and regained my room.
"I met with no obstacle en route. I saw no one, but as I closed and double-locked my door I distinctly heard a low laugh outside the keyhole-a sort of suppressed, malicious titter, that made me furious.
"I opened the door at once. There was nothing to be seen. I waited and listened-dead silence. I then undressed and went to bed, resolved that a whole army of butlers would fail to allure me once more to that Christmas feast. I was determined not to lose my night's rest-ghosts or no ghosts.
"Just as I was dozing off I remember hearing the neighboring clock chime two. It was the last sound I was aware of-, the house was now as silent as a vault. My fire burnt away cheerfully. I was no longer in the least degree inclined for reading, and I fell fast asleep and slept soundly till I heard the cabs and milk-carts beginning their morning career.
"I then rose, dressed at my leisure, and found you, my good, faithful friend, awaiting me, rather anxiously, on the hall-door steps.
"I have not done with that house yet. I'm determined to find out who these people are, and where they come from. I shall steep there again tonight, along with my bulldog; and you will see that I shall have news for you tomorrow morning-if I am still alive to tell the tale," he added with a laugh.
In vain I would have dissuaded him. I protested, argued, and implored. I declared that rashness was not courage; that he had seen enough; that I, who had seen nothing, and only listened to his experiences, was convinced that number ninety was a house to be avoided.
I might just as well have talked to my umbrella! So, once more, I reluctantly accompanied him to his previous night's lodging. Once more I saw him swallowed up inside the gloomy, forbidding-looking, re-echoing hall.
I then went home in an unusually anxious, semi-excited, nervous state of mind. I lay wide awake, tumbling and tossing hour after hour, a prey to the most foolish ideas--ideas I would have laughed to scorn in daylight.
More than once I was certain that I heard John Hollyoak distractedly calling me; and I sat up in bed and listened intently. Of course it was fancy, for the instant I did so, there was no sound.
At the first gleam of winter dawn, I rose, dressed, and swallowed a cup of good strong coffee to clear my brain from the misty notions it had harboured during the night. And then I invested myself in my warmest topcoat, and set off for number ninety. Early as it was-it was but half-past seven-I found the caretaker was before me, pacing the pavement, his face drawn with a melancholy expression.
I was not disposed to wait for eight o'clock. I was too uneasy, and too impatient for further particulars of the Christmas dinner-party. So I rang with all my might, and knocked with all my strength.
No sound within--no answer! But John was always a heavy steeper. I was resolved to arouse him all the same, and knocked and rang, and rang and knocked, incessantly for fully ten minutes.
I then stooped down and applied my eye to the keyhole; I looked steadily into the aperture, till I became accustomed to the darkness, and then it seemed to me that another eye--a very strange, fiery eye--was glaring into mine from the other side of the door!
I removed my eye and applied my mouth instead, and shouted with all the power of my lungs:
"John! John Hollyoak!"
How his name echoed and re-echoed up through that dark and empty house! 'He must hear that,' I said to myself as I pressed my ear closely against the lock, and listened with throbbing suspense.
The echo of "Hollyoak" had hardly died away when I swear that distinctly heard a low, sniggering, mocking laugh-that was my only answer-that; and a vast unresponsive silence.
I was now quite desperate. I shook the door frantically, with all my strength. I broke the bell; in short, my behavior was such that it excited the curiosity of a police officer, who crossed the road to know, "What was up?"
"I want to get in!" I panted, breathless with my exertions.
"You'd better stay where you are!" said the police officer; "the outside of this house is the best of it! There are terrible stories..."
"But there is a gentleman inside it!" I interrupted impatiently. "He slept there last night, and I can't wake him. He has the key!"
"Oh, you can't wake him!" returned the police officer gravely. "Then we must get a locksmith!"
But already the thoughtful caretaker had procured one; and already considerable and curious crowd surrounded the steps.
After five minutes of maddening delay, the great heavy door was opened and swung slowly back, and I instantly rushed in, followed less frantically by the police officer and the caretaker.
I had not far to seek John Hollyoak! He and his dog were lying at the foot of the stairs, both stone dead!
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