Jamie “Rocket” Haley had led a charmed life. Star athlete, high school valedictorian, and first in her graduating class at Barak Obama University with a degree in Astronautical Engineering. The fact that she was a nineteenth generation descendant of Kunta Kinte was also a source of great pride, whenever the subject came up. Upon graduation, she joined the United Terran Space Fleet and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. She had never been exposed to the racial prejudice experienced by her ancestors centuries before. Racism had suddenly and remarkably ended a century ago at the time of the Great Republican Migration of 2212. By then, space travel was commonplace and the Mitt Romney Space Exploration Corporation (MRSEC) had financed their own space program for select clients. The program was extremely successful and, before you knew it, Republicans were rocketing all over the place. Eventually, probably due to the fact that they had lost the last consecutive 50 presidential elections, Republicans decided that America was just too liberal a country to live in and the MRSEC offered a solution to the problem. It was decided that it would be better to find another planet suitable for colonization. Mars was already colonized by then so they knew they would have to look outside our solar system. The ships were built and prepared for launch and then one day they all just took off. There was not even a goodbye an no one even seems to know where they went. Some people say they just took off with no specific destination in mind and that they were hoping to find a suitable planet before running out of fuel. In any event, no one had heard from them since.
Jamie’s first deep space assignment was as a member of the engineering staff aboard a science vessel that was mapping a distant sector of the galaxy. The mission had been going well with no surprises. One afternoon, the second shift was on duty, and Jamie was relaxing in her quarters with a good book. All of a sudden there was a strong jolt to the ship. Jamie’s first instinct was to go find out what’s going on but then she decided against it. She thought to herself, “Why insult the second shift? They know what they’re doing. Let them handle it.” A second jolt, even stronger than the first, was followed by a loud voice on the intercom, “Alert, alert, all engineering personnel report to your duty stations.”Jamie leapt from her sofa, left her quarters, and ran down the corridor, feeling three more jolts to the ship before reaching engineering where she found the crewman all dead, either lying on the floor or at their consoles, all of which were electronically “fried” and were no longer functional. Two more engineers from the day shift showed up and Jamie showed them what had happened. She then tried to contact the bridge on the intercom but there was no answer. The other two engineers decided to stay in engineering to see what repairs could be made. Jamie headed toward the bridge to see what had happened. On the way there, there was another strong jolt to the ship, the result of which was the loss of artificial gravity. She remembered her Space Fleet weightlessness training was was able to maintain her orientation but soon her engineering instincts kicked in and she could sense something dreadful. The ship was being towed.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it
was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can
do it and I am, well, hopeless.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am
I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body and went
out into the morning, and sang.
There was once a child, and he strolled about a good deal, and thought of a number of things. He had a sister who was a child too, and his constant companion. These two used to wonder all day long. They wondered at the beauty of the flowers; they wondered at the height and blueness of the sky; they wondered at the depth of the bright water; they wondered at the goodness and the power of God who made the lovely world.
They used to say to one another, sometimes, “Supposing all the children upon earth were to die, would the flowers, and the water, and the sky be sorry?” They believed they would be sorry. For, said they, the buds are the children of the flowers, and the little playful streams that gambol down the hill-sides are the children of the water; and the smallest bright specks playing at hide and seek in the sky all night, must surely be the children of the stars; and they would all be grieved to see their playmates, the children of men, no more.
There was one clear shining star that used to come out in the sky before the rest, near the church spire, above the graves. It was larger and more beautiful, they thought, than all the others, and every night they watched for it, standing hand in hand at a window. Whoever saw it first cried out, ‘I see the star!’ And often they cried out both together, knowing so well when it would rise, and where. So they grew to be such friends with it, that, before lying down in their beds, they always looked out once again, to bid it good night; and when they were turning round to sleep, they used to say, ‘God bless the star!’
But while she was still very young, oh, very, very young, the sister drooped, and came to be so weak that she could no longer stand in the window at night; and then the child looked sadly out by himself, and when he saw the star, turned round and said to the patient pale face on the bed, ‘I see the star!’ and then a smile would come upon the face, and a little weak voice used to say, ‘God bless my brother and the star!’
And so the time came all too soon! when the child looked out alone, and when there was no face on the bed; and when there was a little grave among the graves, not there before; and when the star made long rays down towards him, as he saw it through his tears.
Now, these rays were so bright, and they seemed to make such a shining way from earth to Heaven, that when the child went to his solitary bed, he dreamed about the star; and dreamed that, lying where he was, he saw a train of people taken up that sparkling road by angels. And the star, opening, showed him a great world of light, where many more such angels waited to receive them.
All these angels, who were waiting, turned their beaming eyes upon the people who were carried up into the star; and some came out from the long rows in which they stood, and fell upon the people’s necks, and kissed them tenderly, and went away with them down avenues of light, and were so happy in their company, that lying in his bed he wept for joy.
But, there were many angels who did not go with them, and among them one he knew. The patient face that once had lain upon the bed was glorified and radiant, but his heart found out his sister among all the host.
His sister’s angel lingered near the entrance of the star, and said to the leader among those who had brought the people thither:
‘Is my brother come?’
And he said ‘No.’
She was turning hopefully away, when the child stretched out his arms, and cried, ‘O, sister, I am here! Take me!’ and then she turned her beaming eyes upon him, and it was night; and the star was shining into the room, making long rays down towards him as he saw it through his tears.
From that hour forth, the child looked out upon the star as on the home he was to go to, when his time should come; and he thought that he did not belong to the earth alone, but to the star too, because of his sister’s angel gone before.
There was a baby born to be a brother to the child; and while he was so little that he never yet had spoken word, he stretched his tiny form out on his bed, and died.
Again the child dreamed of the open star, and of the company of angels, and the train of people, and the rows of angels with their beaming eyes all turned upon those people’s faces.
Said his sister’s angel to the leader:
‘Is my brother come?’
And he said, ‘Not that one, but another.’
As the child beheld his brother’s angel in her arms, he cried, ‘O, sister, I am here! Take me!’ And she turned and smiled upon him, and the star was shining.
He grew to be a young man, and was busy at his books when an old servant came to him and said:
‘Thy mother is no more. I bring her blessing on her darling son!’
Again at night he saw the star, and all that former company. Said his sister’s angel to the leader.
‘Is my brother come?’
And he said, ‘Thy mother!’
A mighty cry of joy went forth through all the star, because the mother was re-united to her two children. And he stretched out his arms and cried, ‘O, mother, sister, and brother, I am here! Take me!’ And they answered him, ‘Not yet,’ and the star was shining.
He grew to be a man, whose hair was turning grey, and he was sitting in his chair by the fireside, heavy with grief, and with his face bedewed with tears, when the star opened once again.
Said his sister’s angel to the leader: ‘Is my brother come?’
And he said, ‘Nay, but his maiden daughter.’
And the man who had been the child saw his daughter, newly lost to him, a celestial creature among those three, and he said, ‘My daughter’s head is on my sister’s bosom, and her arm is around my mother’s neck, and at her feet there is the baby of old time, and I can bear the parting from her, GOD be praised!’
And the star was shining.
Thus the child came to be an old man, and his once smooth face was wrinkled, and his steps were slow and feeble, and his back was bent. And one night as he lay upon his bed, his children standing round, he cried, as he had cried so long ago:
‘I see the star!’
They whispered one another, ‘He is dying.’
And he said, ‘I am. My age is falling from me like a garment, and I move towards the star as a child. And O, my Father, now I thank thee that it has so often opened, to receive those dear ones who await me!’
And the star was shining; and it shines upon his grave.
Charles Dickens (1812 — 1870)
Somebody asked for the cigars. We had talked long, and the conversation was beginning to languish; the tobacco smoke had got into the heavy curtains, the wine had got into those brains which were liable to become heavy, and it was already perfectly evident that, unless somebody did something to rouse our oppressed spirits, the meeting would soon come to its natural conclusion, and we, the guests, would speedily go home to bed, and most certainly to sleep.
No one had said anything very remarkable; it may be that no one had anything very remarkable to say. Jones had given us every particular of his last hunting adventure in Yorkshire. Mr. Tompkins, of Boston, had explained at elaborate length those working principles, by the due and careful maintenance of which the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad not only extended its territory, increased its departmental influence, and transported live stock without starving them to death before the day of actual delivery, but also, had for years succeeded in deceiving those passengers who bought its tickets into the fallacious belief that the corporation aforesaid was really able to transport human life without destroying it.
Signor Tombola had endeavoured to persuade us, by arguments which we took no trouble to oppose, that the unity of his country in no way resembled the average modern torpedo, carefully planned, constructed with all the skill of the greatest European arsenals, but, when constructed, destined to be directed by feeble hands into a region where it must undoubtedly explode, unseen, unfeared, and unheard, into the illimitable wastes of political chaos.
It is unnecessary to go into further details. The conversation had assumed proportions which would have bored Prometheus on his rock, which would have driven Tantalus to distraction, and which would have impelled Ixion to seek relaxation in the simple but instructive dialogues of Herr Ollendorff, rather than submit to the greater evil of listening to our talk. We had sat at table for hours; we were bored, we were tired, and nobody showed signs of moving.
Somebody called for cigars. We all instinctively looked towards the speaker. Brisbane was a man of five-and-thirty years of age, and remarkable for those gifts which chiefly attract the attention of men. He was a strong man. The external proportions of his figure presented nothing extraordinary to the common eye, though his size was above the average. He was a little over six feet in height, and moderately broad in the shoulder; he did not appear to be stout, but, on the other hand, he was certainly not thin; his small head was supported by a strong and sinewy neck; his broad, muscular hands appeared to possess a peculiar skill in breaking walnuts without the assistance of the ordinary cracker, and, seeing him in profile, one could not help remarking the extraordinary breadth of his sleeves, and the unusual thickness of his chest. He was one of those men who are commonly spoken of among men as deceptive; that is to say, that though he looked exceedingly strong he was in reality very much stronger than he looked. Of his features I need say little. His head was small, his hair is thin, his eyes are blue, his nose is large, he has a small moustache, and a square jaw. Everybody knows Brisbane, and when he asked for a cigar everybody looked at him.
“It is a very singular thing,” said Brisbane.
Everybody stopped talking. Brisbane’s voice was not loud, but possessed a peculiar quality of penetrating general conversation, and cutting it like a knife. Everybody listened. Brisbane, perceiving that he had attracted their general attention, lit his cigar with great equanimity.
“It is very singular,” he continued, “that thing about ghosts. People are always asking whether anybody has seen a ghost. I have.”
“Bosh! What, you? You don’t mean to say so, Brisbane? Well, for a man of his intelligence!”
A chorus of exclamations greeted Brisbane’s remarkable statement. Everybody called for cigars, and Stubbs, the butler, suddenly appeared from the depths of nowhere with a fresh bottle of dry champagne. The situation was saved; Brisbane was going to tell a story.
I am an old sailor, said Brisbane, and as I have to cross the Atlantic pretty often, I have my favourites. Most men have their favourites. I have seen a man wait in a Broadway bar for three-quarters of an hour for a particular car which he liked. I believe the bar-keeper made at least one-third of his living by that man’s preference. I have a habit of waiting for certain ships when I am obliged to cross that duck-pond. It may be a prejudice, but I was never cheated out of a good passage but once in my life. I remember it very well; it was a warm morning in June, and the Custom House officials, who were hanging about waiting for a steamer already on her way up from the Quarantine, presented a peculiarly hazy and thoughtful appearance. I had not much luggage – I never have. I mingled with the crowd of passengers, porters, and officious individuals in blue coats and brass buttons, who seemed to spring up like mushrooms from the deck of a moored steamer to obtrude their unnecessary services upon the independent passenger. I have often noticed with a certain interest the spontaneous evolution of these fellows. They are not there when you arrive; five minutes after the pilot has called ‘Go ahead!’ they, or at least their blue coats and brass buttons, have disappeared from deck and gangway as completely as though they had been consigned to that locker which tradition ascribes to Davy Jones. But, at the moment of starting, they are there, clean shaved, blue coated, and ravenous for fees. I hastened on board. The Kamtschatka was one of my favourite ships. I saw was, because she emphatically no longer is. I cannot conceive of any inducement which could entice me to make another voyage in her. Yes, I know what you are going to say. She is uncommonly clean in the run aft, she has enough bluffing off in the bows to keep her dry, and the lower berths are most of them double. She has a lot of advantages, but I won’t cross in her again. Excuse the digression. I got on board. I hailed a steward, whose red nose and redder whiskers were equally familiar to me.
“One hundred and five, lower berth,” said I, in the businesslike tone peculiar to men who think no more of crossing the Atlantic than taking a whisky cocktail at down-town Delmonico’s.
The steward took my portmanteau, greatcoat, and rug. I shall never forget the expression on his face. Not that he turned pale. It is maintained by the most eminent divines that even miracles cannot change the course of nature. I have no hesitation in saying that he did not turn pale; but, from his expression, I judged that he was either about to shed tears, to sneeze, or to drop my portmanteau. As the latter contained two bottles of particularly fine old sherry presented to me for my voyage by my old friend Snigginson van Pickyns, I felt extremely nervous. But the steward did none of these things.
“Well, I’m d–d!” said he in a low voice, and led the way.
I supposed my Hermes, as he led me to the lower regions, had had a little grog, but I said nothing, and followed him. One hundred and five was on the port side, well aft. There was nothing remarkable about the state-room. The lower berth, like most of those upon the Kamtschatka, was double. There was plenty of room; there was the usual washing apparatus, calculated to convey an idea of luxury to the mind of a North American Indian; there were the usual inefficient racks of brown wood, in which it is more easy to hand a large-sized umbrella than the common tooth-brush of commerce. Upon the uninviting mattresses were carefully bolded together those blankets which a great modern humorist has aptly compared to cold buckwheat cakes. The question of towels was left entirely to the imagination. The glass decanters were filled with a transparent liquid faintly tinged with brown, but from which an odour less faint, but not more pleasing, ascended to the nostrils, like a far-off sea-sick reminiscence of oily machinery. Sad-coloured curtains half-closed the upper berth. The hazy June daylight shed a faint illumination upon the desolate little scene. Ugh! how I hate that state-room!
The steward deposited my traps and looked at me, as though he wanted to get away – probably in search of more passengers and more fees. It is always a good plan to start in favour with those functionaries, and I accordingly gave him certain coins there and then.
“I’ll try and make yer comfortable all I can,” he remarked, as he put the coins in his pocket. Nevertheless, there was a doubtful intonation in his voice which surprised me. Possibly his scale of fees had gone up, and he was not satisfied; but on the whole I was inclined to think that, as he himself would have expressed it, he was “the better for a glass”. I was wrong, however, and did the man injustice.
The Upper Berth – Chapter II
NOTHING especially worthy of mention occurred during that day. We left the pier punctually, and it was very pleasant to be fairly under way, for the weather was warm and sultry, and the motion of the steamer produced a refreshing breeze. Everybody knows what the first day at sea is like. People pace the decks and stare at each other, and occasionally meet acquaintances whom they did not know to be on board. There is the usual uncertainty as to whether the food will be good, bad, or indifferent, until the first two meals have put the matter beyond a doubt; there is the usual uncertainty about the weather, until the ship is fairly off Fire Island. The tables are crowded at first, and then suddenly thinned. Pale-faced people spring from their seats and precipitate themselves towards the door, and each old sailor breathes more freely as his sea-sick neighbour rushes from his side, leaving him plenty of elbow-room and an unlimited command over the mustard.
One passage across the Atlantic is very much like another, and we who cross very often do not make the voyage for the sake of novelty. Whales and icebergs are indeed always objects of interest, but, after all, one whale is very much like another whale, and one rarely sees an iceberg at close quarters. To the majority of us the most delightful moment of the day on board an ocean steamer is when we have taken our last turn on deck, have smoked our last cigar, and having succeeded in tiring ourselves, feel at liberty to turn in with a clear conscience. On that first night of the voyage I felt particularly lazy, and went to bed in one hundred and five rather earlier than I usually do. As I turned in, I was amazed to see that I was to have a companion. A portmanteau, very like my own, lay in the opposite corner, and in the upper berth had been deposited a neatly-folded rug, with a stick and umbrella. I had hoped to be alone, and I was disappointed; but I wondered who my room-mate was to be, and I determined to have a look at him.
Before I had been long in bed he entered. He was, as far as I could see, a very tall man, very thin, very pale, with sandy hair and whiskers and colourless grey eyes. He had about him, I thought, an air of rather dubious fashion; the short of man you might see in Wall Street, without being able precisely to say what he was doing there – the sort of man who frequents the Cafe Anglais, who always seems to be alone and who drinks champagne; you might meet him on a racecourse, but he would never appear to be doing anything there either. A little over-dressed – a little odd. There are three or four of his kind on every ocean steamer. I made up my mind that I did not care to make his acquaintance, and I went to sleep saying to myself that I would study his habits in order to avoid him. If he rose early, I would rise late; if he went to bed late, I would go to bed early. I did not care to know him. If you once know people of that kind they are always turning up. Poor fellow! I need not have taken the trouble to come to so many decisions about him, for I never saw him again after that first night in one hundred and five.
I was sleeping soundly when I was suddenly waked by a loud noise. To judge from the sound, my room-mate must have sprung with a single leap from the upper berth to the floor. I heard him fumbling with the latch and bolt of the door, which opened almost immediately, and then I heard his footsteps as he ran at full speed down the passage, leaving the door open behind him. The ship was rolling a little, and I expected to hear him stumble or fall, but he ran as though he were running for his life. The door swung on its hinges with the motion of the vessel, and the sound annoyed me. I got up and shut it, and groped my way back to my berth in the darkness. I went to sleep again; but I have no idea how long I slept.
When I awoke it was still quite dark, but I felt a disagreeable sensation of cold, and it seemed to me that the air was damp. You know the peculiar smell of a cabin which has been wet with sea-water. I covered myself up as well as I could and dozed off again, framing complaints to be made the next day, and selecting the most powerful epithets in the language. I could hear my room-mate turn over in the upper berth. He had probably returned while I was asleep. Once I thought I heard him groan, and I argued that he was sea-sick. That is particularly unpleasant when one is below. Nevertheless I dozed off and slept till early daylight.
The ship was rolling heavily, much more than on the previous evening, and the grey light which came in through the porthole changed in tint with every movement according as the angle of the vessel’s side turned the glass seawards or skywards. It was very cold – unaccountably so for the month of June. I turned my head and looked at the porthole, and saw to my surprise that it was wide open and hooked back. I believe I swore audibly. Then I got up and shut it. As I turned back I glanced at the upper berth. The curtains were drawn close together; my companion had probably felt cold as well as I. It struck me that I had slept enough. The state-room was uncomfortable, though, strange to say, I could not smell the dampness which had annoyed me in the night. My room-mate was still asleep – excellent opportunity for avoiding him, so I dressed at once and went on deck. The day was warm and cloudy, with an oily smell on the water. It was seven o’clock as I came out – much later than I had imagined. I came across the doctor, who was taking his first sniff of the morning air. He was a young man from the West of Ireland – a tremendous fellow, with black hair and blue eyes, already inclined to be stout; he had a happy-go-lucky, healthy look about him which was rather attractive.
“Fine morning,” I remarked, by way of introduction.
“Well,” said he, eyeing me with an air of ready interest, “it’s a fine morning and it’s not a fine morning. I don’t think it’s much of a morning.”
“Well, no – it is not so very fine,” said I.
“It’s just what I call fuggly weather,” replied the doctor.
“It was very cold last night, I thought,” I remarked. “However, when I looked about, I found that the porthole was wide open. I had not noticed it when I went to bed. And the state-room was damp, too.”
“Damp!” said he. “Whereabouts are you?”
“One hundred and five–”
To my surprise the doctor started visibly, and stared at me.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“Oh – nothing,” he answered; “only everybody has complained of that state-room for the last three trips.”
“I shall complain too,” I said. “It has certainly not been properly aired. It is a shame!”
“I don’t believe it can be helped,” answered the doctor. “I believe there is something – well, it is not my business to frighten passengers.”
“You need not be afraid of frightening me,” I replied. “I can stand any amount of damp. If I should get a bad cold I will come to you.”
I offered the doctor a cigar, which he took and examined very critically.
“It is not so much the damp,” he remarked. “However, I dare say you will get on very well. Have you a room-mate?”
“Yes; a deuce of a fellow, who bolts out in the middle of the night, and leaves the door open.”
Again the doctor glanced curiously at me. Then he lit the cigar and looked grave.
“Did he come back?” he asked presently.
“Yes. I was asleep, but I waked up, and heard him moving. Then I felt cold and went to sleep again. This morning I found the porthole open.”
“Look here,” said the doctor quietly, “I don’t care much for this ship. I don’t care a rap for her reputation. I tell you what I will do. I have a good-sized place up here. I will share it with you, though I don’t know you from Adam.”
I was very much surprised at the proposition. I could not imagine why he should take such a sudden interest in my welfare. However, his manner as he spoke of the ship was peculiar.
“You are very good, doctor,” I said. “But, really, I believe even now the cabin could be aired, or cleaned out, or something. Why do you not care for the ship?”
“We are not superstitious in our profession, sir,” replied the doctor, “but the sea makes people so. I don’t want to prejudice you, and I don’t want to frighten you, but if you will take my advice you will move in here. I would as soon see you overboard,” he added earnestly, “as know that you or any other man was to sleep in one hundred and five.”
“Good gracious! Why?” I asked.
“Just because on the last three trips the people who have slept there actually have gone overboard,” he answered gravely.
The intelligence was startling and exceedingly unpleasant, I confess. I looked hard at the doctor to see whether he was making game of me, but he looked perfectly serious. I thanked him warmly for his offer, but told him I intended to be the exception to the rule by which every one who slept in that particular state-room went overboard. He did not say much, but looked as grave as ever, and hinted that, before we got across, I should probably reconsider his proposal. In the course of time we went to breakfast, at which only an inconsiderable number of passengers assembled. I noticed that one or two of the officers who breakfasted with us looked grave. After breakfast I went into my state-room in order to get a book. The curtains of the upper berth were still closely drawn. Not a word was to be heard. My room-mate was probably still asleep.
As I came out I met the steward whose business it was to look after me. He whispered that the captain wanted to see me, and then scuttled away down the passage as if very anxious to avoid any questions. I went toward the captain’s cabin, and found him waiting for me.
“Sir,” said he, “I want to ask a favour of you.”
I answered that I would do anything to oblige him.
“Your room-mate had disappeared,” he said. “He is known to have turned in early last night. Did you notice anything extraordinary in his manner?”
The question coming, as it did, in exact confirmation of the fears the doctor had expressed half an hour earlier, staggered me.
“You don’t mean to say he has gone overboard?” I asked.
“I fear he has,” answered the captain.
“This is the most extraordinary thing–” I began.
“Why?” he asked.
“He is the fourth, then?” I exclaimed. In answer to another question from the captain, I explained, without mentioning the doctor, that I had heard the story concerning one hundred and five. He seemed very much annoyed at hearing that I knew of it. I told him what had occurred in the night.
“What you say,” he replied, “coincides almost exactly with what was told me by the room-mates of two of the other three. They bolt out of bed and run down the passage. Two of them were seen to go overboard by the watch; we stopped and lowered boats, but they were not found. Nobody, however, saw or heard the man who was lost last night – if he is really lost. The steward, who is a superstitious fellow, perhaps, and expected something to go wrong, went to look for him, this morning, and found his berth empty, but his clothes lying about, just as he had left them. The steward was the only man on board who knew him by sight, and he has been searching everywhere for him. He has disappeared! Now, sir, I want to beg you not to mention the circumstance to any of the passengers; I don’t want the ship to get a bad name, and nothing hangs about an ocean-goer like stories of suicides. You shall have your choice of any one of the officers’ cabins you like, including my own, for the rest of the passage. Is that a fair bargain?”
“Very,” said I; “and I am much obliged to you. But since I am alone, and have the state-room to myself, I would rather not move. If the steward will take out that unfortunate man’s things, I would as leave stay where I am. I will not say anything about the matter, and I think I can promise you that I will not follow my room-mate.”
The captain tried to dissuade me from my intention, but I preferred having a state-room alone to being the chum of any officer on board. I do not know whether I aced foolishly, but if I had taken his advice I should have had nothing more to tell. There would have remained the disagreeable coincidence of several suicides occurring among men who had slept in the same cabin, but that would have been all.
That was not the end of the matter, however, by any means. I obstinately made up my mind that I would not be disturbed by such tales, and I even went so far as to argue the question with the captain. There was something wrong about the state-room, I said. It was rather damp. The porthole had been left open last night. My room-mate might have been ill when he came on board, and he might have become delirious after he went to bed. He might even now be hiding somewhere on board, and might be found later. The place ought to be aired and the fastening on the port looked to. If the captain would give me leave, I would see that what I thought necessary were done immediately.
“Of course you have a right to stay where you are if you please,” he replied, rather petulantly; “but I wish you would turn out and let me lock the place up, and be done with it.”
I did not see it in the same light, and left the captain, after promising to be silent concerning the disappearance of my companion. The latter had had no acquaintances on board, and was not missed in the course of the day. Towards evening I met the doctor again, and he asked me whether I had changed my mind. I told him I had not.
“Then you will before long,” he said, very gravely.
The Upper Berth – Chapter III
WE played whist in the evening, and I went to bed late. I will confess now that I felt a disagreeable sensation when I entered my state-room. I could not help thinking of the tall man I had seen on the previous night, who was now dead, drowned, tossing about in the long swell, two or three hundred miles astern. His face rose very distinctly before me as I undressed, and I even went so far as to draw back the curtains of the upper berth, as though to persuade myself that he was actually gone. I also bolted the door of the state-room. Suddenly I became aware that the porthole was open, and fastened back. This was more than I could stand. I hastily threw on my dressing-gown and went in search of Robert, the steward of my passage. I was very angry, I remember, and when I found him I dragged him roughly to the door of one hundred and five, and pushed him towards the open porthole.
“What the deuce do you mean, you scoundrel, by leaving that port open every night? Don’t you know it is against the regulations? Don’t you know that if the ship heeled and the water began to come in, ten men could not shut it? I will report you to the captain, you blackguard, for endangering the ship!”
I was exceedingly wroth. The man trembled and turned pale, and then began to shut the round glass plate with the heavy brass fittings.
“Why don’t you answer me?” I said roughly.
“If you please, sir,” faltered Robert, “there’s nobody on board as can keep this ‘ere port shut at night. You can try it yourself, sir. I ain’t a-going to stop hany longer on board o’ this vessel, sir; I ain’t, indeed. But if I was you, sir, I’d just clear out and go and sleep with the surgeon, or something, I would. Look ‘ere, sir, is that fastened what you may call securely, or not, sir? Try it, sir, see if it will move an inch.”
I tried the port, and found it perfectly tight.
“Well, sir,” continued Robert triumphantly, “I wager my reputation as a A1 steward that in ‘arf an hour it will be open again; fastened back, too, sir, that’s the horful thing – fastened back!”
I examined the great screw and the looped nut that ran on it.
“If I find it open in the night, Robert, I will give you a sovereign. It is not possible. You may go.”
“Soverin’ did you say, sir? Very good, sir. Thank ye, sir. Good-night, sir. Pleasant repose, sir, and all manner of inchantin’ dreams, sir.”
Robert scuttled away, delighted at being released. Of course, I thought he was trying to account for his negligence by a silly story, intended to frighten me, and I disbelieved him. The consequence was that he got his sovereign, and I spent a very peculiarly unpleasant night.
I went to bed, and five minutes after I had rolled myself up in my blankets the inexorable Robert extinguished the light that burned steadily behind the ground-glass pane near the door. I lay quite still in the dark trying to go to sleep, but I soon found that impossible. It had been some satisfaction to be angry with the steward, and the diversion had banished that unpleasant sensation I had at first experienced when I thought of the drowned man who had been my chum; but I was no longer sleepy, and I lay awake for some time, occasionally glancing at the porthole, which I could just see from where I lay, and which, in the darkness, looked like a faintly-luminous soup-plate suspended in blackness. I believe I must have lain there for an hour, and, as I remember, I was just dozing into sleep when I was roused by a draught of cold air, and by distinctly feeling the spray of the sea blown upon my face. I started to my feet, and not having allowed in the dark for the motion of the ship, I was instantly thrown violently across the state-room upon the couch which was placed beneath the port-hole. I recovered myself immediately, however, and climbed upon my knees. The port-hole was again wide open and fastened back!
Now these things are facts. I was wide awake when I got up, and I should certainly have been waked by the fall had I still been dozing. Moreover, I bruised my elbows and knees badly, and the bruises were there on the following morning to testify to the fact, if I myself had doubted it. The porthole was wide open and fastened back – a thing so unaccountable that I remember very well feeling astonishment rather that fear when I discovered it. I at once closed the plate again, and screwed down the loop nut with all my strength. It was very dark in the state-room. I reflected that the port had certainly been opened within an hour after Robert had at first shut it in my presence, and I determined to watch it, and see whether it would open again. Those brass fittings are very heavy and by no means easy to move; I could not believe that the clamp had been turned by the shaking of the screw. I stood peering out through the thick glass at the alternate white and grey streaks of the sea that foamed beneath the ship’s side. I must have remained there a quarter of an hour.
Suddenly, as I stood, I distinctly heard something moving behind me in one of the berths, and a moment afterwards, just as I turned instinctively to look – though I could, of course, see nothing in the darkness – I heard a very faint groan. I sprang across the state-room, and tore the curtains of the upper berth aside, thrusting in my hands to discover if there were any one there. There was some one.
I remember that the sensation as I put my hands forward was as though I were plunging them into the air of a damp cellar, and from behind the curtains came a gust of wind that smelled horribly of stagnant sea-water. I laid hold of something that had the shape of a man’s arm, but was smooth, and wet, and icy cold. But suddenly, as I pulled, the creature sprang violently forward against me, a clammy oozy mass, as it seemed to me, heavy and wet, yet endowed with a sort of supernatural strength. I reeled across the state-room, and in an instant the door opened and the thing rushed out. I had not had time to be frightened, and quickly recovering myself, I sprang through the door and gave chase at the top of my speed, but I was too late. Ten yards before me I could see – I am sure I saw it – a dark shadow moving in the dimly lighted passage, quickly as the shadow of a fast horse thrown before a dog-cart by the lamp on a dark night. But in a moment it had disappeared, and I found myself holding on to the polished rail that ran along the bulkhead where the passage turned towards the companion. My hair stood on end, and the cold perspiration rolled down my face. I am not ashamed of it in the least: I was very badly frightened.
Still I doubted my senses, and pulled myself together. It was absurd, I thought. The Welsh rare-bit I had eaten had disagreed with me. I had been in a nightmare. I made my way back to my state-room, and entered it with an effort. The whole place smelled of stagnant sea-water, as it had when I had waked on the previous evening. It required my utmost strength to go in, and grope among my things for a box of wax lights. As I lighted a railway reading lantern which I always carry in case I want to read after the lamps are out, I perceived that the porthole was again open, and a sort of creeping horror began to take possession of me which I never felt before, nor wish to feel again. But I got a light and proceeded to examine the upper berth, expecting to find it drenched with sea-water.
But I was disappointed. The bed had been slept in, and the smell of the sea was strong; but the bedding was as dry as a bone. I fancied that Robert had not had the courage to make the bed after the accident of the previous night – it had all been a hideous dream. I drew the curtains back as far as I could and examined the place very carefully. It was perfectly dry. But the porthole was open again. With a sort of dull bewilderment of horror I closed it and screwed it down, and thrusting my heavy stick through the brass loop, wrenched it with all my might, till the thick metal began to bend under the pressure. Then I hooked my reading lantern into the red velvet at the head of the couch, and sat down to recover my senses if I could. I sat there all night, unable to think of rest – hardly able to think at all. But the porthole remained closed, and I did not believe it would now open again without the application of a considerable force.
The morning dawned at last, and I dressed myself slowly, thinking over all that had happened in the night. It was a beautiful day and I went on deck, glad to get out into the early, pure sunshine, and to smell the breeze from the blue water, so different from the noisome, stagnant odour of my state-room. Instinctively I turned aft, towards the surgeon’s cabin. There he stood, with a pipe in his mouth, taking his morning airing precisely as on the preceding day.
“Good-morning,” said he quietly, but looking at me with evident curiosity.
“Doctor, you were quite right,” said I. “There is something wrong about that place.”
“I thought you would change your mind,” he answered, rather triumphantly. “You have had a bad night, eh? Shall I make you a pick-me-up? I have a capital recipe.”
“No, thanks,” I cried. “But I would like to tell you what happened.”
I then tried to explain as clearly as possible precisely what had occurred, not omitting to state that I had been scared as I had never been scared in my whole life before. I dwelt particularly on the phenomenon of the porthole, which was a fact to which I could testify, even if the rest had been an illusion. I had closed it twice in the night, and the second time I had actually bent the brass in wrenching it with my stick. I believe I insisted a good deal on this point.
“You seem to think I am likely to doubt the story,” said the doctor, smiling at my detailed account of the state of the porthole. “I do not doubt in the least. I renew my invitation to you. Bring your traps here, and take half my cabin.”
“Come and take half of mine for one night,” I said. “Help me to get at the bottom of this thing.”
“You will get to the bottom of something else if you try,” answered the doctor.
“What?” I asked.
“The bottom of the sea. I am going to leave this ship. It is not canny.”
“Then you will not help me to find out–”
“Not I,” said the doctor quickly. “It is my business to keep my wits about me – not to go fiddling about with ghosts and things.”
“Do you really believe it is a ghost?” I inquired, rather contemptuously. But as I spoke I remembered very well the horrible sensation of the supernatural which had got possession of me during the night. The doctor turned sharply on me–
“Have you any reasonable explanation of these things to offer?” he asked. “No; you have not. Well, you say you will find an explanation. I say that you won’t, sir, simply because there is not any.”
“But, my dear sir,” I retorted, “do you, a man of science, mean to tell me that such things cannot be explained?”
“I do,” he answered stoutly. “And, if they could, I would not be concerned in the explanation.”
I did not care to spend another night alone in the state-room, and yet I was obstinately determined to get at the root of the disturbances. I do not believe there are many men who would have slept there alone, after passing two such nights. But I made up my mind to try it, if I could not get any one to share a watch with me. The doctor was evidently not inclined for such an experiment. He said he was a surgeon, and that in case any accident occurred on board he must be always in readiness. He could not afford to have his nerves unsettled. Perhaps he was quite right, but I am inclined to think that his precaution was prompted by his inclination. On inquiry, he informed me that there was no one on board who would be likely to join me in my investigations, and after a little more conversation I left him. A little later I met the captain, and told him my story. I said that, if no one would spend the night with me, I would ask leave to have the light burning all night, and would try it alone.
“Look here,” said he, “I will tell you what I will do. I will share your watch myself, and we will see what happens. It is my belief that we can find out between us. There may be some fellow skulking on board, who steals a passage by frightening the passengers. It is just possible that there may be something queer in the carpentering of that berth.”
I suggested taking the ship’s carpenter below and examining the place; but I was overjoyed at the captain’s offer to spend the night with me. He accordingly sent for the workman and ordered him to do anything I required. We went below at once. I had all the bedding cleared out of the upper berth, and we examined the place thoroughly to see if there was a board loose anywhere, or a panel which could be opened or pushed aside. We tried the planks everywhere, tapped the flooring, unscrewed the fittings of the lower berth and took it to pieces – in short, there was not a square inch of the state-room which was not searched and tested. Everything was in perfect order, and we put everything back in its place. As we were finishing our work, Robert came to the door and looked in.
“Well, sir – find anything, sir?” he asked, with a ghastly grin.
“You were right about the porthole, Robert,” I said, and I gave him the promised sovereign. The carpenter did his work silently and skilfully, following my directions. When he had done he spoke.
“I’m a plain man, sir,” he said. “But it’s my belief you had better just turn out your things, and let me run half a dozen four-inch screws through the door of this cabin. There’s no good never came o’ this cabin yet, sir, and that’s all about it. There’s been four lives lost out o’ here to my own remembrance, and that is four trips. Better give it up, sir – better give it up!”
“I will try it for one night more,” I said.
“Better give it up, sir – better give it up! It’s a precious bad job,” repeated the workman, putting his tools in his bag and leaving the cabin.
But my spirits had risen considerably at the prospect of having the captain’s company, and I made up my mind not to be prevented from going to the end of this strange business. I abstained from Welsh rare-bits and grog that evening, and did not even join in the customary game of whist. I wanted to be quite sure of my nerves, and my vanity made me anxious to make a good figure in the captain’s eyes.
The Upper Berth – Chapter IV
THE captain was one of those splendidly tough and cheerful specimens of seafaring humanity whose combined courage, hardihood, and calmness in difficulty leads them naturally into high positions of trust. He was not the man to be led away by an idle tale, and the mere fact that he was willing to join me in the investigation was proof that he thought there was something seriously wrong, which could not be accounted for on ordinary theories, nor laughed down as a common superstition. To some extent, too, his reputation was at stake, as well as the reputation of the ship. It is no light thing to lose passengers overboard, and he knew it.
About ten o’clock that evening, as I was smoking a last cigar, he came up to me, and drew me aside from the beat of the other passengers who were patrolling the deck in the warm darkness.
“This is a serious matter, Mr. Brisbane,” he said. “We must make up our minds either way – to be disappointed or to have a pretty rough time of it. You see I cannot afford to laugh at the affair, and I will ask you to sign your name to a statement of whatever occurs. If nothing happens tonight we will try it again tomorrow and next day. Are you ready?”
So we went below, and entered the state-room. As we went in I could see Robert the steward, who stood a little further down the passage, watching us, with his usual grin, as though certain that something dreadful was about to happen. The captain closed the door behind us and bolted it.
“Supposing we put your portmanteau before the door,” he suggested. “One of us can sit on it. Nothing can get out then. Is the port screwed down?”
I found it as I had left it in the morning. Indeed, without using a lever, as I had done, no one could have opened it. I drew back the curtains of the upper berth so that I could see well into it. By the captain’s advice I lighted my reading lantern, and placed it so that it shone upon the white sheets above. He insisted upon sitting on the portmanteau, declaring that he wished to be able to swear that he had sat before the door.
Then he requested me to search the state-room thoroughly, an operation very soon accomplished, as it consisted merely in looking beneath the lower berth and under the couch below the porthole. The spaces were quite empty.
“It is impossible for any human being to get in,” I said, “or for any human being to open the port.”
“Very good,” said the captain calmly. “If we see anything now, it must be either imagination or something supernatural.”
I sat down on the edge of the lower berth.
“The first time it happened,” said the captain, crossing his legs and leaning back against the door, “was in March. The passenger who slept here, in the upper berth, turned out have been a lunatic – at all events, he was known to have been a little touched, and he had taken his passage without the knowledge of his friends. He rushed out in the middle of the night, and threw himself overboard, before the officer who had the watch could stop him. We stopped and lowered a boat; it was a quiet night, just before that heavy weather came on; but we could not find him. Of course his suicide was afterwards accounted for on the ground of his insanity.”
“I suppose that often happens?” I remarked, rather absently.
“Not often – no,” said the captain; “never before in my experience, though I have heard of it happening on board of other ships. Well, as I was saying, that occurred in March. On the very next trip — What are you looking at?” he asked, stopping suddenly in his narration.
I believe I gave no answer. My eyes were riveted upon the porthole. It seemed to me that the brass loop-nut was beginning to turn very slowly upon the screw – so slowly, however, that I was not sure it moved at all. I watched it intently, fixing its position in my mind, and trying to ascertain whether it changed. Seeing where I was looking, the captain looked too.
“It moves!” he exclaimed, in a tone of conviction. “No, it does not,” he added, after a minute.
“If it were the jarring of the screw,” said I, “it would have opened during the day; but I found it this evening jammed tight as I left it this morning.”
I rose and tried the nut. It was certainly loosened, for by an effort I could move it with my hands.
“The queer thing,” said the captain, “is that the second man who was lost is supposed to have got through that very port. We had a terrible time over it. It was in the middle of the night, and the weather was very heavy; there was an alarm that one of the ports was open and the sea running in. I came below and found everything flooded, the water pouring in every time she rolled, and the whole port swinging from the top bolts – not the porthole in the middle. Well, we managed to shut it, but the water did some damage. Ever since that the place smells of sea-water from time to time. We supposed the passenger had thrown himself out, though the Lord only knows how he did it. The steward kept telling me that he cannot keep anything shut here. Upon my word – I can smell it now, cannot you?” he inquired, sniffing the air suspiciously.
“Yes – distinctly,” I said, and I shuddered as that same odour of stagnant sea-water grew stronger in the cabin. “Now, to smell like this, the place must be damp,” I continued, “and yet when I examined it with the carpenter this morning everything was perfectly dry. It is most extraordinary – hello!”
My reading lantern, which had been placed in the upper berth, was suddenly extinguished. There was still a good deal of light from the pane of ground glass near the door, behind which loomed the regulation lamp. The ship rolled heavily, and the curtain of the upper berth swung far out into the state-room and back again. I rose quickly from my seat on the edge of the bed, and the captain at the same moment started to his feet with a loud cry of surprise. I had turned with the intention of taking down the lantern to examine it, when I heard his exclamation, and immediately afterwards his call for help. I sprang towards him. He was wrestling with all his might with the brass loop of the port. It seemed to turn against his hands in spite of all his efforts. I caught up my cane, a heavy oak stick I always used to carry, and thrust it through the ring and bore on it with all my strength. But the strong wood snapped suddenly and I fell upon the couch. When I rose again the port was wide open, and the captain was standing with his back against the door, pale to the lips.
“There is something in that berth!” he cried, in a strange voice, his eyes almost starting from his head. “Hold the door, while I look – it shall not escape us, whatever it is!”
But instead of taking his place, I sprang upon the lower bed, and seized something which lay in the upper berth.
It was something ghostly, horrible beyond words, and it moved in my grip. It was like the body of a man long drowned, and yet it moved, and had the strength of ten men living; but I gripped it with all my might – the slippery, oozy, horrible thing – the dead white eyes seemed to stare at me out of the dusk; the putrid odour of rank sea-water was about it, and its shiny hair hung in foul wet curls over its dead face. I wrestled with the dead thing; it thrust itself upon me and forced me back and nearly broke my arms; it wound its corpse’s arms about my neck, the living death, and overpowered me, so that I, at last, cried aloud and fell, and left my hold.
As I fell the thing sprang across me, and seemed to throw itself upon the captain. When I last saw him on his feet his face was white and his lips set. It seemed to me that he struck a violent blow at the dead being, and then he, too, fell forward upon his face, with an inarticulate cry of horror.
The thing paused an instant, seeming to hover over his prostrate body, and I could have screamed again for very fright, but I had no voice left. The thing vanished suddenly, and it seemed to my disturbed senses that it made its exit through the open port, though how that was possible, considering the smallness of the aperture, is more than any one can tell. I lay a long time on the floor, and the captain lay beside me. At last I partially recovered my senses and moved, and instantly I knew that my arm was broken – the small bone of my left forearm near the wrist.
I got upon my feet somehow, and with my remaining hand I tried to raise the captain. He groaned and moved, and at last came to himself. He was not hurt, but he seemed badly stunned.
Well, do you want to hear any more? There is nothing more. That is the end of my story. The carpenter carried out his scheme of running half a dozen four-inch screws through the door of one hundred and five; and if ever you take a passage in the Kamtschatka, you may ask for a berth in that state-room. You will be told that it is engaged – yes – it is engaged by that dead thing.
I finished the trip in the surgeon’s cabin. He doctored my broken arm, and advised me not to “fiddle about with ghosts and things” any more. The captain was very silent, and never sailed again in that ship, though it is still running. And I will not sail in her either. It was a very disagreeable experience, and I was very badly frightened, which is a thing I do not like. That is all. That is how I saw a ghost – if it was a ghost. It was dead, anyhow.
Francis Marion Crawford (1854 — 1909)
Shortly after my education at college was finished, I happened to be staying at Paris with an English friend. We were both young men then, and lived, I am afraid, rather a wild life, in the delightful city of our sojourn. One night we were idling about the neighborhood of the Palais Royal, doubtful to what amusement we should next betake ourselves. My friend proposed a visit to Frascati’s; but his suggestion was not to my taste. I knew Frascati’s, as the French saying is, by heart; had lost and won plenty of five-franc pieces there, merely for amusement’s sake, until it was amusement no longer, and was thoroughly tired, in fact, of all the ghastly respectabilities of such a social anomaly as a respectable gambling-house. “For Heaven’s sake,” said I to my friend, “let us go somewhere where we can see a little genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming with no false gingerbread glitter thrown over it all. Let us get away from fashionable Frascati’s, to a house where they don’t mind letting in a man with a ragged coat, or a man with no coat, ragged or otherwise.” “Very well,” said my friend, “we needn’t go out of the Palais Royal to find the sort of company you want. Here’s the place just before us; as blackguard a place, by all report, as you could possibly wish to see.” In another minute we arrived at the door, and entered the house, the back of which you have drawn in your sketch.
When we got upstairs, and had left our hats and sticks with the doorkeeper, we were admitted into the chief gambling-room. We did not find many people assembled there. But, few as the men were who looked up at us on our entrance, they were all types — lamentably true types — of their respective classes.
We had come to see blackguards; but these men were something worse. There is a comic side, more or less appreciable, in all blackguardism — here there was nothing but tragedy — mute, weird tragedy. The quiet in the room was horrible. The thin, haggard, long-haired young man, whose sunken eyes fiercely watched the turning up of the cards, never spoke; the flabby, fat-faced, pimply player, who pricked his piece of pasteboard perseveringly, to register how often black won, and how often red — never spoke; the dirty, wrinkled old man, with the vulture eyes and the darned great-coat, who had lost his last sou, and still looked on desperately, after he could play no longer — never spoke. Even the voice of the croupier sounded as if it were strangely dulled and thickened in the atmosphere of the room. I had entered the place to laugh, but the spectacle before me was something to weep over. I soon found it necessary to take refuge in excitement from the depression of spirits which was fast stealing on me. Unfortunately I sought the nearest excitement, by going to the table and beginning to play. Still more unfortunately, as the event will show, I won — won prodigiously; won incredibly; won at such a rate that the regular players at the table crowded round me; and staring at my stakes with hungry, superstitious eyes, whispered to one another that the English stranger was going to break the bank.
The game was Rouge et Noir . I had played at it in every city in Europe, without, however, the care or the wish to study the Theory of Chances — that philosopher’s stone of all gamblers! And a gambler, in the strict sense of the word, I had never been. I was heart-whole from the corroding passion for play. My gaming was a mere idle amusement. I never resorted to it by necessity, because I never knew what it was to want money. I never practiced it so incessantly as to lose more than I could afford, or to gain more than I could coolly pocket without being thrown off my balance by my good luck. In short, I had hitherto frequented gambling-tables — just as I frequented ball-rooms and opera-houses — because they amused me, and because I had nothing better to do with my leisure hours.
But on this occasion it was very different — now, for the first time in my life, I felt what the passion for play really was. My success first bewildered, and then, in the most literal meaning of the word, intoxicated me. Incredible as it may appear, it is nevertheless true, that I only lost when I attempted to estimate chances, and played according to previous calculation. If I left everything to luck, and staked without any care or consideration, I was sure to win — to win in the face of every recognized probability in favor of the bank. At first some of the men present ventured their money safely enough on my color; but I speedily increased my stakes to sums which they dared not risk. One after another they left off playing, and breathlessly looked on at my game.
Still, time after time, I staked higher and higher, and still won. The excitement in the room rose to fever pitch. The silence was interrupted by a deep-muttered chorus of oaths and exclamations in different languages, every time the gold was shoveled across to my side of the table — even the imperturbable croupier dashed his rake on the floor in a (French) fury of astonishment at my success. But one man present preserved his self-possession, and that man was my friend. He came to my side, and whispering in English, begged me to leave the place, satisfied with what I had already gained. I must do him the justice to say that he repeated his warnings and entreaties several times, and only left me and went away after I had rejected his advice (I was to all intents and purposes gambling drunk) in terms which rendered it impossible for him to address me again that night.
Shortly after he had gone, a hoarse voice behind me cried: “Permit me, my dear sir — permit me to restore to their proper place two napoleons which you have dropped. Wonderful luck, sir! I pledge you my word of honor, as an old soldier, in the course of my long experience in this sort of thing, I never saw such luck as yours — never! Go on, sir — Sacre mille bombes! Go on boldly, and break the bank!”
I turned round and saw, nodding and smiling at me with inveterate civility, a tall man, dressed in a frogged and braided surtout.
If I had been in my senses, I should have considered him, personally, as being rather a suspicious specimen of an old soldier. He had goggling, bloodshot eyes, mangy mustaches, and a broken nose. His voice betrayed a barrack-room intonation of the worst order, and he had the dirtiest pair of hands I ever saw — even in France. These little personal peculiarities exercised, however, no repelling influence on me. In the mad excitement, the reckless triumph of that moment, I was ready to “fraternize” with anybody who encouraged me in my game. I accepted the old soldier’s offered pinch of snuff; clapped him on the back, and swore he was the honestest fellow in the world — the most glorious relic of the Grand Army that I had ever met with. “Go on!” cried my military friend, snapping his fingers in ecstasy —“Go on, and win! Break the bank — Mille tonnerres! my gallant English comrade, break the bank!”
And I did go on — went on at such a rate, that in another quarter of an hour the croupier called out, “Gentlemen, the bank has discontinued for to-night.” All the notes, and all the gold in that “bank,” now lay in a heap under my hands; the whole floating capital of the gambling-house was waiting to pour into my pockets!
“Tie up the money in your pocket-handkerchief, my worthy sir,” said the old soldier, as I wildly plunged my hands into my heap of gold. “Tie it up, as we used to tie up a bit of dinner in the Grand Army; your winnings are too heavy for any breeches-pockets that ever were sewed. There! that’s it — shovel them in, notes and all! Credie! what luck! Stop! another napoleon on the floor! Ah! sacre petit polisson de Napoleon! have I found thee at last? Now then, sir — two tight double knots each way with your honorable permission, and the money’s safe. Feel it! feel it, fortunate sir! hard and round as a cannon-ball — Ah, bah! if they had only fired such cannon-balls at us at Austerlitz — nom d’une pipe! if they only had! And now, as an ancient grenadier, as an ex-brave of the French army, what remains for me to do? I ask what? Simply this: to entreat my valued English friend to drink a bottle of Champagne with me, and toast the goddess Fortune in foaming goblets before we part!”
Excellent ex-brave! Convivial ancient grenadier! Champagne by all means! An English cheer for an old soldier! Hurrah! hurrah! Another English cheer for the goddess Fortune! Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!
“Bravo! the Englishman; the amiable, gracious Englishman, in whose veins circulates the vivacious blood of France! Another glass? Ah, bah! — the bottle is empty! Never mind! Vive le vin! I, the old soldier, order another bottle, and half a pound of bonbons with it!”
“No, no, ex-brave; never — ancient grenadier! Your bottle last time; my bottle this. Behold it! Toast away! The French Army! the great Napoleon! the present company! the croupier! the honest croupier’s wife and daughters — if he has any! the Ladies generally! everybody in the world!”
By the time the second bottle of Champagne was emptied, I felt as if I had been drinking liquid fire — my brain seemed all aflame. No excess in wine had ever had this effect on me before in my life. Was it the result of a stimulant acting upon my system when I was in a highly excited state? Was my stomach in a particularly disordered condition? Or was the Champagne amazingly strong?
“Ex-brave of the French Army!” cried I, in a mad state of exhilaration, “I am on fire! how are you? You have set me on fire! Do you hear, my hero of Austerlitz? Let us have a third bottle of Champagne to put the flame out!”
The old soldier wagged his head, rolled his goggle-eyes, until I expected to see them slip out of their sockets; placed his dirty forefinger by the side of his broken nose; solemnly ejaculated “Coffee!” and immediately ran off into an inner room.
The word pronounced by the eccentric veteran seemed to have a magical effect on the rest of the company present. With one accord they all rose to depart. Probably they had expected to profit by my intoxication; but finding that my new friend was benevolently bent on preventing me from getting dead drunk, had now abandoned all hope of thriving pleasantly on my winnings. Whatever their motive might be, at any rate they went away in a body. When the old soldier returned, and sat down again opposite to me at the table, we had the room to ourselves. I could see the croupier, in a sort of vestibule which opened out of it, eating his supper in solitude. The silence was now deeper than ever.
A sudden change, too, had come over the “ex-brave.” He assumed a portentously solemn look; and when he spoke to me again, his speech was ornamented by no oaths, enforced by no finger-snapping, enlivened by no apostrophes or exclamations.
“Listen, my dear sir,” said he, in mysteriously confidential tones —“listen to an old soldier’s advice. I have been to the mistress of the house (a very charming woman, with a genius for cookery!) to impress on her the necessity of making us some particularly strong and good coffee. You must drink this coffee in order to get rid of your little amiable exaltation of spirits before you think of going home — you must, my good and gracious friend! With all that money to take home to-night, it is a sacred duty to yourself to have your wits about you. You are known to be a winner to an enormous extent by several gentlemen present to-night, who, in a certain point of view, are very worthy and excellent fellows; but they are mortal men, my dear sir, and they have their amiable weaknesses. Need I say more? Ah, no, no! you understand me! Now, this is what you must do — send for a cabriolet when you feel quite well again — draw up all the windows when you get into it — and tell the driver to take you home only through the large and well-lighted thoroughfares. Do this; and you and your money will be safe. Do this; and tomorrow you will thank an old soldier for giving you a word of honest advice.”
Just as the ex-brave ended his oration in very lachrymose tones, the coffee came in, ready poured out in two cups. My attentive friend handed me one of the cups with a bow. I was parched with thirst, and drank it off at a draught. Almost instantly afterwards, I was seized with a fit of giddiness, and felt more completely intoxicated than ever. The room whirled round and round furiously; the old soldier seemed to be regularly bobbing up and down before me like the piston of a steam-engine. I was half deafened by a violent singing in my ears; a feeling of utter bewilderment, helplessness, idiocy, overcame me. I rose from my chair, holding on by the table to keep my balance; and stammered out that I felt dreadfully unwell — so unwell that I did not know how I was to get home.
“My dear friend,” answered the old soldier — and even his voice seemed to be bobbing up and down as he spoke —“my dear friend, it would be madness to go home in your state; you would be sure to lose your money; you might be robbed and murdered with the greatest ease. I am going to sleep here; do you sleep here, too — they make up capital beds in this house — take one; sleep off the effects of the wine, and go home safely with your winnings tomorrow — tomorrow, in broad daylight.”
I had but two ideas left: one, that I must never let go hold of my handkerchief full of money; the other, that I must lie down somewhere immediately, and fall off into a comfortable sleep. So I agreed to the proposal about the bed, and took the offered arm of the old soldier, carrying my money with my disengaged hand. Preceded by the croupier, we passed along some passages and up a flight of stairs into the bedroom which I was to occupy. The ex-brave shook me warmly by the hand, proposed that we should breakfast together, and then, followed by the croupier, left me for the night.
I ran to the wash-hand stand; drank some of the water in my jug; poured the rest out, and plunged my face into it; then sat down in a chair and tried to compose myself. I soon felt better. The change for my lungs, from the fetid atmosphere of the gambling-room to the cool air of the apartment I now occupied, the almost equally refreshing change for my eyes, from the glaring gaslights of the “salon” to the dim, quiet flicker of one bedroom-candle, aided wonderfully the restorative effects of cold water. The giddiness left me, and I began to feel a little like a reasonable being again. My first thought was of the risk of sleeping all night in a gambling-house; my second, of the still greater risk of trying to get out after the house was closed, and of going home alone at night through the streets of Paris with a large sum of money about me. I had slept in worse places than this on my travels; so I determined to lock, bolt, and barricade my door, and take my chance till the next morning.
Accordingly, I secured myself against all intrusion; looked under the bed, and into the cupboard; tried the fastening of the window; and then, satisfied that I had taken every proper precaution, pulled off my upper clothing, put my light, which was a dim one, on the hearth among a feathery litter of wood-ashes, and got into bed, with the handkerchief full of money under my pillow.
I soon felt not only that I could not go to sleep, but that I could not even close my eyes. I was wide awake, and in a high fever. Every nerve in my body trembled — every one of my senses seemed to be preternaturally sharpened. I tossed and rolled, and tried every kind of position, and perseveringly sought out the cold corners of the bed, and all to no purpose. Now I thrust my arms over the clothes; now I poked them under the clothes; now I violently shot my legs straight out down to the bottom of the bed; now I convulsively coiled them up as near my chin as they would go; now I shook out my crumpled pillow, changed it to the cool side, patted it flat, and lay down quietly on my back; now I fiercely doubled it in two, set it up on end, thrust it against the board of the bed, and tried a sitting posture. Every effort was in vain; I groaned with vexation as I felt that I was in for a sleepless night.
What could I do? I had no book to read. And yet, unless I found out some method of diverting my mind, I felt certain that I was in the condition to imagine all sorts of horrors; to rack my brain with forebodings of every possible and impossible danger; in short, to pass the night in suffering all conceivable varieties of nervous terror.
I raised myself on my elbow, and looked about the room — which was brightened by a lovely moonlight pouring straight through the window — to see if it contained any pictures or ornaments that I could at all clearly distinguish. While my eyes wandered from wall to wall, a remembrance of Le Maistre’s delightful little book, “Voyage autour de ma Chambre,” occurred to me. I resolved to imitate the French author, and find occupation and amusement enough to relieve the tedium of my wakefulness, by making a mental inventory of every article of furniture I could see, and by following up to their sources the multitude of associations which even a chair, a table, or a wash-hand stand may be made to call forth.
In the nervous unsettled state of my mind at that moment, I found it much easier to make my inventory than to make my reflections, and thereupon soon gave up all hope of thinking in Le Maistre’s fanciful track — or, indeed, of thinking at all. I looked about the room at the different articles of furniture, and did nothing more.
There was, first, the bed I was lying in; a four-post bed, of all things in the world to meet with in Paris — yes, a thorough clumsy British four-poster, with the regular top lined with chintz — the regular fringed valance all round — the regular stifling, unwholesome curtains, which I remembered having mechanically drawn back against the posts without particularly noticing the bed when I first got into the room. Then there was the marble-topped wash-hand stand, from which the water I had spilled, in my hurry to pour it out, was still dripping, slowly and more slowly, on to the brick floor. Then two small chairs, with my coat, waistcoat, and trousers flung on them. Then a large elbow-chair covered with dirty-white dimity, with my cravat and shirt collar thrown over the back. Then a chest of drawers with two of the brass handles off, and a tawdry, broken china inkstand placed on it by way of ornament for the top. Then the dressing-table, adorned by a very small looking-glass, and a very large pincushion. Then the window — an unusually large window. Then a dark old picture, which the feeble candle dimly showed me. It was a picture of a fellow in a high Spanish hat, crowned with a plume of towering feathers. A swarthy, sinister ruffian, looking upward, shading his eyes with his hand, and looking intently upward — it might be at some tall gallows at which he was going to be hanged. At any rate, he had the appearance of thoroughly deserving it.
This picture put a kind of constraint upon me to look upward too — at the top of the bed. It was a gloomy and not an interesting object, and I looked back at the picture. I counted the feathers in the man’s hat — they stood out in relief — three white, two green. I observed the crown of his hat, which was of conical shape, according to the fashion supposed to have been favored by Guido Fawkes. I wondered what he was looking up at. It couldn’t be at the stars; such a desperado was neither astrologer nor astronomer. It must be at the high gallows, and he was going to be hanged presently. Would the executioner come into possession of his conical crowned hat and plume of feathers? I counted the feathers again — three white, two green.
While I still lingered over this very improving and intellectual employment, my thoughts insensibly began to wander. The moonlight shining into the room reminded me of a certain moonlight night in England — the night after a picnic party in a Welsh valley. Every incident of the drive homeward, through lovely scenery, which the moonlight made lovelier than ever, came back to my remembrance, though I had never given the picnic a thought for years; though, if I had tried to recollect it, I could certainly have recalled little or nothing of that scene long past. Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell us we are immortal, which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than memory? Here was I, in a strange house of the most suspicious character, in a situation of uncertainty, and even of peril, which might seem to make the cool exercise of my recollection almost out of the question; nevertheless, remembering, quite involuntarily, places, people, conversations, minute circumstances of every kind, which I had thought forgotten forever; which I could not possibly have recalled at will, even under the most favorable auspices. And what cause had produced in a moment the whole of this strange, complicated, mysterious effect? Nothing but some rays of moonlight shining in at my bedroom window.
I was still thinking of the picnic — of our merriment on the drive home — of the sentimental young lady who would quote “Childe Harold” because it was moonlight. I was absorbed by these past scenes and past amusements, when, in an instant, the thread on which my memories hung snapped asunder; my attention immediately came back to present things more vividly than ever, and I found myself, I neither knew why nor wherefore, looking hard at the picture again.
Looking for what?
Good God! the man had pulled his hat down on his brows! No! the hat itself was gone! Where was the conical crown? Where the feathers — three white, two green? Not there! In place of the hat and feathers, what dusky object was it that now hid his forehead, his eyes, his shading hand?
Was the bed moving?
I turned on my back and looked up. Was I mad? drunk? dreaming? giddy again? or was the top of the bed really moving down — sinking slowly, regularly, silently, horribly, right down throughout the whole of its length and breadth — right down upon me, as I lay underneath?
My blood seemed to stand still. A deadly paralysing coldness stole all over me as I turned my head round on the pillow and determined to test whether the bed-top was really moving or not, by keeping my eye on the man in the picture.
The next look in that direction was enough. The dull, black, frowzy outline of the valance above me was within an inch of being parallel with his waist. I still looked breathlessly. And steadily and slowly — very slowly — I saw the figure, and the line of frame below the figure, vanish, as the valance moved down before it.
I am, constitutionally, anything but timid. I have been on more than one occasion in peril of my life, and have not lost my self-possession for an instant; but when the conviction first settled on my mind that the bed-top was really moving, was steadily and continuously sinking down upon me, I looked up shuddering, helpless, panic-stricken, beneath the hideous machinery for murder, which was advancing closer and closer to suffocate me where I lay.
I looked up, motionless, speechless, breathless. The candle, fully spent, went out; but the moonlight still brightened the room. Down and down, without pausing and without sounding, came the bed-top, and still my panic-terror seemed to bind me faster and faster to the mattress on which I lay — down and down it sank, till the dusty odor from the lining of the canopy came stealing into my nostrils.
At that final moment the instinct of self-preservation startled me out of my trance, and I moved at last. There was just room for me to roll myself sidewise off the bed. As I dropped noiselessly to the floor, the edge of the murderous canopy touched me on the shoulder.
Without stopping to draw my breath, without wiping the cold sweat from my face, I rose instantly on my knees to watch the bed-top. I was literally spellbound by it. If I had heard footsteps behind me, I could not have turned round; if a means of escape had been miraculously provided for me, I could not have moved to take advantage of it. The whole life in me was, at that moment, concentrated in my eyes.
It descended — the whole canopy, with the fringe round it, came down — down — close down; so close that there was not room now to squeeze my finger between the bed-top and the bed. I felt at the sides, and discovered that what had appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary light canopy of a four-post bed was in reality a thick, broad mattress, the substance of which was concealed by the valance and its fringe. I looked up and saw the four posts rising hideously bare. In the middle of the bed-top was a huge wooden screw that had evidently worked it down through a hole in the ceiling, just as ordinary presses are worked down on the substance selected for compression. The frightful apparatus moved without making the faintest noise. There had been no creaking as it came down; there was now not the faintest sound from the room above. Amid a dead and awful silence I beheld before me — in the nineteenth century, and in the civilized capital of France — such a machine for secret murder by suffocation as might have existed in the worst days of the Inquisition, in the lonely inns among the Hartz Mountains, in the mysterious tribunals of Westphalia! Still, as I looked on it, I could not move, I could hardly breathe, but I began to recover the power of thinking, and in a moment I discovered the murderous conspiracy framed against me in all its horror.
My cup of coffee had been drugged, and drugged too strongly. I had been saved from being smothered by having taken an overdose of some narcotic. How I had chafed and fretted at the fever fit which had preserved my life by keeping me awake! How recklessly I had confided myself to the two wretches who had led me into this room, determined, for the sake of my winnings, to kill me in my sleep by the surest and most horrible contrivance for secretly accomplishing my destruction! How many men, winners like me, had slept, as I had proposed to sleep, in that bed, and had never been seen or heard of more! I shuddered at the bare idea of it.
But, ere long, all thought was again suspended by the sight of the murderous canopy moving once more. After it had remained on the bed — as nearly as I could guess — about ten minutes, it began to move up again. The villains who worked it from above evidently believed that their purpose was now accomplished. Slowly and silently, as it had descended, that horrible bed-top rose towards its former place. When it reached the upper extremities of the four posts, it reached the ceiling, too. Neither hole nor screw could be seen; the bed became in appearance an ordinary bed again — the canopy an ordinary canopy — even to the most suspicious eyes.
Now, for the first time, I was able to move — to rise from my knees — to dress myself in my upper clothing — and to consider of how I should escape. If I betrayed by the smallest noise that the attempt to suffocate me had failed, I was certain to be murdered. Had I made any noise already? I listened intently, looking towards the door.
No! no footsteps in the passage outside — no sound of a tread, light or heavy, in the room above — absolute silence everywhere. Besides locking and bolting my door, I had moved an old wooden chest against it, which I had found under the bed. To remove this chest (my blood ran cold as I thought of what its contents might be!) without making some disturbance was impossible; and, moreover, to think of escaping through the house, now barred up for the night, was sheer insanity. Only one chance was left me — the window. I stole to it on tiptoe.
My bedroom was on the first floor, above an entresol, and looked into a back street, which you have sketched in your view. I raised my hand to open the window, knowing that on that action hung, by the merest hair-breadth, my chance of safety. They keep vigilant watch in a House of Murder. If any part of the frame cracked, if the hinge creaked, I was a lost man! It must have occupied me at least five minutes, reckoning by time — five hours, reckoning by suspense — to open that window. I succeeded in doing it silently — in doing it with all the dexterity of a house-breaker — and then looked down into the street. To leap the distance beneath me would be almost certain destruction! Next, I looked round at the sides of the house. Down the left side ran a thick water-pipe which you have drawn — it passed close by the outer edge of the window. The moment I saw the pipe I knew I was saved. My breath came and went freely for the first time since I had seen the canopy of the bed moving down upon me!
To some men the means of escape which I had discovered might have seemed difficult and dangerous enough — to me the prospect of slipping down the pipe into the street did not suggest even a thought of peril. I had always been accustomed, by the practice of gymnastics, to keep up my school-boy powers as a daring and expert climber; and knew that my head, hands, and feet would serve me faithfully in any hazards of ascent or descent. I had already got one leg over the window-sill, when I remembered the handkerchief filled with money under my pillow. I could well have afforded to leave it behind me, but I was revengefully determined that the miscreants of the gambling-house should miss their plunder as well as their victim. So I went back to the bed and tied the heavy handkerchief at my back by my cravat.
Just as I had made it tight and fixed it in a comfortable place, I thought I heard a sound of breathing outside the door. The chill feeling of horror ran through me again as I listened. No! dead silence still in the passage — I had only heard the night air blowing softly into the room. The next moment I was on the window-sill — and the next I had a firm grip on the water-pipe with my hands and knees.
I slid down into the street easily and quietly, as I thought I should, and immediately set off at the top of my speed to a branch “Prefecture” of Police, which I knew was situated in the immediate neighborhood. A “Sub-prefect,” and several picked men among his subordinates, happened to be up, maturing, I believe, some scheme for discovering the perpetrator of a mysterious murder which all Paris was talking of just then. When I began my story, in a breathless hurry and in very bad French, I could see that the Sub-prefect suspected me of being a drunken Englishman who had robbed somebody; but he soon altered his opinion as I went on, and before I had anything like concluded, he shoved all the papers before him into a drawer, put on his hat, supplied me with another (for I was bareheaded), ordered a file of soldiers, desired his expert followers to get ready all sorts of tools for breaking open doors and ripping up brick flooring, and took my arm, in the most friendly and familiar manner possible, to lead me with him out of the house. I will venture to say that when the Sub-prefect was a little boy, and was taken for the first time to the play, he was not half as much pleased as he was now at the job in prospect for him at the gambling-house!
Away we went through the streets, the Sub-prefect cross-examining and congratulating me in the same breath as we marched at the head of our formidable posse comitatus. Sentinels were placed at the back and front of the house the moment we got to it; a tremendous battery of knocks was directed against the door; a light appeared at a window; I was told to conceal myself behind the police — then came more knocks and a cry of “Open in the name of the law!” At that terrible summons bolts and locks gave way before an invisible hand, and the moment after the Sub-prefect was in the passage, confronting a waiter half-dressed and ghastly pale. This was the short dialogue which immediately took place:
“We want to see the Englishman who is sleeping in this house?”
“He went away hours ago.”
“He did no such thing. His friend went away; he remained. Show us to his bedroom!”
“I swear to you, Monsieur le Sous-prefect, he is not here! he —”
“I swear to you, Monsieur le Garcon, he is. He slept here — he didn’t find your bed comfortable — he came to us to complain of it — here he is among my men — and here am I ready to look for a flea or two in his bedstead. Renaudin! (calling to one of the subordinates, and pointing to the waiter) collar that man and tie his hands behind him. Now, then, gentlemen, let us walk upstairs!”
Every man and woman in the house was secured — the “Old Soldier” the first. Then I identified the bed in which I had slept, and then we went into the room above.
No object that was at all extraordinary appeared in any part of it. The Sub-prefect looked round the place, commanded everybody to be silent, stamped twice on the floor, called for a candle, looked attentively at the spot he had stamped on, and ordered the flooring there to be carefully taken up. This was done in no time. Lights were produced, and we saw a deep raftered cavity between the floor of this room and the ceiling of the room beneath. Through this cavity there ran perpendicularly a sort of case of iron thickly greased; and inside the case appeared the screw, which communicated with the bed-top below. Extra lengths of screw, freshly oiled; levers covered with felt; all the complete upper works of a heavy press — constructed with infernal ingenuity so as to join the fixtures below, and when taken to pieces again, to go into the smallest possible compass — were next discovered and pulled out on the floor. After some little difficulty the Sub-prefect succeeded in putting the machinery together, and, leaving his men to work it, descended with me to the bedroom. The smothering canopy was then lowered, but not so noiselessly as I had seen it lowered. When I mentioned this to the Sub-prefect, his answer, simple as it was, had a terrible significance. “My men,” said he, “are working down the bed-top for the first time — the men whose money you won were in better practice.”
We left the house in the sole possession of two police agents — every one of the inmates being removed to prison on the spot. The Sub-prefect, after taking down my “proces verbal“ in his office, returned with me to my hotel to get my passport. “Do you think,” I asked, as I gave it to him, “that any men have really been smothered in that bed, as they tried to smother me? ”
“I have seen dozens of drowned men laid out at the Morgue,” answered the Sub-prefect, “in whose pocket-books were found letters stating that they had committed suicide in the Seine, because they had lost everything at the gaming table. Do I know how many of those men entered the same gambling-house that you entered? won as you won? took that bed as you took it? slept in it? were smothered in it? and were privately thrown into the river, with a letter of explanation written by the murderers and placed in their pocket-books? No man can say how many or how few have suffered the fate from which you have escaped. The people of the gambling-house kept their bedstead machinery a secret from us — even from the police! The dead kept the rest of the secret for them. Good-night, or rather good-morning, Monsieur Faulkner! Be at my office again at nine o’clock — in the meantime, au revoir! ”
The rest of my story is soon told. I was examined and re-examined; the gambling-house was strictly searched all through from top to bottom; the prisoners were separately interrogated; and two of the less guilty among them made a confession. I discovered that the Old Soldier was the master of the gambling-house — justice discovered that he had been drummed out of the army as a vagabond years ago; that he had been guilty of all sorts of villainies since; that he was in possession of stolen property, which the owners identified; and that he, the croupier, another accomplice, and the woman who had made my cup of coffee, were all in the secret of the bedstead. There appeared some reason to doubt whether the inferior persons attached to the house knew anything of the suffocating machinery; and they received the benefit of that doubt, by being treated simply as thieves and vagabonds. As for the Old Soldier and his two head myrmidons, they went to the galleys; the woman who had drugged my coffee was imprisoned for I forget how many years; the regular attendants at the gambling-house were considered “suspicious” and placed under “surveillance”; and I became, for one whole week (which is a long time) the head “lion” in Parisian society. My adventure was dramatized by three illustrious play-makers, but never saw theatrical daylight; for the censorship forbade the introduction on the stage of a correct copy of the gambling-house bedstead.
One good result was produced by my adventure, which any censorship must have approved: it cured me of ever again trying “Rouge et Noir“ as an amusement. The sight of a green cloth, with packs of cards and heaps of money on it, will henceforth be forever associated in my mind with the sight of a bed canopy descending to suffocate me in the silence and darkness of the night.
Wilkie Collins (1824 — 1889)
Wildheath Grange stood a little way back from the road, with a barren stretch of heath behind it, and a few tall fir-trees, with straggling wind-tossed heads, for its only shelter. It was a lonely house on a lonely road, little better than a lane, leading across a desolate waste of sandy fields to the sea-shore; and it was a house that bore a bad name among the natives of the village of Holcroft, which was the nearest place where humanity might be found.
It was a good old house, nevertheless, substantially built in the days when there was no stint of stone and timber–a good old grey stone house with many gables, deep window-seats, and a wide staircase, long dark passages, hidden doors in queer corners, closets as large as some modern rooms, and cellars in which a company of soldiers might have lain perdu.
This spacious old mansion was given over to rats and mice, loneliness, echoes, and the occupation of three elderly people: Michael Bascom, whose forebears had been landowners of importance in the neighbourhood, and his two servants, Daniel Skegg and his wife, who had served the owner of that grim old house ever since he left the university, where he had lived fifteen years of his life–five as student, and ten as professor of natural science.
At three-and-thirty Michael Bascom had seemed a middle-aged man; at fifty-six he looked and moved and spoke like an old man. During that interval of twenty-three years he had lived alone in Wildheath Grange, and the country people told each other that the house had made him what he was. This was a fanciful and superstitious notion on their part, doubtless, yet it would not have been difficult to have traced a certain affinity between the dull grey building and the man who lived in it. Both seemed alike remote from the common cares and interests of humanity; both had an air of settled melancholy, engendered by perpetual solitude; both had the same faded complexion, the same look of slow decay.
Yet lonely as Michael Bascom’s life was at Wildheath Grange, he would not on any account have altered its tenor. He had been glad to exchange the comparative seclusion of college rooms for the unbroken solitude of Wildheath. He was a fanatic in his love of scientific research, and his quiet days were filled to the brim with labours that seldom failed to interest and satisfy him. There were periods of depression, occasional moments of doubt, when the goal towards which he strove seemed unattainable, and his spirit fainted within him. Happily such times were rare with him. He had a dogged power of continuity which ought to have carried him to the highest pinnacle of achievement, and which perhaps might ultimately have won for him a grand name and a world-wide renown, but for a catastrophe which burdened the declining years of his harmless life with an unconquerable remorse.
One autumn morning–when he had lived just three-and-twenty years at Wildheath, and had only lately begun to perceive that his faithful butler and body servant, who was middle-aged when he first employed him, was actually getting old–Mr. Bascom’s breakfast meditations over the latest treatise on the atomic theory were interrupted by an abrupt demand from that very Daniel Skegg. The man was accustomed to wait upon his master in the most absolute silence, and his sudden breaking out into speech was almost as startling as if the bust of Socrates above the bookcase had burst into human language.
“It’s no use,” said Daniel; “my missus must have a girl!”
“A what?” demanded Mr. Bascom, without taking his eyes from the line he had been reading.
“A girl–a girl to trot about and wash up, and help the old lady. She’s getting weak on her legs, poor soul. We’ve none of us grown younger in the last twenty years.”
“Twenty years!” echoed Michael Bascom scornfully. “What is twenty years in the formation of a strata–what even in the growth of an oak–the cooling of a volcano!”
“Not much, perhaps, but it’s apt to tell upon the bones of a human being.”
“The manganese staining to be seen upon some skulls would certainly indicate—-” began the scientist dreamily.
“I wish my bones were only as free from rheumatics as they were twenty years ago,” pursued Daniel testily; “and then, perhaps, I should make light of twenty years. Howsoever, the long and the short of it is, my missus must have a girl. She can’t go on trotting up and down these everlasting passages, and standing in that stone scullery year after year, just as if she was a young woman. She must have a girl to help.”
“Let her have twenty girls,” said Mr. Bascom, going back to his book.
“What’s the use of talking like that, sir. Twenty girls, indeed! We shall have rare work to get one.”
“Because the neighbourhood is sparsely populated?” interrogated Mr. Bascom, still reading.
“No, sir. Because this house is known to be haunted.”
Michael Bascom laid down his book, and turned a look of grave reproach upon his servant.
“Skegg,” he said in a severe voice, “I thought you had lived long enough with me to be superior to any folly of that kind.”
“I don’t say that I believe in ghosts,” answered Daniel with a semi-apologetic air; “but the country people do. There’s not a mortal among ’em that will venture across our threshold after nightfall.”
“Merely because Anthony Bascom, who led a wild life in London, and lost his money and land, came home here broken-hearted, and is supposed to have destroyed himself in this house–the only remnant of property that was left him out of a fine estate.”
“Supposed to have destroyed himself!” cried Skegg; “why the fact is as well known as the death of Queen Elizabeth, or the great fire of London. Why, wasn’t he buried at the cross-roads between here and Holcroft?”
“An idle tradition, for which you could produce no substantial proof,” retorted Mr. Bascom.
“I don’t know about proof; but the country people believe it as firmly as they believe their Gospel.”
“If their faith in the Gospel was a little stronger they need not trouble themselves about Anthony Bascom.”
“Well,” grumbled Daniel, as he began to clear the table, “a girl of some kind we must get, but she’ll have to be a foreigner, or a girl that’s hard driven for a place.”
When Daniel Skegg said a foreigner, he did not mean the native of some distant clime, but a girl who had not been born and bred at Holcroft. Daniel had been raised and reared in that insignificant hamlet, and, small and dull as it was, he considered the world beyond it only margin.
Michael Bascom was too deep in the atomic theory to give a second thought to the necessities of an old servant. Mrs. Skegg was an individual with whom he rarely came in contact. She lived for the most part in a gloomy region at the north end of the house, where she ruled over the solitude of a kitchen, that looked like a cathedral, and numerous offices of the sculler, larder, and pantry class, where she carried on a perpetual warfare with spiders and beetles, and wore her old life out in the labour of sweeping and scrubbing. She was a woman of severe aspect, dogmatic piety, and a bitter tongue. She was a good plain cook, and ministered diligently to her master’s wants. He was not an epicure, but liked his life to be smooth and easy, and the equilibrium of his mental power would have been disturbed by a bad dinner.
He heard no more about the proposed addition to his household for a space of ten days, when Daniel Skegg again startled him amidst his studious repose by the abrupt announcement:
“I’ve got a girl!”
“Oh,” said Michael Bascom; “have you?” and he went on with his book.
This time he was reading an essay on phosphorus and its functions in relation to the human brain.
“Yes,” pursued Daniel in his usual grumbling tone; “she was a waif and stray, or I shouldn’t have got her. If she’d been a native she’d never have come to us.”
“I hope she’s respectable,” said Michael.
“Respectable! That’s the only fault she has, poor thing. She’s too good for the place. She’s never been in service before, but she says she’s willing to work, and I daresay my old woman will be able to break her in. Her father was a small tradesman at Yarmouth. He died a month ago, and left this poor thing homeless. Mrs. Midge, at Holcroft, is her aunt, and she said to the girl, Come and stay with me till you get a place; and the girl has been staying with Mrs. Midge for the last three weeks, trying to hear of a place. When Mrs. Midge heard that my missus wanted a girl to help, she thought it would be the very thing for her niece Maria. Luckily Maria had heard nothing about this house, so the poor innocent dropped me a curtsey, and said she’d be thankful to come, and would do her best to learn her duty. She’d had an easy time of it with her father, who had educated her above her station, like a fool as he was,” growled Daniel.
“By your own account I’m afraid you’ve made a bad bargain,” said Michael. “You don’t want a young lady to clean kettles and pans.”
“If she was a young duchess my old woman would make her work,” retorted Skegg decisively.
“And pray where are you going to put this girl?” asked Mr. Bascom, rather irritably; “I can’t have a strange young woman tramping up and down the passages outside my room. You know what a wretched sleeper I am, Skegg. A mouse behind the wainscot is enough to wake me.”
“I’ve thought of that,” answered the butler, with his look of ineffable wisdom. “I’m not going to put her on your floor. She’s to sleep in the attics.”
“The big one at the north end of the house. That’s the only ceiling that doesn’t let water. She might as well sleep in a shower-bath as in any of the other attics.”
“The room at the north end,” repeated Mr. Bascom thoughtfully; “isn’t that—-?”
“Of course it is,” snapped Skegg; “but she doesn’t know anything about it.”
Mr. Bascom went back to his books, and forgot all about the orphan from Yarmouth, until one morning on entering his study he was startled by the appearance of a strange girl, in a neat black and white cotton gown, busy dusting the volumes which were stacked in blocks upon his spacious writing-table–and doing it with such deft and careful hands that he had no inclination to be angry at this unwonted liberty. Old Mrs. Skegg had religiously refrained from all such dusting, on the plea that she did not wish to interfere with the master’s ways. One of the master’s ways, therefore, had been to inhale a good deal of dust in the course of his studies.
The girl was a slim little thing, with a pale and somewhat old-fashioned face, flaxen hair, braided under a neat muslin cap, a very fair complexion, and light blue eyes. They were the lightest blue eyes Michael Bascom had ever seen, but there was a sweetness and gentleness in their expression which atoned for their insipid colour.
“I hope you do not object to my dusting your books, sir,” she said, dropping a curtsey.
She spoke with a quaint precision which struck Michael Bascom as a pretty thing in its way.
“No; I don’t object to cleanliness, so long as my books and papers are not disturbed. If you take a volume off my desk, replace it on the spot you took it from. That’s all I ask.”
“I will be very careful, sir.”
“When did you come here?”
“Only this morning, sir.”
The student seated himself at his desk, and the girl withdrew, drifting out of the room as noiselessly as a flower blown across the threshold. Michael Bascom looked after her curiously. He had seen very little of youthful womanhood in his dry-as-dust career, and he wondered at this girl as at a creature of a species hitherto unknown to him. How fairly and delicately she was fashioned; what a translucent skin; what soft and pleasing accents issued from those rose-tinted lips. A pretty thing, assuredly, this kitchen wench! A pit that in all this busy world there could be no better work found for her than the scouring of pots and pans.
Absorbed in considerations about dry bones, Mr. Bascom thought no more of the pale-faced handmaiden. He saw her no more about his rooms. Whatever work she did there was done early in the morning, before the scholar’s breakfast.
She had been a week in the house, when he met her one day in the hall. He was struck by the change in her appearance.
The girlish lips had lost their rose-bud hue; the pale blue eyes had a frightened look, and there were dark rings round them, as in one whose nights had been sleepless, or troubled by evil dreams.
Michael Bascom was so startled by an undefinable look in the girl’s face that, reserved as he was by habit and nature, he expanded so far as to ask her what ailed her.
“There is something amiss, I am sure,” he said. “What is it?”
“Nothing, sir,” she faltered, looking still more scared at his question. “Indeed, it is nothing; or nothing worth troubling you about.”
“Nonsense. Do you suppose, because I live among books, I have no sympathy with my fellow-creatures? Tell me what is wrong with you, child. You have been grieving about the father you have lately lost, I suppose.”
“No, sir; it is not that. I shall never leave off being sorry for that. It is a grief which will last me all my life.”
“What, there is something else then?” asked Michael impatiently. “I see; you are not happy here. Hard work does not suit you. I thought as much.”
“Oh, sir, please don’t think that,” cried the girl, very earnestly. “Indeed, I am glad to work–glad to be in service; it is only—-”
She faltered and broke down, the tears rolling slowly from her sorrowful eyes, despite her effort to keep them back.
“Only what?” cried Michael, growing angry. “The girl is full of secrets and mysteries. What do you mean, wench?”
“I–I know it is very foolish, sir; but I am afraid of the room where I sleep.”
“Shall I tell you the truth, sir? Will you promise not to be angry?”
“I will not be angry if you will only speak plainly; but you provoke me by these hesitations and suppressions.”
“And please, sir, do not tell Mrs. Skegg that I have told you. She would scold me; or perhaps even send me away.”
“Mrs. Skegg shall not scold you. Go on, child.”
“You may not know the room where I sleep, sir; it is a large room at one end of the house, looking towards the sea. I can see the dark line of water from the window, and I wonder sometimes to think that it is the same ocean I used to see when I was a child at Yarmouth. It is very lonely, sir, at the top of the house. Mr. and Mrs. Skegg sleep in a little room near the kitchen, you know, sir, and I am quite alone on the top floor.”
“Skegg told me you had been educated in advance of your position in life, Maria. I should have thought the first effect of a good education would have been to make you superior to any foolish fancies about empty rooms.”
“Oh, pray, sir, do not think it is any fault in my education. Father took such pains with me; he spared no expense in giving me as good an education as a tradesman’s daughter need wish for. And he was a religious man, sir. He did not believe”–here she paused, with a suppressed shudder–“in the spirits of the dead appearing to the living, since the days of miracles, when the ghost of Samuel appeared to Saul.
He never put any foolish ideas into my head, sir. I hadn’t a thought of fear when I first lay down to rest in the big lonely room upstairs.”
“Well, what then?”
“But on the very first night,” the girl went on breathlessly, “I felt weighed down in my sleep as if there were some heavy burden laid upon my chest. It was not a bad dream, but it was a sense of trouble that followed me all through my sleep; and just at daybreak–it begins to be light a little after six–I woke suddenly, with the cold perspiration pouring down my face, and knew that there was something dreadful in the room.”
“What do you mean by something dreadful. Did you see anything?”
“Not much, sir; but it froze the blood in my veins, and I knew it was this that had been following me and weighing upon me all through my sleep. In the corner, between the fire-place and the wardrobe, I saw a shadow–a dim, shapeless shadow—-”
“Produced by an angle of the wardrobe, I daresay.”
“No, sir; I could see the shadow of the wardrobe, distinct and sharp, as if it had been painted on the wall. This shadow was in the corner–a strange, shapeless mass; or, if it had any shape at all, it seemed—-”
“What?” asked Michael eagerly.
“The shape of a dead body hanging against the wall!”
Michael Bascom grew strangely pale, yet he affected utter incredulity.
“Poor child,” he said kindly; “you have been fretting about your father until your nerves are in a weak state, and you are full of fancies. A shadow in the corner, indeed; why, at daybreak, every corner is full of shadows. My old coat, flung upon a chair, will make you as good a ghost as you need care to see.”
“Oh, sir, I have tried to think it is my fancy. But I have had the same burden weighing me down every night. I have seen the same shadow every morning.”
“But when broad daylight comes, can you not see what stuff your shadow is made of?”
“No, sir: the shadow goes before it is broad daylight.”
“Of course, just like other shadows. Come, come, get these silly notions out of your head, or you will never do for the work-a-day world. I could easily speak to Mrs. Skegg, and make her give you another room, if I wanted to encourage you in your folly. But that would be about the worst thing I could do for you. Besides, she tells me that all the other rooms on that floor are damp; and, no doubt, if she shifted you into one of them, you would discover another shadow in another corner, and get rheumatism into the bargain. No, my good girl, you must try to prove yourself the better for a superior education.”
“I will do my best, sir,” Maria answered meekly, dropping a curtsey.
Maria went back to the kitchen sorely depressed. It was a dreary life she led at Wildheath Grange–dreary by day, awful by night; for the vague burden and the shapeless shadow, which seemed so slight a matter to the elderly scholar, were unspeakably terrible to her. Nobody had told her that the house was haunted, yet she walked about those echoing passages wrapped round with a cloud of fear. She had no pity from Daniel Skegg and his wife. Those two pious souls had made up their minds that the character of the house should be upheld, so far as Maria went. To her, as a foreigner, the Grange should be maintained to be an immaculate dwelling, tainted by no sulphurous blast from the under world. A willing, biddable girl had become a necessary element in the existence of Mrs. Skegg. That girl had been found, and that girl must be kept. Any fancies of a supernatural character must be put down with a high hand.
“Ghosts, indeed!” cried the amiable Skegg. “Read your Bible, Maria, and don’t talk no more about ghosts.”
“There are ghosts in the Bible,” said Maria, with a shiver at the recollection of certain awful passages in the Scripture she knew so well.
“Ah, they was in their right place, or they wouldn’t ha’ been there,” retorted Mrs. Skegg. “You ain’t agoin’ to pick holes in your Bible, I hope, Maria, at your time of life.”
Maria sat down quietly in her corner by the kitchen fire, and turned over the leaves of her dead father’s Bible till she came to the chapters they two had loved best and oftenest read together. He had been a simple-minded, straightforward man, the Yarmouth cabinet-maker–a man full of aspirations after good, innately refined, instinctively religious. He and his motherless girl had spent their lives alone together, in the neat little home which Maria had so soon learnt to cherish and beautify; and they had loved each other with an almost romantic love. They had had the same tastes, the same ideas. Very little had sufficed to make them happy. But inexorable death parted father and daughter, in one of those sharp, sudden partings which are like the shock of an earthquake–instantaneous ruin, desolation, and despair.
Maria’s fragile form had bent before the tempest. She had lived through a trouble that might have crushed a stronger nature. Her deep religious convictions, and her belief that this cruel parting would not be for ever, had sustained her. She faced life, and its cares and duties, with a gentle patience which was the noblest form of courage.
Michael Bascom told himself that the servant-girl’s foolish fancy about the room that had been given her was not a matter of serious consideration. Yet the idea dwelt in his mind unpleasantly, and disturbed him at his labours. The exact sciences require the complete power of a man’s brain, his utmost attention; and on this particular evening Michael found that he was only giving his work a part of his attention. The girl’s pale face, the girl’s tremulous tones, thrust themselves into the foreground of his thoughts.
He closed his book with a fretful sigh, wheeled his large arm-chair round to the fire, and gave himself up to contemplation. To attempt study with so disturbed a mind was useless. It was a dull grey evening, early in November; the student’s reading-lamp was lighted, but the shutters were not yet shut, nor the curtains drawn. He could see the leaden sky outside his windows, the fir-tree tops tossing in the angry wind. He could hear the wintry blast whistling amidst the gables, before it rushed off seaward with a savage howl that sounded like a war-whoop.
Michael Bascom shivered, and drew nearer the fire.
“It’s childish, foolish nonsense,” he said to himself, “yet it’s strange she should have that fancy about the shadow, for they say Anthony Bascom destroyed himself in that room. I remember hearing it when I was a boy, from an old servant whose mother was housekeeper at the great house in Anthony’s time. I never heard how he died, poor fellow–whether he poisoned himself, or shot himself, or cut his throat; but I’ve been told that was the room. Old Skegg has heard it too. I could see that by his manner when he told me the girl was to sleep there.”
He sat for a long time, till the grey of evening outside his study windows changed to the black of night, and the war-whoop of the wind died away to a low complaining murmur. He sat looking into the fire, and letting his thoughts wander back to the past and the traditions he had heard in his boyhood.
That was a sad, foolish story of his great-uncle, Anthony Bascom: the pitiful story of a wasted fortune and a wasted life. A riotous collegiate career at Cambridge, a racing-stable at Newmarket, an imprudent marriage, a dissipated life in London, a runaway wife; an estate forfeited to Jew money-lenders, and then the fatal end.
Michael had often heard that dismal story: how, when Anthony Bascom’s fair false wife had left him, when his credit was exhausted, and his friends had grown tired of him, and all was gone except Wildheath Grange, Anthony, the broken-down man of fashion, had come to that lonely house unexpectedly one night, and had ordered his bed to be got ready for him in the room where he used to sleep when he came to the place for the wild duck shooting, in his boyhood. His old blunderbuss was still hanging over the mantelpiece, where he had left it when he came into the property, and could afford to buy the newest thing in fowling-pieces. He had not been to Wildheath for fifteen years; nav, for a good many of those years he had almost forgotten that the drear; old house belonged to him.
The woman who had been housekeeper at Bascom Park, till house and lands had passed into the hands of the Jews, was at this time the sole occupant of Wildheath. She cooked some supper tor her master, and made him as comfortable as she could in the long untenanted dining-room; but she was distressed to find, when she cleared the table after he had gone upstairs to bed, that he had eaten hardly anything.
Next morning she got his breakfast ready in the same room, which she managed to make brighter and cheerier than it had looked overnight. Brooms, dusting-brushes, and a good fire did much to improve the aspect of things. But the morning wore on to noon, and the old housekeeper listened in vain for her master’s footfall on the stairs. Noon waned to late afternoon. She had made no attempt to disturb him, thinking that he had worn himself out by a tedious journey on horseback, and that he was sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. But when the brief November day clouded with the first shadows of twilight, the old woman grew seriously alarmed, and went upstairs to her master’s door, where she waited in vain for any reply to her repeated calls and knockings.
The door was locked on the inside, and the housekeeper was not strong enough to break it open. She rushed downstairs again full of fear, and ran bare-headed out into the lonely road. There was no habitation nearer than the turnpike on the old coach road, from which this side road branched off to the sea. There was scanty hope of a chance passer-by. The old woman ran along the road, hardly knowing whither she was going or what she was going to do, but with a vague idea that she must get somebody to help her.
Chance favoured her. A cart, laden with sea-weed, came lumbering slowly along from the level line of sands yonder where the land melted into water. A heavy lumbering farm-labourer walked beside the cart.
“For God’s sake, come in and burst open my master’s door!” she entreated, seizing the man by the arm. “He’s lying dead, or in a fit, and I can’t get to help him.”
“All right, missus,” answered the man, as if such an invitation were a matter of daily occurrence. “Whoa, Dobbin; stond still, horse, and be donged to thee.”
Dobbin was glad enough to be brought to anchor on the patch of waste grass in front of the Grange garden. His master followed the housekeeper upstairs, and shattered the old-fashioned box-lock with one blow of his ponderous fist.
The old woman’s worst fear was realised. Anthony Bascom was dead. But the mode and manner of his death Michael had never been able to learn. The housekeeper’s daughter, who told him the story, was an old woman when he was a boy. She had only shaken her head, and looked unutterable things, when he questioned her too closely. She had never even admitted that the old squire had committed suicide. Yet the tradition of his self-destruction was rooted in the minds of the natives of Holcroft: and there was a settled belief that his ghost, at certain times and seasons, haunted Wildheath Grange.
Now Michael Bascom was a stern materialist. For him the universe with all its inhabitants, was a great machine, governed by inexorable laws. To such a man the idea of a ghost was simply absurd–as absurd as the assertion that two and two make five, or that a circle can be formed of a straight line. Yet he had a kind of dilettante interest in the idea of a mind which could believe in ghosts. The subject offered an amusing psychological study. This poor little pale girl, now, had evidently got some supernatural terror into her head, which could only be conquered by rational treatment.
“I know what I ought to do,” Michael Bascom said to himself suddenly. “I’ll occupy that room myself tonight, and demonstrate to this foolish girl that her notion about the shadow is nothing more than a silly fancy, bred of timidity and low spirits. An ounce of proof is better than a pound of argument. If I can prove to her that I have spent a night in the room, and seen no such shadow, she will understand what an idle thing superstition is.”
Daniel came in presently to shut the shutters.
“Tell your wife to make up my bed in the room where Maria has been sleeping, and to put her into one of the rooms on the first floor for to-night, Skegg,” said Mr. Bascom.
Mr. Bascom repeated his order.
“That silly wench has been complaining to you about her room,” Skegg exclaimed indignantly. “She doesn’t deserve to be well fed and cared for in a comfortable home. She ought to go to the workhouse.”
“Don’t be angry with the poor girl, Skegg. She has taken a foolish fancy into her head, and I want to show her how silly she is,” said Mr. Bascom.
“And you want to sleep in his–in that room yourself,” said the butler.
“Well,” mused Skegg, “if he does walk–which I don’t believe–he was your own flesh and blood; and I don’t suppose he’ll do you any hurt.”
When Daniel Skegg went back to the kitchen he railed mercilessly at poor Maria, who sat pale and silent in her corner by the hearth, darning old Mrs. Skegg’s grey worsted stockings, which were the roughest and harshest armour that ever human foot clothed itself withal. “Was there ever such a whimsical, fine, lady-like miss,” demanded Daniel, “to come into a gentleman’s house, and drive him out of his own bedroom to sleep in an attic, with her nonsenses and vagaries.” If this was the result of being educated above one’s station, Daniel declared that he was thankful he had never got so far in his schooling as to read words of two syllables without spelling. Education might be hanged for him, if this was all it led to.
“I am very sorry,” faltered Maria, weeping silently over her work. “Indeed, Mr. Skegg, I made no complaint. My master questioned me, and I told him the truth. That was all.”
“All!” exclaimed Mr. Skegg irately; “all, indeed! I should think it was enough.”
Poor Maria held her peace. Her mind, fluttered by Daniel’s unkindness, had wandered away from that bleak big kitchen to the lost home of the past–the snug little parlour where she and her father had sat beside the cosy hearth on such a night as this; she with her smart work-box and her plain sewing, he with the newspaper he loved to read; the petted cat purring on the rug, the kettle singing on the bright brass trivet, the tea-tray pleasantly suggestive of the most comfortable meal in the day.
Oh, those happy nights, that dear companionship! Were they really gone for ever, leaving nothing behind them but unkindness and servitude?
Michael Bascom retired later than usual that night. He was in the habit of sitting at his books long after every other lamp but his own had been extinguished. The Skeggs had subsided into silence and darkness in their drear ground-floor bed-chamber. Tonight his studies were of a peculiarly interesting kind, and belonged to the order of recreative reading rather than of hard work. He was deep in the history of that mysterious people who had their dwelling-place in the Swiss lakes, and was much exercised by certain speculations and theories about them.
The old eight-day clock on the stairs was striking two as Michael slowly ascended, candle in hand, to the hitherto unknown region of the attics. At the top of the staircase he found himself facing a dark narrow passage which led northwards, a passage that was in itself sufficient to strike terror to a superstitious mind, so black and uncanny did it look.
“Poor child,” mused Mr. Bascom, thinking of Maria; “this attic floor is rather dreary, and for a young mind prone to fancies—-”
He had opened the door of the north room by this time, and stood looking about him.
It was a large room, with a ceiling that sloped on one side, but was fairly lofty upon the other; an old-fashioned room, full of old-fashioned furniture–big, ponderous, clumsy–associated with a day that was gone and people that were dead. A walnut-wood wardrobe stared him in the face–a wardrobe with brass handles, which gleamed out of the darkness like diabolical eyes. There was a tall four-post bedstead, which had been cut down on one side to accommodate the slope of the ceiling, and which had a misshapen and deformed aspect in consequence. There was an old mahogany bureau, that smelt of secrets. There were some heavy old chairs with rush bottoms, mouldy with age, and much worn. There was a corner washstand, with a big basin and a small jug–the odds and ends of past years. Carpet there was none, save a narrow strip beside the bed.
“It is a dismal room,” mused Michael, with the same touch of pity for Maria’s weakness which he had felt on the landing just now.
To him it mattered nothing where he slept; but having let himself down to a lower level by his interest in the Swiss lake-people, he was in a manner humanised by the lightness of his evening’s reading, and was even inclined to compassionate the weaknesses of a foolish girl.
He went to bed, determined to sleep his soundest. The bed was comfortable, well supplied with blankets, rather luxurious than otherwise, and the scholar had that agreeable sense of fatigue which promises profound and restful slumber.
He dropped off to sleep quickly, but woke with a start ten minutes afterwards. What was this consciousness of a burden of care that had awakened him–this sense of all-pervading trouble that weighed upon his spirits and oppressed his heart–this icy horror of some terrible crisis in life through which he must inevitably pass? To him these feelings were as novel as they were painful. His life had flowed on with smooth and sluggish tide, unbroken by so much as a ripple of sorrow. Yet to-night he felt all the pangs of unavailing remorse; the agonising memory of a life wasted; the stings of humiliation and disgrace, shame, ruin; a hideous death, which he had doomed himself to die by his own hand. These were the horrors that pressed him round and weighed him down as he lay in Anthony Bascom’s room.
Yes, even he, the man who could recognise nothing in nature, or in nature’s God, better or higher than an irresponsible and invariable machine governed by mechanical laws, was fain to admit that here he found himself face to face with a psychological mystery. This trouble, which came between him and sleep, was the trouble that had pursued Anthony Bascom on the last night of his life. So had the suicide felt as he lay in that lonely room, perhaps striving to rest his wearied brain with one last earthly sleep before he passed to the unknown intermediate land where all is darkness and slumber. And that troubled mind had haunted the room ever since. It was not the ghost of the man’s body that returned to the spot where he had suffered and perished, but the ghost of his mind–his very self; no meaningless simulacrum of the clothes he were, and the figure that filled them.
Michael Bascom was not the man to abandon his high ground of sceptical philosophy without a struggle. He tried his hardest to conquer this oppression that weighed upon mind and sense. Again and again he succeeded in composing himself to sleep, but only to wake again and again to the same torturing thoughts, the same remorse, the same despair. So the night passed in unutterable weariness; for though he told himself that the trouble was not his trouble, that there was no reality in the burden, no reason for the remorse, these vivid fancies were as painful as realities, and took as strong a hold upon him.
The first streak of light crept in at the window–dim, and cold, and grey; then came twilight, and he looked at the corner between the wardrobe and the door.
Yes; there was the shadow: not the shadow of the wardrobe only–that was clear enough, but a vague and shapeless something which darkened the dull brown wall; so faint, so shadow, that he could form no conjecture as to its nature, or the thing it represented. He determined to watch this shadow till broad daylight; but the weariness of the night had exhausted him, and before the first dimness of dawn had passed away he had fallen fast asleep, and was tasting the blessed balm of undisturbed slumber. When he woke the winter sun was shining in at the lattice, and the room had lost its gloomy aspect. It looked old-fashioned, and grey, and brown, and shabby; but the depth of its gloom had fled with the shadows and the darkness of night.
Mr. Bascom rose refreshed by a sound sleep, which had lasted nearly three hours. He remembered the wretched feelings which had gone before that renovating slumber; but he recalled his strange sensations only to despise them, and he despised himself for having attached any importance to them.
“Indigestion very likely,” he told himself; “or perhaps mere fancy, engendered of that foolish girl’s story. The wisest of us is more under the dominion of imagination than he would care to confess. Well, Maria shall not sleep in this room any more. There is no particular reason why she should, and she shall not be made unhappy to please old Skegg and his wife.”
When he had dressed himself in his usual leisurely way, Mr. Bascom walked up to the corner where he had seen or imagined the shadow, and examined the spot carefully.
At first sight he could discover nothing of a mysterious character. There was no door in the papered wall, no trace of a door that had been there in the past. There was no trap-door in the worm-eaten boards. There was no dark ineradicable stain to hint at murder. There was not the faintest suggestion of a secret or a mystery.
He looked up at the ceiling. That was sound enough, save for a dirty patch here and there where the rain had blistered it.
Yes; there was something–an insignificant thing, yet with a suggestion of grimness which startled him.
About a foot below the ceiling he saw a large iron hook projecting from the wall, just above the spot where he had seen the shadow of a vaguely defined form. He mounted on a chair the better to examine this hook, and to understand, if he could, the purpose for which it had been put there.
It was old and rusty. It must have been there for many years. Who could have placed it there, and why? It was not the kind of hook upon which one would hang a picture or one’s garments. It was placed in an obscure corner. Had Anthony Bascom put it there on the night he died; or did he find it there ready for a fatal use?
“If I were a superstitious man,” thought Michael, “I should be inclined to believe that Anthony Bascom hung himself from that rusty old hook.”
“Sleep well, sir?” asked Daniel, as he waited upon his master at breakfast.
“Admirably,” answered Michael, determined not to gratify the man’s curiosity.
He had always resented the idea that Wildheath Grange was haunted.
“Oh, indeed, sir. You were so late that I fancied—-”
“Late, yes! I slept so well that I overshot my usual hour for waking. But, by-the-way, Skegg, as that poor girl objects to the room, let her sleep somewhere else. It can’t make any difference to us, and it may make some difference to her.”
“Humph!” muttered Daniel in his grumpy way; “you didn’t see anything queer up there, did you?”
“See anything? Of course not.”
“Well, then, why should she see things? It’s all her silly fiddle-faddle.”
“Never mind, let her sleep in another room.”
“There ain’t another room on the top floor that’s dry.”
“Then let her sleep on the floor below. She creeps about quietly enough, poor little timid thing. She won’t disturb me.”
Daniel grunted, and his master understood the grunt to mean obedient assent; but here Mr. Bascom was unhappily mistaken. The proverbial obstinacy of the pig family is as nothing compared with the obstinacy of a cross-grained old man, whose narrow mind has never been illuminated by education. Daniel was beginning to feel jealous of his master’s compassionate interest in the orphan girl. She was a sort of gentle clinging thing that might creep into an elderly bachelor’s heart unawares, and make herself a comfortable nest there.
“We shall have fine carryings-on, and me and my old woman will be nowhere, if I don’t put down my heel pretty strong upon this nonsense,” Daniel muttered to himself, as he carried the breakfast-tray to the pantry.
Maria met him in the passage.
“Well, Mr. Skegg, what did my master say?” she asked breathlessly.
“Did he see anything strange in the room?”
“No, girl. What should he see? He said you were a fool.”
“Nothing disturbed him? And he slept there peacefully?” faltered Maria.
“Never slept better in his life. Now don’t you begin to feel ashamed of yourself?”
“Yes,” she answered meekly; “I am ashamed of being so full of fancies. I will go back to my room tonight, Mr. Skegg, if you like, and I will never complain of it again.”
“I hope you won’t,” snapped Skegg; “you’ve given us trouble enough already.”
Maria sighed, and went about her work in saddest silence. The day wore slowly on, like all other days in that lifeless old house. The scholar sat in his study; Maria moved softly from room to room, sweeping and dusting in the cheerless solitude. The mid-day sun faded into the grey of afternoon, and evening came down like a blight upon the dull old house.
Throughout that day Maria and her master never met. Anyone who had been so far interested in the girl as to observe her appearance would have seen that she was unusually pale, and that her eyes had a resolute look, as of one who was resolved to face a painful ordeal. She ate hardly anything all day. She was curiously silent. Skegg and his wife put down both these symptoms to temper.
“She won’t eat and she won’t talk,” said Daniel to the partner of his joys. “That means sulkiness, and I never allowed sulkiness to master me when I was a young man, and you tried it on as a young woman, and I’m not going to be conquered by sulkiness in my old age.”
Bed-time came, and Maria bade the Skeggs a civil good-night, and went up to her lonely garret without a murmur.
The next morning came, and Mrs. Skegg looked in vain for her patient hand-maiden, when she wanted Maria’s services in preparing the breakfast.
“The wench sleeps sound enough this morning,” said the old woman. “Go and call her, Daniel. My poor legs can’t stand them stairs.”
“Your poor legs are getting uncommon useless,” muttered Daniel testily, as he went to do his wife’s behest.
He knocked at the door, and called Maria–once, twice, thrice, many times; but there was no reply. He tried the door, and found it locked. He shook the door violently, cold with fear.
Then he told himself that the girl had played him a trick. She had stolen away before daybreak, and left the door locked to frighten him. But, no; this could not be, for he could see the key in the lock when he knelt down and put his eye to the keyhole. The key prevented his seeing into the room.
“She’s in there, laughing in her sleeve at me,” he told himself; “but I’ll soon be even with her.”
There was a heavy bar on the staircase, which was intended to secure the shutters of the window that lighted the stairs. It was a detached bar, and always stood in a corner near the window, which it was but rarely employed to fasten. Daniel ran down to the landing, and seized upon this massive iron bar, and then ran back to the garret door.
One blow from the heavy bar shattered the old lock, which was the same lock the carter had broken with his strong fist seventy years before. The door flew open, and Daniel went into the attic which he had chosen for the stranger’s bed-chamber.
Maria was hanging from the hook in the wall. She had contrived to cover her face decently with her handkerchief. She had hanged herself deliberately about an hour before Daniel found her, in the early grey of morning. The doctor, who was summoned from Holcroft, was able to declare the time at which she had slain herself, but there was no one who could say what sudden access of terror had impelled her to the desperate act, or under what slow torture of nervous apprehension her mind had given way. The coroner’s jury returned the customary merciful verdict of “Temporary insanity”.
The girl’s melancholy fate darkened the rest of Michael Bascom’s life. He fled from Wildheath Grange as from an accursed spot, and from the Skeggs as from the murderers of a harmless innocent girl. He ended his days at Oxford, where he found the society of congenial minds, and the books he loved. But the memory of Maria’s sad face, and sadder death, was his abiding sorrow. Out of that deep shadow his soul was never lifted.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 — 1915)
The Chrightons were very great people in that part of the country where my childhood and youth were spent. To speak of Squire Chrighton was to speak of a power in that remote western region of England. Chrighton Abbey had belonged to the family ever since the reign of Stephen, and there was a curious old wing and a cloistered quadrangle still remaining of the original edifice, and in excellent preservation. The rooms at this end of the house were low, and somewhat darksome and gloomy, it is true; but, though rarely used, they were perfectly habitable, and were of service on great occasions when the Abbey was crowded with guests.
The central portion of the Abbey had been rebuilt in the reign of Elizabeth, and was of noble and palatial proportions. The southern wing, and a long music-room with eight tall narrow windows added on to it, were as modern as the time of Anne. Altogether, the Abbey was a very splendid mansion, and one of the chief glories of our county.
All the land in Chrighton parish, and for a long way beyond its boundaries, belonged to the great Squire. The parish church was within the park walls, and the living in the Squire’s gift-not a very valuable benefice, but a useful thing to bestow upon a younger son’s younger son, once in a way, or sometimes on a tutor or dependent of the wealthy house.
I was a Chrighton, and my father, a distant cousin of the reigning Squire, had been rector of Chrighton parish. His death left me utterly unprovided for, and I was fain to go out into the bleak unknown world, and earn my living in a position of dependence-a dreadful thing for a Chrighton to be obliged to do.
Out of respect for the traditions and prejudices of my race, I made it my business to seek employment abroad, where the degradation of one solitary Chrighton was not so likely to inflict shame upon the ancient house to which I belonged. Happily for myself, I had been carefully educated, and had industriously cultivated the usual modern accomplishments in the calm retirement of the Vicarage. I was so fortunate as to obtain a situation at Vienna, in a German family of high rank; and here I remained seven years, laying aside year by year a considerable portion of my liberal salary. When my pupils had grown up, my kind mistress procured me a still more profitable position at St Petersburg, where I remained five more years, at the end of which time I yielded to a yearning that had been long growing upon me-an ardent desire to see my dear old country home once more.
I had no very near relations in England. My mother had died some years before my father; my only brother was far away, in the Indian Civil Service; sister I had none. But I was a Chrighton, and I loved the soil from which I had sprung. I was sure, moreover, of a warm welcome from friends who had loved and honoured my father and mother, and I was still further encouraged to treat myself to this holiday by the very cordial letters I had from time to time received from the Squire’s wife, a noble warm-hearted woman, who fully approved the independent course I had taken, and who had ever shown herself my friend.
In all her letters for some time past Mrs Chrighton begged that, whenever I felt myself justified in coming home, I would pay a long visit to the Abbey.
‘I wish you could come at Christmas,’ she wrote, in the autumn of the year of which I am speaking. ‘We shall be very gay, and I expect all kinds of pleasant people at the Abbey. Edward is to be married early in the spring-much to his father’s satisfaction, for the match is a good and appropriate one. His fiancée is to be among our guests. She is a very beautiful girl; perhaps I should say handsome rather than beautiful. Julia Tremaine, one of the Tremaines of Old Court, near Hayswell – a very old family, as I daresay you remember. She has several brothers and sisters, and will have little, perhaps nothing, from her father; but she has a considerable fortune left her by an aunt, and is thought quite an heiress in the county-not, of course, that this latter fact had any influence with Edward. He fell in love with her at an assize ball in his usual impulsive fashion, and proposed to her in something less than a fortnight. It is, I hope and believe, a thorough love-match on both sides.’
After this followed a cordial repetition of the invitation to myself. I was to go straight to the Abbey when I went to England, and was to take up my abode there as long as ever I pleased.
This letter decided me. The wish to look on the dear scenes of my happy childhood had grown almost into a pain. I was free to take a holiday, without detriment to my prospects. So, early in December, regardless of the bleak dreary weather, I turned my face homewards, and made the long journey from St Petersburg to London, under the kind escort of Major Manson, a Queen’s Messenger, who was a friend of my late employer, the Baron Fruydorff, and whose courtesy had been enlisted for me by that gentleman.
I was three-and-thirty years of age. Youth was quite gone; beauty I had never possessed; and I was content to think of myself as a – confirmed old maid, a quiet spectator of life’s great drama, disturbed by no feverish desire for an active part in the play. I had a disposition to which this kind of passive existence is easy. There was no wasting fire in my veins. Simple duties, rare and simple pleasures, filled up my sum of life. The dear ones who had given a special charm and brightness to my existence were gone. Nothing could recall them, and without them actual happiness seemed impossible to me. Everything had a subdued and neutral tint; life at its best was calm and colourless, like a grey sunless day in early autumn, serene but joyless.
The old Abbey was in its glory when I arrived there, at about nine o’clock on a clear starlit night. A light frost whitened the broad sweep of grass that stretched away from the long stone terrace in front of the house to a semicircle of grand old oaks and beeches. From the music-room at the end of the southern wing, to the heavily framed gothic windows of the old rooms on the north, there shone one blaze of light. The scene reminded me of some weird palace in a German legend; and I half expected to see the lights fade out all in a moment, and the long stone facade wrapped in sudden darkness.
The old butler, whom I remembered from my very infancy, and who did not seem to have grown a day older during my twelve years’ exile came out of the dining-room as the footman opened the hall-door for me, and gave me cordial welcome, nay insisted upon helping to bring in my portmanteau with his own hands, an act of unusual condescension, the full force of which was felt by his subordinates.
‘It’s a real treat to see your pleasant face once more, Miss Sarah,’ said this faithful retainer, as he assisted me to take off my travelling-cloak, and took my dressing-bag from my hand. ‘You look a trifle older than when you used to live at the Vicarage twelve year ago, but you’re looking uncommon well for all that; and, Lord love your heart, miss, how pleased they all will be to see you! Missus told me with her own lips about your coming. You’d like to take off your bonnet before you go to the drawing-room, I daresay. The house is full of company. Call Mrs Marjorum, James, will you?’
The footman disappeared into the back regions, and presently reappeared with Mrs Marjorum, a portly dame, who, like Truefold the butler, had been a fixture at the Abbey in the time of the present Squire’s father. From her I received the same cordial greeting, and by her I was led off up staircases and along corridor, till I wondered where I was being taken.
We arrived at last at a very comfortable room – a square, tapestried chamber, with a low ceiling supported by a great oaken beam. The room looked cheery enough, with a bright fire roaring in the wide chimney; but it had a somewhat ancient aspect, which the superstitiously inclined might have associated with possible ghosts.
I was fortunately of a matter-of-fact disposition, utterly sceptical upon the ghost subject; and the old-fashioned appearance of the room took my fancy.
‘We are in King Stephen’s wing, are we not, Mrs Marjorum?’ I asked; ‘this room seems quite strange to me. I doubt if I have ever been in it before.’
‘Very likely not, miss. Yes, this is the old wing. Your window looks out into the old stable-yard, where the kennel used to be in the time of our Squire’s grandfather, when the Abbey was even a finer place than it is now, I’ve heard say. We are so full of company this winter, you see, miss, that we are obliged to make use of all these rooms. You’ll have no need to feel lonesome. There’s Captain and Mrs Cranwick in the next room to this, and the two Miss Newports in the blue room opposite.’
‘My dear good Marjorum, I like my quarters excessively; and I quite enjoy the idea of sleeping in a room that was extant in the time of Stephen, when the Abbey really was an abbey. I daresay some grave old monk has worn these boards with his devout knees.’
The old woman stared dubiously, with the air of a person who had small sympathy with monkish times, and begged to be excused for leaving me, she had so much on her hands just now.
There was coffee to be sent in; and she doubted if the still-room maid would manage matters properly, if she, Mrs Marjorum, were not at hand to see that things were right.
‘You’ve only to ring your bell, miss, and Susan will attend to you. She’s used to help waiting on our young ladies sometimes, and she’s very handy. Missus has given particular orders that she should be always at your service.’
‘Mrs Chrighton is very kind; but I assure you, Marjorum, I don’t require the help of a maid once in a month. I am accustomed to do everything for myself. There, run along, Mrs Marjorum, and see after your coffee; and I’ll be down in the drawing-room in ten minutes. Are there many people there, by the bye?’
‘A good many. There’s Miss Tremaine, and her mamma and younger sister; of course you’ve heard all about the marriage – such a handsome young lady-rather too proud for my liking; but the Tremaines always were a proud family, and this one’s an heiress. Mr Edward is so fond of her – thinks the ground is scarcely good enough for her to walk upon, I do believe; and somehow I can’t help wishing he’d chosen someone else someone who would have thought more of him, and who would not take all his attentions in such a cool off hand way. But of course it isn’t my business to say such things, and I wouldn’t venture upon it to any one but you, Miss Sarah.’
She told me that I would find dinner ready for me in the breakfast-room, and then bustled off, leaving me to my toilet.
This ceremony I performed as rapidly as I could, admiring the perfect comfort of my chamber as I dressed. Every modern appliance had been added to the sombre and ponderous furniture of an age gone by, and the combination produced a very pleasant effect. Perfume-bottles of ruby-coloured Bohemian glass, china brush-trays and ring-stands brightened the massive oak dressing-table; a low luxurious chintz-covered easy-chair of the Victorian era stood before the hearth; a dear little writing-table of polished maple was placed conveniently near it; and in the background the tapestried walls loomed duskily, as they had done hundreds of years before my time.
I had no leisure for dreamy musings on the past, however, provocative though the chamber might be of such thoughts. I arranged my hair in its usual simple fashion, and put on a dark-grey silk dress, trimmed with some fine old black lace that had been given to me by the Baroness – an unobtrusive demi-toilette, adapted to any occasion. I tied a massive gold cross, an ornament that had belonged to my dear mother, round my neck with a scarlet ribbon; and my costume was complete. One glance at the looking-glass convinced me that there was nothing dowdy in my appearance; and then I hurried along the corridor and down the staircase to the hall, where Truefold received me and conducted me to the breakfast-room, in which an excellent dinner awaited me.
I did not waste much time over this repast, although I had eaten nothing all day; for I was anxious to make my way to the drawing-room. Just as I had finished, the door opened, and Mrs Chrighton sailed in, looking superb in a dark-green velvet dress richly trimmed with old point lace. She had been a beauty in her youth, and, as a matron, was still remarkably handsome. She had, above all, a charm of expression which to me was rarer and more delightful than her beauty of feature and complexion.
She put her arms round me, and kissed me affectionately.
‘I have only this moment been told of your arrival, my dear Sarah,’ she said; ‘and I find you have been in the house half an hour. What must you have thought of me!’
‘What can I think of you, except that you are all goodness, my dear Fanny? I did not expect you to leave your guests to receive me, and am really sorry that you have done so. I need no ceremony to convince me of your kindness.’
‘But, my dear child, it is not a question of ceremony. I have been looking forward so anxiously to your coming, and I should not have liked to see you for the first time before all those people. Give me another kiss, that’s a darling. Welcome to Chrighton. Remember, Sarah, this house is always to be your home, whenever you have need of one.
‘My dear kind cousin! And you are not ashamed of me, who have eaten the bread of strangers?’
‘Ashamed of you! No, my love; I admire your industry and spirit. And now come to the drawing-room. The girls will be so pleased to see you.
‘And I to see them. They were quite little things when I went away, romping in the hay-fields in their short white frocks; and now, I suppose, they are handsome young women.’
‘They are very nice-looking; not as handsome as their brother. Edward is really a magnificent young man. I do not think my maternal pride is guilty of any gross exaggeration when I say that.’
‘And Miss Tremaine?’ I said. ‘I am very curious to see her.’
I fancied a faint shadow came over my cousin’s face as I mentioned this name.
‘Miss Tremaine, yes, you cannot fail to admire her,’ she said, rather thoughtfully.
She drew my hand through her arm and led me to the drawing-room: a very large room, with a fireplace at each end, brilliantly lighted tonight, and containing about twenty people, scattered about in little groups, and all seeming to be talking and laughing merrily. Mrs Chrighton took me straight to one of the fireplaces, beside which two girls were sitting on a low sofa, while a young man of something more than six feet high stood near them, with his arm resting on the broad marble slab of the mantelpiece. A glance told me that this young man with the dark eyes and crisp waving brown hair was Edward Chrighton. His likeness to his mother was in itself enough to tell me who he was; but I remembered the boyish face and bright eyes which had so often looked up to mine in the days when the heir of the Abbey was one of the most juvenile scholars at Eton.
The lady seated nearest Edward Chrighton attracted my chief attention; for I felt sure that this lady was Miss Tremaine. She was tall and slim, and carried her head and neck with a stately air, which struck me more than anything in that first glance. Yes, she was handsome, undeniably handsome; and my cousin had been right when she said I could not fail to admire her; but to me the dazzlingly fair face with its perfect features, the marked aquiline nose, the short upper lip expressive of unmitigated pride, the full cold blue eyes, pencilled brows, and aureole of pale golden hair, were the very reverse of sympathetic. That Miss Tremaine must needs be universally admired, it was impossible to doubt; but I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman.
She was dressed in white muslin, and her only ornament was a superb diamond locket, heart-shaped, tied round her long white throat with a broad black ribbon. Her hair, of which she seemed to have a great quantity, was arranged in a massive coronet of plaits, which surmounted the small head as proudly as an imperial crown.
To this young lady Mrs Chrighton introduced me.
‘I have another cousin to present to you, Julia,’ she said smiling ‘Miss Sarah Chrighton, just arrived from St Petersburg.’
‘From St Petersburg? What an awful-journey! How do you do, Miss Chrighton? It was really very courageous of you to come so far. Did you travel alone?’
‘No; I had a companion as far as London, and a very kind one. I came on to the Abbey by myself.’
The young lady had given me her hand with rather a languid air, I thought. I saw the cold blue eyes surveying me curiously from head to foot, and it seemed to me as if I could read the condemnatory summing-up – ‘A frump, and a poor relation’ – in Miss Tremaine’s face.
I had not much time to think about her just now; for Edward Chrighton suddenly seized both my hands, and gave me so hearty and loving a welcome, that he almost brought the tears ‘up from my heart into my eyes’.
Two pretty girls in blue crape came running forward from different pans of the room, and gaily saluted me as ‘Cousin Sarah’; and the three surrounded me in a little cluster, and assailed me with a string of questions – whether I remembered this, and whether I had forgotten that, the battle in the hayfield, the charity-school tea-party in the vicarage orchard, our picnics in Hawsley Combe, our botanical and entomological excursions on Chorwell-common, and all the simple pleasures of their childhood and my. youth. While this catechism was going on, Miss Tremaine watched us with a disdainful expression, which she evidently did not care to hide.
‘I should not have thought you capable of such Arcadian simplicity, Mr Chrighton,’ she said at last. ‘Pray continue your recollections. These juvenile experiences are most interesting.’
‘I don’t expect you to be interested in them, Julia,’ Edward answered, with a tone that sounded rather too bitter for a lover. ‘I know what a contempt you have for trifling rustic pleasures. Were you ever a child yourself, I wonder, by the way? I don’t believe you ever ran after a butterfly in your life.’
Her speech put an end to our talk of the past, somehow. I saw that Edward was vexed, and that all the pleasant memories of his boyhood had fled before that cold scornful face. A young lady in pink, who had been sitting next Julia Tremaine, vacated the sofa, and Edward slipped into her place, and devoted himself for the rest of the evening to his betrothed. I glanced at his bright expressive face now and then as he talked to her, and could not help wondering what charm he could discover in one who seemed to me so unworthy of him.
It was midnight when I went back to my room in the north wing, thoroughly happy in the cordial welcome that had been given me. I rose early next morning – for early rising had long been habitual to me – and, drawing back the damask-curtain that sheltered my window, looked out at the scene below.
I saw a stable-yard, a spacious quadrangle, surrounded by the closed doors of stables and dog-kennels: low massive buildings of grey stone, with the ivy creeping over them here and there, and with an ancient moss-grown look, that gave them a weird kind of interest in my eyes. This range of stabling must have been disused for a long time, I fancied. The stables now in use were a pile of handsome red-brick buildings at the other extremity of the house, to the rear of the music-room, and forming a striking feature in the back view of the Abbey.
I had often heard how the present Squire’s grandfather had kept a pack of hounds, which had been sold immediately after his death; and I knew that my cousin, the present Mr Chrighton, had been more than once requested to follow his ancestor’s good example; for there were no hounds now within twenty miles of the Abbey, though it was a fine country for fox-hunting.
George Chrighton, however – the reigning lord of the Abbey – was not a hunting man. He had, indeed, a secret horror of the sport; for more than one scion of the house had perished untimely in the hunting-field. The family had not been altogether a lucky one, in spite of its wealth and prosperity. It was not often that the goodly heritage had descended to the eldest son. Death in some form or other on too many occasions a violent death had come between the heir and his inheritance. And when I pondered on the dark pages in the story of the house, I used to wonder whether my cousin Fanny was ever troubled by morbid forebodings about her only and fondly loved son.
Was there a ghost at Chrighton-that spectral visitant without which the state and splendour of a grand old house seem scarcely complete? Yes, I had heard vague hints of some shadowy presence that had been seen on rare occasions within the precincts of the Abbey; but I had never been able to ascertain what shape it bore.
Those whom I questioned were prompt to assure me that they had seen nothing. They had heard stories of the past-foolish legends, most likely, not worth listening to. Once, when I had spoken of the subject to my cousin George, he told me angrily never again to let him hear any allusion to that folly from my lips.
That December passed merrily. The old house was full of really pleasant people, and the brief winter days were spent in one unbroken round of amusement and gaiety. To me the old familiar English country-house life was a perpetual delight-to feel myself amongst kindred an unceasing pleasure. I could not have believed myself capable of being so completely happy.
I saw a great deal of my cousin Edward, and I think he contrived to make Miss Tremaine understand that, to please him, she must be gracious to me. She certainly took some pains to make herself agreeable to me; and I discovered that, in spite of that proud disdainful temper, which she so rarely took the trouble to conceal, she was really anxious to gratify her lover.
Their courtship was not altogether a halcyon period. They had frequent quarrels, the details of which Edward’s sisters Sophy and Agnes delighted to discuss with me. It was the struggle of two proud spirits for mastery; but my cousin Edward’s pride was of the nobler kind-the lofty scorn of all things mean – a pride that does not ill – become a generous nature. To me he seemed all that was admirable, and I was never tired of hearing his mother praise him. I think my cousin Fanny knew this, and that she used to confide in me as fully as if I had been her sister.
‘I daresay you can see I am not quite so fond as I should wish to be of Julia Tremaine,’ she said to me one day; ‘but I am very glad that my son is going to marry. My husband’s has not been a fortunate family, you know, Sarah. The eldest sons have been wild and unlucky for generations past; and when Edward was a boy I used to have many a bitter hour, dreading what the future might bring forth. Thank God he has been, and is, all that I can wish. He has never given me an hour’s anxiety by any act of his. Yet I am not the less glad of his marriage. The heirs of Chrighton who have come to an untimely end have all died unmarried. There was Hugh Chrighton, in the reign of George the Second, who was killed in a duel; John, who broke his back in the hunting-field thirty years later; Theodore, shot accidentally by a schoolfellow at Eton; Jasper, whose yacht went down in the Mediterranean forty years ago. An awful list, is it not, Sarah? I shall feel as if my son were safer somehow when he is married. It will seem as if he has escaped the ban that has fallen on so many of our house. He will have greater reason to be careful of his life when he is a married man.’
I agreed with Mrs Chrighton; but could not help wishing that Edward had chosen any other woman than the cold handsome Julia. I could not fancy his future life happy with such a mate.
Christmas came by and by-a real old English Christmas-frost and snow without, warmth and revelry within; skating on the great pond in the park, and sledging on the ice-bound high-roads, by day; private theatricals, charades, and amateur concerts, by night. I was surprised to find that Miss Tremaine refused to take any active part in these evening amusements. She preferred to sit among the elders as a spectator, and had the air and bearing of a princess for whose diversion all our entertainments had been planned. She seemed to think that she fulfilled her mission by sitting still and looking handsome. No desire to show-off appeared to enter her mind. Her intense pride left no room for vanity. Yet I knew that she could have distinguished herself as a musician if she had chosen to do so; for I had heard her sing and play in Mrs Chrighton’s morning-room, when only Edward, his sisters, and myself were present; and I knew that both as a vocalist and a pianist she excelled all our guests.
The two girls and I had many a happy morning and afternoon, going from cottage to cottage in a pony-carriage laden with Mrs Chrighton’s gifts to the poor of her parish. There was no public formal distribution of blanketing and coals, but the wants of all were amply provided for in a quiet friendly way. Agnes and Sophy, aided by an indefatigable maid, the Rector’s daughter, and one or two other young ladies, had been at work for the last three months making smart warm frocks and useful under-garments for the children of the cottagers; so that on Christmas morning every child in the parish was arrayed in a complete set of new garments. Mrs Chrighton had an admirable faculty of knowing precisely what was most wanted in every household; and our pony-carriage used to convey a varied collection of goods, every parcel directed in the firm free hand of the chatelaine of the Abbey.
Edward used sometimes to drive us on these expeditions, and I found that he was eminently popular among the poor of Chrighton parish. He had such an airy pleasant way of talking to them, a manner which set them at their ease at once. He never forgot their names or relationships, or wants or ailments; had a packet of exactly the kind of tobacco each man liked best always ready in his coat-pockets; and was full of jokes, which may not have been particularly witty, but which used to make the small low-roofed chambers ring with hearty laughter.
Miss Tremaine coolly declined any share in these pleasant duties.
‘I don’t like poor people,’ she said. ‘I daresay it sounds very dreadful, but it’s just as well to confess my iniquity at once. I never can get on with them, or they with me. I am not simpatica, I suppose. And then I cannot endure their stifling rooms. The close faint odour of their houses gives me a fever. And again, what is the use of visiting them? It is only an inducement to them to become hypocrites. Surely it is better to arrange on a sheet of paper what it is just and fair for them to have-blankets, and coals, and groceries, and money, and wine, and so on-and let them receive the things from some trustworthy servant. In that case, there need be no cringing on one side, and no endurance on the other.’
‘But, you see, Julia, there are some kinds of people to whom that sort of thing is not a question of endurance,’ Edward answered, his face flushing indignantly. ‘People who like to share in the pleasure they give-who like to see the poor careworn faces lighted up with sudden joy-who like to make these sons of the soil feel that there is some friendly link between themselves and their masters-some point of union between the cottage and the great house. There is my mother, for instance: all these duties which you think so tiresome are to her an unfailing delight. There will be a change, I’m afraid, Julia, when you are mistress of the Abbey.’
‘You have not made me that yet,’ she answered; ‘and there is plenty of time for you to change your mind, if you do not think me suited for the position. I do not pretend to be like your mother. It is better that I should not affect any feminine virtues which I do not possess.’
After this Edward insisted on driving our pony-carriage almost every day, leaving Miss Tremaine to find her own amusement; and I think this conversation was the beginning of an estrangement between them, which became more serious than any of their previous quarrels had been.
Miss Tremaine did not care for sledging, or skating, or billiard playing. She had none of the ‘fast’ tendencies which have become so common lately. She used to sit in one particular bow-window of the drawing-room all the morning, working a screen in berlin-wool and beads, assisted and attended by her younger sister Laura, who was a kind of slave to her-a very colourless young lady in mind, capable of no such thing as an original opinion, and in person a pale replica of her sister.
Had there been less company in the house, the breach between Edward Chrighton and his betrothed must have become notorious; but with a house so full of people, all bent on enjoying themselves, I doubt if it was noticed. On all public occasions my cousin showed himself attentive and apparently devoted to Miss Tremaine. It was only I and his sisters who knew the real state of affairs.
I was surprised, after the young lady’s total repudiation of all benevolent sentiments, when she beckoned me aside one morning, and slipped a little purse of gold-twenty sovereigns-into my hand.
‘I shall be very much obliged if you will distribute that among your cottagers today, Miss Chrighton,’ she said. ‘Of course I should like to give them something; it’s only the trouble of talking to them that I shrink from; and you are just the person for an almoner. Don’t mention my little commission to any one, please.’
‘Of course I may tell Edward,’ I said; for I was anxious that he should know his betrothed was not as hard-hearted as she had appeared.
‘To him least of all,’ she answered eagerly. You know that our ideas vary on that point. He would think I gave the money to please him. Not a word, pray, Miss Chrighton.’ I submitted, and distributed my sovereigns quietly, with the most careful exercise of my judgement.
So Christmas came and passed. It was the day after the great anniversary-a very quiet day for the guests and family at the Abbey, but a grand occasion for the servants, who were to have their annual ball in the evening-a ball to which all the humbler class of tenantry were invited. The frost had broken up suddenly, and it was a thorough wet day-a depressing kind of day for any one whose spirits are liable to be affected by the weather, as mine are. I felt out of spirits for the first time since my arrival at the Abbey.
No one else appeared to feel the same influence. The elder ladies sat in a wide semicircle round one of the fireplaces in the drawing-room; a group of merry girls and dashing young men chatted gaily before the other. From the billiard-room there came the frequent clash of balls, and cheery peals of stentorian laughter. I sat in one of the deep windows, half hidden by the curtains, reading a novel-one of a boxful that came from town every month.
If the picture within was bright and cheerful, the prospect was dreary enough without. The fairy forest of snow-wreathed trees, the white valleys and undulating banks of snow, had vanished, and the rain dripped slowly and sullenly upon a darksome expanse of sodden grass, and a dismal background of leafless timber. The merry sound of the sledge-bells no longer enlivened the air; all was silence and gloom.
Edward Chrighton was not amongst the billiard-players; he was pacing the drawing-room to and fro from end to end, with an air that was at once moody and restless.
‘Thank heaven, the frost has broken up at last!’ he exclaimed, stopping in front of the window where I sat.
He had spoken to himself, quite unaware of my close neighbourhood. Unpromising as his aspect was just then, I ventured to accost him.
‘What bad taste, to prefer such weather as this to frost and snow!’ I answered. ‘The park looked enchanting yesterday-a real scene from fairyland. And only look at it today!’
‘O yes, of course, from an artistic point of view, the snow was better. The place does look something like the great dismal swamp today; but I am thinking of hunting, and that confounded frost made a day’s sport impossible. We are in for a spell of mild weather now, I think.’
‘But you are not going to hunt, are you, Edward?’
‘Indeed I am, my gentle cousin, in spite of that frightened look in your amiable countenance.
‘I thought there were no hounds hereabouts.’
‘Nor are there; but there is as fine a pack as any in the country – the Daleborough hounds-five-and-twenty miles away.’
‘And you are going five-and-twenty miles for the sake of a day’s run?’
‘I would travel forty, fifty, a hundred miles for that same diversion. But I am not going for a single day this time; I am going over to Sir Francis Wycherly’s place-young Frank Wycherly and I were sworn chums at Christchurch-for three or four days. I am due today, but I scarcely cared to travel by cross-country roads in such rain as this. However, if the floodgates of the sky are loosened for a new deluge, I must go tomorrow.’
‘What a headstrong young man!’ I exclaimed. ‘And what will Miss Tremaine say to this desertion?’ I asked in a lower voice.
‘Miss Tremaine can say whatever she pleases. She had it in her power to make me forget the pleasures of the chase, if she had chosen, though we had been in the heart of the shires, and the welkin ringing with the baying of hounds.’
‘O, I begin to understand. This hunting engagement is not of long standing.’
‘No; I began to find myself bored here a few days ago, and wrote to Frank to offer myself for two or three days at Wycherly. I received a most cordial answer by return, and am booked till the end of this week.’
‘You have not forgotten the ball on the first?’
‘O, no; to do that would be to vex my mother, and to offer a slight to our guests. I shall be here for the first, come what may.’
Come what may! so lightly spoken. The time came when I had bitter occasion to remember those words.
‘I’m afraid you will vex your mother by going at all,’ I said. ‘You know what a horror both she and your father have of hunting.’
‘A most un-country-gentleman-like aversion on my father’s part. But he is a dear old book-worm, seldom happy out of his library. Yes, I admit they both have a dislike to hunting in the abstract; but they know I am a pretty good rider, and that it would need a bigger country than I shall find about Wycherly to floor me. You need not feel nervous, my dear Sarah; I am not going to give papa and mamma the smallest ground for uneasiness.’
‘You will take your own horses, I suppose?’
‘That goes without saying. No man who has cattle of his own cares to mount another man’s horses. I shall take Pepperbox and the Druid.’
‘Pepperbox has a queer temper, I have heard your sisters say.’
‘My sisters expect a horse to be a kind of overgrown baa-lamb. Everything splendid in horseflesh and womankind is prone to that slight defect, an ugly temper. There is Miss Tremaine, for instance.’
‘I shall take Miss Tremaine’s part. I believe it is you who are in the wrong in the matter of this estrangement, Edward.’
‘Do you? Well, wrong or right, my cousin, until the fair Julia comes to me with sweet looks and gentle words, we can never be what we have been.’
‘You will return from your hunting expedition in a softer mood,’ I answered; ‘that is to say, if you persist in going. But I hope and believe you will change your mind.’
‘Such a change is not within the limits of possibility, Sarah. I am fixed as Fate.’
He strolled away, humming some gay hunting-song as he went. I was alone with Mrs Chrighton later in the afternoon, and she spoke to me about this intended visit to Wycherly.
‘Edward has set his heart upon it evidently,’ she said regretfully, ‘and his father and I have always made a point of avoiding anything that could seem like domestic tyranny. Our dear boy is such a good son, that it would be very hard if we came between him and his pleasures. You know what a morbid horror my husband has of the dangers of the hunting-field, and perhaps I am almost as weak-minded. But in spite of this we have never interfered with Edward’s enjoyment of a sport which he is passionately fond of and hitherto, thank God! he has escaped without a scratch. Yet I have had many a bitter hour, I can assure you, my dear, when my son has been away in Leicestershire hunting four days a week.’
‘He rides well, I suppose.’
‘Superbly. He has a great reputation among the sportsmen of our neighbourhood. I daresay when he is master of the Abbey he will start a pack of hounds, and revive the old days of his great-grandfather, Meredith Chrighton.’
‘I fancy the hounds were kenneled in the stable-yard below my bedroom window in those days, were they not, Fanny?’
‘Yes,’ Mrs Chrighton answered gravely; and I wondered at the sudden shadow that fell upon her face.
I went up to my room earlier than usual that afternoon, and I had a clear hour to spare before it would be time to dress for the seven o’clock dinner. This leisure hour I intended to devote to letter-writing; but on arriving in my room I found myself in a very idle frame of mind, and instead of opening my desk, I seated myself in the low easy-chair before the fire, and fell into a reverie.
How long I had been sitting there I scarcely know; I had been half meditating, half dozing, mixing broken snatches of thought with brief glimpses of dreaming, when I was startled into wakefulness by a sound that was strange to me.
It was a huntsman’s horn – a few low plaintive notes on a huntsman’s horn – notes which had a strange far-away sound, that was more unearthly than anything my ears had ever heard. I thought of the music in Der Freisckutz; but the weirdest snatch of melody Weber ever wrote had not so ghastly a sound as these few simple notes conveyed to my ear.
I stood transfixed, listening to that awful music. It had grown dusk, my fire was almost out, and the room in shadow. As I listened, a light flashed suddenly on the wall before me. The light was as unearthly as the sound – a light that never shone from earth or sky.
I ran to the window; for this ghastly shimmer flashed through the window upon the opposite wall. The great gates of the stable-yard were open, and men in scarlet coats were riding in, a pack of hounds crowding in before them, obedient to the huntsman’s whip. The whole scene was dimly visible by the declining light of the winter evening and the weird gleams of a lantern carried by one of the men. It was this lantern which had shone upon the tapestried wall. I saw the stable doors opened one after another; gentlemen and grooms alighting from their horses; the dogs driven into their kennel; the helpers hurrying to and fro; and that strange wan lantern-light glimmering here and there is the gathering dusk. But there was no sound of horse’s hoof or of human voices – not one yelp or cry from the hounds. Since those faint far-away sounds of the horn had died out in the distance, the ghastly silence had been unbroken.
I stood at my window quite calmly, and watched while the group of men and animals in the yard below noiselessly dispersed. There was nothing supernatural in the manner of their disappearance. The figures did not vanish or melt into empty air. One by one I saw the horses led into their separate quarters; one by one the redcoats strolled out of the gates, and the grooms departed, some one way, some another. The scene, but for its noiselessness, was natural enough; and had I been a stranger in the house, I might have fancied that those figures were real – those stables in full occupation.
But I knew that stable-yard and all its range of building to have been disused for more than half a century. Could I believe that, without an hour’s warning, the long-deserted quadrangle could be filled – the empty stalls tenanted?
Had some hunting-party from the neighbourhood sought shelter here, glad to escape the pitiless rain? That was not impossible, I thought. I was an utter unbeliever in all ghostly things – ready to credit any possibility rather than suppose that I had been looking upon shadows. And yet the noiselessness, the awful sound of that horn – the strange unearthly gleam of that lantern! Little superstitious as I might be, a cold sweat stood out upon my forehead, and I trembled in every limb.
For some minutes I stood by the window, statue-like, staring blankly into the empty quadrangle. Then I roused myself suddenly, and ran softly downstairs by a back staircase leading to the servants’ quarters, determined to solve the mystery somehow or other. The way to Mrs Marjorum’s room was familiar to me from old experience, and it was thither that I bent my steps, determined to ask the housekeeper the meaning of what I had seen. I had a lurking conviction that it would be well for me not to mention that scene to any member of the family till I had taken counsel with some one who knew the secrets of Chrighton Abbey.
I heard the sound of merry voices and laughter as I passed the kitchen and servants’ hall. Men and maids were all busy in the pleasant labour of decorating their rooms for the evening’s festival. They were puffing the last touches to garlands of holly and laurel, ivy and fir, as I passed the open doors; and in both rooms I saw tables laid for a substantial tea. The housekeeper’s room was in a retired nook at the end of a long passage – a charming old room, panelled with dark oak, and full of capacious cupboards, which in my childhood I had looked upon as storehouses of inexhaustible treasures in the way of preserves and other confectionery. It was a shady old room, with a wide old-fashioned fireplace, cool in summer, when the hearth was adorned with a great jar of roses and lavender; and warm in winter, when the logs burnt merrily all day long.
I opened the door softly, and went in. Mrs Marjorum was dozing in a high-backed arm-chair by the glowing hearth, dressed in her state gown of grey watered silk, and with a cap that was a perfect garden of roses. She opened her eyes as I approached her, and stared at me with a puzzled look for the first moment or so.
‘Why, is that you, Miss Sarah?’ she exclaimed; ‘and looking as pale as a ghost, I can see, even by this firelight! Let me just light a candle, and then I’ll get you some sal volatile. Sit down in my armchair, miss; why, I declare you’re all of a tremble!’
She put me into her easy-chair before I could resist, and lighted the two candles which stood ready upon her table, while I was trying to speak. My lips were dry, and it seemed at first as if my voice was gone.
‘Never mind the sal volatile, Marjorum,’ I said at last. ‘I am not ill; I’ve been startled, that’s all; and I’ve come to ask you for an explanation of the business that frightened me.’
‘What business, Miss Sarah?’
‘You must have heard something of it yourself, surely. Didn’t you hear a horn just now, a huntsman’s horn?’
‘A horn! Lord no, Miss Sarah. What ever could have put such a fancy into your head?’
I saw that Mrs Marjorum’s ruddy cheeks had suddenly lost their colour, that she was now almost as pale as I could have been myself.
‘It was no fancy,’ I said; ‘I heard the sound, and saw the people. A hunting-party has just taken shelter in the north quadrangle. Dogs and horses, and gentlemen and servants.’
‘What were they like, Miss Sarah?’ the housekeeper asked in a strange voice.
‘I can hardly tell you that. I could see that they wore red coats; and I could scarcely see more than that. Yes, I did get a glimpse of one of the gentlemen by the light of the lantern. A tall man, with grey hair and whiskers, and a stoop in his shoulders. I noticed that he wore a short waisted coat with a very high collar – a coat that looked a hundred years old.’
‘The old Squire!’ muttered Mrs Marjorum under her breath; and then turning to me, she said with a cheery resolute air, ‘You’ve been dreaming, Miss Sarah, that’s just what it is. You’ve dropped off in your chair before the fire, and had a dream, that’s it.’
‘No, Marjorum, it was no dream. The horn woke me, and I stood at my window and saw the dogs and huntsmen come in.’
‘Do you know, Miss Sarah, that the gates of the north quadrangle have been locked and barred for the last forty years, and that no one ever goes in there except through the house?’
‘The gates may have been opened this evening to give shelter to strangers,’ I said.
‘Not when the only keys that will open them hang yonder in my cupboard, miss,’ said the housekeeper, pointing to a corner of the room.
‘But I tell you, Marjorum, these people came into the quadrangle; the horses and dogs are in the stables and kennels at this moment. I’ll go and ask Mr Chrighton, or my cousin Fanny, or Edward, all about it, since you won’t tell me the truth.’
I said this with a purpose, and it answered. Mrs Marjorum caught me eagerly by the wrist.
‘No, miss, don’t do that; for pity’s sake don’t do that; don’t breathe a word to missus or master.’
‘But why not?’
‘Because you’ve seen that which always brings misfortune and sorrow to this house, Miss Sarah. You’ve seen the dead.’
‘What do you mean?’ I gasped, awed in spite of myself.
‘I daresay you’ve heard say that there’s been something seen at times at the Abbey – many years apart, thank God; for it never came that trouble didn’t come after it.’
‘Yes,’ I answered hurriedly; ‘but I could never get any one to tell me what it was that haunted this place.’
‘No, miss. Those that know have kept the secret. But you have seen it all tonight. There’s no use in trying to hide it from you any longer. You have seen the old Squire, Meredith Chrighton, whose eldest son was killed by a fall in the hunting-field, brought home dead one December night, an hour after his father and the rest of the party had come safe home to the Abbey. The old gentleman had missed his son in the field, but had thought nothing of that, fancying that master John had had enough of the day’s sport, and had turned his horse’s head homewards. He was found by a labouring-man, poor lad, lying in a ditch with his back broken, and his horse beside him staked. The old Squire never held his head up after that day, and never rode to hounds again, though he was passionately fond of hunting. Dogs and horses were sold, and the north quadrangle ham been empty from that day.’
‘How long is it since this kind of thing has been seen?’
‘A long time, miss. I was a slip of a girl when it last happened. It was in the winter-time – this very night – the night Squire Meredith’s son was killed; and the house was full of company, just as it is now. There was a wild young Oxford gentleman sleeping in your room at that time, and he saw the hunting-party come into the quadrangle; and what did he do but throw his window wide open, and give them the view-hallo as loud as ever he could. He had only arrived the day before, and knew nothing about the neighbourhood; so at dinner he began to ask where were his friends the sportsmen, and to hope he should be allowed to have a run with the Abbey hounds next day. It was in the time of our master’s father; and his lady at the head of the table turned as white as a sheet when she heard this talk. She had good reason, poor soul. Before the week was out her husband was lying dead. He was struck with a fit of apoplexy, and never spoke or knew anyone afterwards.’
‘An awful coincidence,’ I said; ‘but it may have been only a coincidence.’
‘I’ve heard other stories, miss – heard them from those that wouldn’t deceive – all proving the same thing: that the appearance of the old Squire and his pack is a warning of death to this house.’
‘I cannot believe these things,’ I exclaimed; ‘I cannot believe them. Does Mr Edward know anything about this?’
‘No, miss. His father and mother have been most careful that it should be kept from him.’
‘I think he is too strong-minded to be much affected by the fact,’ I said.
‘And you’ll not say anything about what you’ve seen to my master or my mistress, will you, Miss Sarah?’ pleaded the faithful old servant. ‘The knowledge of it would be sure to make them nervous and unhappy. And if evil is to come upon this house, it isn’t in human power to prevent its coming.’
‘God forbid that there is any evil at hand!’ I answered. ‘I am no believer in visions or omens. After all, I would sooner fancy that I was dreaming – dreaming with my eyes open as I stood at the window – than that I beheld the shadows of the dead.’
Mrs Marjorum sighed, and said nothing. I could see that she believed firmly in the phantom hunt.
I went back to my room to dress for dinner. However rationally I might try to think of what I had seen, its effect upon my mind and nerves was not the less powerful. I could think of nothing else; and a strange morbid dread of coming misery weighted me down like an actual burden.
There was a very cheerful party in the drawing-room when I went downstairs, and at dinner the talk and laughter were unceasing – but I could see that my cousin Fanny’s face was a little graver than usual, and I had no doubt she was thinking of her son’s intended visit to Wycherly.
At the thought of this a sudden terror flashed upon me. How if the shadows I had seen that evening were ominous of danger to him – to Edward, the heir and only son of the house? My heart grew cold as I thought of this, and yet in the next moment I despised myself for such weakness.
‘It is natural enough for an old servant to believe in such things,’ I said to myself; ‘but for me – an educated woman of the world – preposterous folly.’
And yet from that moment I began to puzzle myself in the endeavour to devise some means by which Edward’s journey might be prevented. Of my own influence I knew that I was powerless to hinder his departure by so much as an hour; but I fancied that Julia Tremaine could persuade him to any sacrifice of his inclination, if she could only humble her pride so far as to entreat it. I determined to appeal to her in the course of the evening.
We were very merry all that evening. The servants and their guests danced in the great hall, while we sat in the gallery above, and in little groups upon the staircase, watching their diversions. I think this arrangement afforded excellent opportunities for flirtation, and that the younger members of our party made good use of their chances – with one exception: Edward Chrighton and his affianced contrived to keep far away from each other all the evening.
While all was going on noisily in the hall below, I managed to get Miss Tremaine apart from the others in the embrasure of a painted window on the stairs, where there was a wide oaken seat. Seated here side by side, I described to her, under a promise of secrecy, the scene which I had witnessed that afternoon, and my conversation with Mrs Marjorum.
‘But, good gracious me, Miss Chrighton!’ the young lady exclaimed, lifting her pencilled eyebrows with unconcealed disdain, ‘you don’t mean to tell me that you believe in such nonsense – ghosts and omens, and old woman’s folly like that!’
‘I assure you, Miss Tremaine, it is most difficult for me to believe in the supernatural,’ I answered earnestly; ‘but that which I saw this evening was something more than human. The thought of it has made me very unhappy; and I cannot help connecting it somehow with my cousin Edward’s visit to Wycherly. If I had the power to prevent his going, I would do it at any cost; but I have not. You alone have influence enough for that. For heaven’s sake use it! do anything to hinder his hunting with the Daleborough hounds.’
‘You would have me humiliate myself by asking him to forgo his pleasure, and that after his conduct to me during the last week?’
‘I confess that he has done much to offend you. But you love him, Miss Tremaine, though you are too proud to let your love be seen:
I am certain that you do love him. For pity’s sake speak to him; do not let him hazard his life, when a few words from you may prevent the danger.’
‘I don’t believe he would give up this visit to please me,’ she answered; ‘and I shall certainly not put it in his power to humiliate me by a refusal. Besides, all this fear of yours is such utter nonsense. As if nobody had ever hunted before. My brothers hunt four times a week every winter, and not one of them has ever been the worse for it yet.
I did not give up the attempt lightly. I pleaded with this proud obstinate girl for a long time, as long as I could induce her to listen to me; but it was all in vain. She stuck to her text – no one should persuade her to degrade herself by asking a favour of Edward Chrighton. He had chosen to hold himself aloof from her, and she would show him that she could live without him. When she left Chrighton Abbey, they would part as strangers.
So the night closed, and at breakfast next morning I heard that Edward had started for Wycherly soon after daybreak. His absence made, for me at least, a sad blank in our circle. For one other also, I think; for Miss Tremaine’s fair proud face was very pale, though she tried to seem gayer than usual, and exerted herself in quite an unaccustomed manner in her endeavour to be agreeable to everyone.
The days passed slowly for me after my cousin’s departure. There was a weight upon my mind, a vague anxiety, which I struggled in vain to shake off. The house, full as it was of pleasant people, seemed to me to have become dull and dreary now that Edward was gone. The place where he had sat appeared always vacant to my eyes, though another filled it, and there was no gap on either side of the long dinner-table. Lighthearted young men still made the billiard-room resonant with their laughter; merry girls flirted as gaily as ever, undisturbed in the smallest degree by the absence of the heir of the house. Yet for me all was changed. A morbid fancy had taken complete possession of me. I found myself continually brooding over the housekeeper’s words; those words which had told me that the shadows I had seen boded death and sorrow to the house of Chrighton.
My cousins, Sophy and Agnes, were no more concerned about their brother’s welfare than were their guests. They were full of excitement about the New-Year’s ball, which was to be a very grand affair. Every one of importance within fifty miles was to be present, every nook and corner of the Abbey would be filled with visitors coming from a great distance, while others were to be billeted upon the better class of tenantry round about. Altogether the organization of this affair was no small business; and Mrs Chrighton’s mornings were broken by discussions with the housekeeper, messages from the cook, interviews with the head-gardener on the subject of floral decorations, and other details, which all alike demanded the attention of the chatelaine herself. With these duties, and with the claims of her numerous guests, my cousin Fanny’s time was so fully occupied, that she had little leisure to indulge in anxious feelings about her son, whatever secret uneasiness may have been lurking in her maternal heart. As for the master of the Abbey, he spent so much of his time in the library, where, under the pretext of business with his bailiff, he read Greek, that it was not easy for any one to discover what he did feel. Once, and once only, I heard him speak of his son, in a tone that betrayed an intense eagerness for his return.
The girls were to have new dresses from a French milliner in Wigmore Street; and as the great event drew near, bulky packages of millinery were continually arriving, and feminine consultations and expositions of finery were being held all day long in bedrooms and dressing-rooms with closed doors. Thus, with a mind always troubled by the same dark shapeless foreboding, I was perpetually being called upon to give an opinion about pink tulle and lilies of the valley, or maize silk and apple-blossoms.
New-Year’s morning came at last, after an interval of abnormal length, as it seemed to me. It was a bright clear day, an almost spring-like sunshine lighting up the leafless landscape. The great dining-room was noisy with congratulations and good wishes as we assembled for breakfast on this first morning of a new year, after having seen the old one out cheerily the night before; but Edward had not yet returned, and I missed him sadly. Some touch of sympathy drew me to the side of Julia Tremaine on this particular morning. I had watched her very often during the last few days, and I had seen that her cheek grew paler every day. Today her eyes had the dull heavy look that betokens a sleepless night. Yes, I was sure that she was unhappy – that the proud relentless nature suffered bitterly.
‘He must be home today,’ I said to her in a low voice, as she sat in stately silence before an untasted breakfast.
‘Who must?’ she answered, turning towards me with a cold distant look.
‘My cousin Edward. You know he promised to be back in time for the ball.’
‘I know nothing of Mr Chrighton’s intended movements,’ she said in her haughtiest tone; ‘but of course it is only natural that he should be here tonight. He would scarcely care to insult half the county by his absence, however little he may value those now staying in his father’s house.’
‘But you know that there is one here whom he does value better than any one else in the world, Miss Tremaine,’ I answered, anxious to soothe this proud girl.
‘I know nothing of the kind. But why do you speak so solemnly about his return? He will come, of course. There is no reason he should not come.’
She spoke in a rapid manner that was strange to her, and looked at me with a sharp enquiring glance, that touched me somehow, it was so unlike herself – it revealed to me so keen an anxiety.
‘No, there is no reasonable cause for anything like uneasiness,’ I said; ‘but you remember what I told you the other night. That has preyed upon my mind, and it will be an unspeakable relief to me when I see my cousin safe at home.’
‘I am sorry that you should indulge in such weakness, Miss Chrighton.’ That was all she said; but when I saw her in the drawing-room after breakfast, she had established herself in a window tat commanded a view of the long winding drive leading to the front of the Abbey. From this point she could not fail to see anyone approaching the house. She sat there all day; everyone else was more or less busy with arrangements for the evening, or at any rate occupied wit an appearance of business; but Julia Tremaine kept her place by the window, pleading a headache as an excuse for sitting still, with a book in her hand, all day, yet obstinately refusing to go to her room and lie down, when her mother entreated her to do so.
‘You will be fit for nothing tonight, Julia,’ Mrs Tremaine said, almost angrily; ‘you have been looking ill for ever so long, and today you are as pale as a ghost.’
I knew that she was watching for him; and I pitied her with all my heart, as the day wore itself out, and he did not come.
We dined earlier than usual, played a game or two of billiards after dinner, made a tour of inspection trough the bright rooms, lit with wax-candles only, and odorous with exotics; and then came a long interregnum devoted to the arts and mysteries of the toilet; while maids flitted to and fro laden with frilled muslin petticoats from the laundry, and a faint smell of singed hair pervaded the corridors. At ten o’clock the band were tuning their violins, and pretty girls and elegant-looking men were coming slowly down the broad oak staircase, as the roll of fast-coming wheels sounded louder without, and stentorian voices announced the best people in the county.
I have no need to dwell long upon the details of that evening’s festival. It was very much like other balls – a brilliant success, a night of splendour and enchantment for those whose hearts were light and happy, and who could abandon themselves utterly to the pleasure of the moment; a far-away picture of fair faces and bright-hued dresses, a wearisome kaleidoscopic procession of form and colour for those whose minds were weighed down with the burden of a hidden care.
For me the music had no melody, the dazzling scene no charm. Hour after hour went by; supper was over, and the waltzers were enjoying those latest dances which always seem the most delightful, and yet Edward Chrighton had not appeared amongst us.
There had been innumerable enquiries about him, and Mrs Chrighton had apologized for his absence as best she might. Poor soul, I well knew that his non-return was now a source of poignant anxiety to her, although she greeted all her guests with the same gracious smile, and was able to talk gaily and well upon every subject. Once, when she was sitting alone for a few minutes, watching the dancers, I saw the smile fade from her face, and a look of anguish come over it. I ventured to approach her at this moment, and never shall I forget the look which she turned towards me.
‘My son, Sarah!’ she said in a low voice – ‘something has happened to my son!’
I did my best to comfort her; but my own heart was growing heavier and heavier, and my attempt was a very poor one.
Julia Tremaine had danced a little at the beginning of the evening, to keep up appearances, I believe, in order that no one might suppose that she was distressed by her lover’s absence; but after the first two or three dances she pronounced herself tired, and withdrew to a seat amongst the matrons. She was looking very lovely in spite of her extreme pallor, dressed in white tulle, a perfect cloud of airy puffings, and with a wreath of ivy-leaves and diamonds crowning her pale golden hair.
The night waned, the dancers were revolving in the last waltz, when I happened to look towards the doorway at the end of the room. I was startled by seeing a man standing there, with his hat in his hand, not in evening costume; a man with a pale anxious-looking face, peering cautiously into the room. My first thought was of evil; but in the next moment the man had disappeared, and I saw no more of him.
I lingered by my cousin Fanny’s side till the rooms were empty. Even Sophy and Aggy had gone off to their own apartments, their airy dresses sadly dilapidated by a night’s vigorous dancing. There were only Mr and Mrs Chrighton and myself in the long suite of rooms, where the flowers were drooping and the wax-lights dying out one by one in the silver sconces against the walls.
‘I think the evening went off very well,’ Fanny said, looking rather anxiously at her husband, who was stretching himself and yawning with an air of intense relief.
‘Yes, the affair went off well enough. But Edward has committed a terrible breach of manners by not being here. Upon my word, the young men of the present day think of nothing but their own pleasures. I suppose that something especially attractive was going on at Wycherly today, and he couldn’t tear himself away.’
‘It is so unlike him to break his word,’ Mrs Chrighton answered. ‘You are not alarmed, Frederick? You don’t think that anything has happened – any accident?’
‘What should happen? Ned is one of the best riders in the county. I don’t think there’s any fear of his coming to grief.’
‘He might be ill.’
‘Not he. He’s a young Hercules. And if it were possible for him to be ill – which it is not – we should have had a message from Wycherly.’
The words were scarcely spoken when Truefold the old butler stood by his master’s side, with a solemn anxious face.
‘There is a – a person who wishes to see you, sir,’ he said in a low voice, ‘alone.’
Low as the words were, both Fanny and myself heard them.
‘Someone from Wycherly?’ she exclaimed. ‘Let him come here.’
‘But, madam, the person most particularly wished to see master alone. Shall I show him into the library, sir? The lights are not out there.’
‘Then it is someone from Wycherly,’ said my cousin, seizing my wrist with a hand that was icy cold. ‘Didn’t I tell you so, Sarah? Something has happened to my son. Let the person come here, Truefold, here; I insist upon it.’
The tone of command was quite strange in a wife who was always deferential to her husband, in a mistress who was ever gentle to her servants.
‘Let it be so, Truefold,’ said Mr Chrighton. ‘Whatever ill news has come to us we will hear together.’
He put his arm round his wife’s waist. Both were pale as marble, both stood in stony stillness waiting for the blow that was to fall upon them.
The stranger, the man I had seen in the doorway, came in. He was curate of Wycherly church, and chaplain to Sir Francis Wycherly; a grave middle-aged man. He told what he had to tell with all kindness, with all the usual forms of consolation which Christianity and an experience of sorrow could suggest. Vain words, wasted trouble. The blow must fall, and earthly consolation was unable to lighten it by a feather’s weight.
There had been a steeplechase at Wycherly – an amateur affair with gentlemen riders – on that bright New-Year’s-day, and Edward Chrighton had been persuaded to ride his favourite hunter Pepperbox. There would be plenty of time for him to return to Chrighton after the races. He had consented; and his horse was winning easily, when, at the last fence, a double one, with water beyond, Pepperbox baulked his leap, and went over head-foremost, flinging his rider over a hedge into a field close beside the course, where there was a heavy stone roller. Upon this stone roller Edward Chrighton had fallen, his head receiving the full force of the concussion. All was told. It was while the curate was relating the fatal catastrophe that I looked round suddenly, and saw Julia Tremaine standing a little way behind the speaker. She had heard all; she uttered no cry, she showed no signs of fainting, but stood calm and motionless, waiting for the end.
I know not how that night ended: there seemed an awful calm upon us all. A carriage was got ready, and Mr and Mrs Chrighton started for Wycherly to look upon their dead son. He had died while they were carrying him from the course to Sir Francis’s house. I went with Julia Tremaine to her room, and sat with her while the winter morning dawned slowly upon us – a bitter dawning.
I have little more to tell. Life goes on, though hearts are broken. Upon Chrighton Abbey there came a dreary time of desolation. The master of the house lived in his library, shut from the outer world, buried almost as completely as a hermit in his cell. I have heard that Julia Tremaine was never known to smile after that day. She is still unmarried, and lives entirely at her father’s country house; proud and reserved in her conduct to her equals, but a very angel of mercy and compassion amongst the poor of the neighbourhood. Yes; this haughty girl, who once declared herself unable to endure the hovels of the poor, is now a Sister of Charity in all but the robe. So does a great sorrow change the current of a woman’s life.
I have seen my cousin Fanny many times since that awful New-Year’s night; for I have always the same welcome at the Abbey. I have seen her calm and cheerful, doing her duty, smiling upon her daughter’s children, the honoured mistress of a great household; but I know that the mainspring of life is broken, that for her there hath passed a glory from the earth, and that upon all the pleasures and joys of this world she looks with the solemn calm of one for whom all things are dark with the shadow of a great sorrow.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 — 1915)
He was an artist–such things as happened to him happen sometimes to artists.
He was a German–such things as happened to him happen sometimes to Germans.
He was young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical, reckless, unbelieving, heartless.
And being young, handsome and eloquent, he was beloved.
He was an orphan, under the guardianship of his dead father’s brother, his uncle Wilhelm, in whose house he had been brought up from a little child; and she who loved him was his cousin–his cousin Gertrude, whom he swore he loved in return.
Did he love her? Yes, when he first swore it. It soon wore out, this passionate love; how threadbare and wretched a sentiment it became at last in the selfish heart of the student! But in its golden dawn, when he was only nineteen, and had just returned from his apprenticeship to a great painter at Antwerp, and they wandered together in the most romantic outskirts of the city at rosy sunset, by holy moonlight, or bright and joyous morning, how beautiful a dream!
They keep it a secret from Wilhelm, as he has the father’s ambition of a wealthy suitor for his only child–a cold and dreary vision beside the lover’s dream.
So they are betrothed; and standing side by side when the dying sun and the pale rising moon divide the heavens, he puts the betrothal ring upon her finger, the white and taper finger whose slender shape he knows so well. This ring is a peculiar one, a massive golden serpent, its tail in its mouth, the symbol of eternity; it had been his mother’s, and he would know it amongst a thousand. If he were to become blind tomorrow, he could select it from amongst a thousand by the touch alone.
He places it on her finger, and they swear to be true to each other for ever and ever–through trouble and danger–sorrow and change–in wealth or poverty. Her father must needs be won to consent to their union by and by, for they were now betrothed, and death alone could part them.
But the young student, the scoffer at revelation, yet the enthusiastic adorer of the mystical, asks:
“Can death part us? I would return to you from the grave, Gertrude. My soul would come back to be near my love. And you–you, if you died before me–the cold earth would not hold you from me; if you loved me, you would return, and again these fair arms would be clasped round my neck as they are now.”
But she told him, with a holier light in her deep-blue eyes than had ever shone in his–she told him that the dead who die at peace with God are happy in heaven, and cannot return to the troubled earth; and that it is only the suicide–the lost wretch on whom sorrowful angels shut the door of Paradise–whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps of the living.
The first year of their betrothal is passed, and she is alone, for he has gone to Italy, on a commission for some rich man, to copy Raphaels, Titians, Guidos, in a gallery at Florence. He has gone to win fame, perhaps; but it is not the less bitter–he is gone!
Of course her father misses his young nephew, who has been as a son to him; and he thinks his daughter’s sadness no more than a cousin should feel for a cousin’s absence.
In the meantime, the weeks and months pass. The lover writes–often at first, then seldom–at last, not at all.
How many excuses she invents for him! How many times she goes to the distant little post-office, to which he is to address his letters! How many times she hopes, only to be disappointed! How many times she despairs, only to hope again!
But real despair comes at last, and will not be put off any more. The rich suitor appears on the scene, and her father is determined. She is to marry at once. The wedding-day is fixed–the fifteenth of June.
The date seems to burn into her brain.
The date, written in fire, dances for ever before her eyes.
The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds continually in her ears.
But there is time yet–it is the middle of May–there is time for a letter to reach him at Florence; there is time for him to come to Brunswick, to take her away and marry her, in spite of her father–in spite of the whole world.
But the days and the weeks fly by, and he does not write–he does not come. This is indeed despair which usurps her heart, and will not be put away.
It is the fourteenth of June. For the last time she goes to the little post-office; for the last time she asked the old question, and they give her for the last time the dreary answer, “No; no letter.”
For the last time–for tomorrow is the day appointed for the bridal. Her father will hear no entreaties; her rich suitor will not listen to her prayers. They will not be put off a day–an hour; to-night alone is hers–this night, which she may employ as she will.
She takes another path than that which leads home; she hurries through some by-streets of the city, out on to a lonely bridge, where he and she had stood so often in the sunset, watching the rose-coloured light glow, fade, and die upon the river.
He returns from Florence . He had received her letter. That letter, blotted with tears, entreating, despairing–he had received it, but he loved her no longer. A young Florentine, who has which sat to him for a model, had bewitched his fancy–that fancy which with him stood in place of a heart–and Gertrude had been half-forgotten. If she had a rich suitor, good; let her marry him; better for her, better far for himself. He had no wish to fetter himself with a wife. He had not his art always?–his eternal bride, his unchanging mistress.
Thus he thought it wiser to delay his journey to Brunswick, so that he should arrive when the wedding was over–arrive in time to salute the bride.
And the vows–the mystical fancies–the belief in his return, even after death, to the embrace of his beloved? O, gone out of his life; melted away for ever, those foolish dreams of his boyhood.
So on the fifteenth of June he enters Brunswick, by that very bridge on which she stood, the stars looking down on her, the night before. He strolls across the bridge and down by the water’s edge, a great rough dog at his heels, and the smoke from his short meerschaum-pipe curling in blue wreaths fantastically in the pure morning air. He has his sketch-book under his arm, and attracted now and then by some object that catches his artist’s eye, stops to draw: a few weeds and pebbles on the river’s brink–a crag on the opposite shore–a group of pollard willows in the distance. When he has done, he admires his drawing, shuts his sketch-book, empties the ashes from his pipe, refills from his tobacco-pouch, sings the refrain of a gay drinking-song, calls to his dog, smokes again, and walks on. Suddenly he opens his sketch-book again; this time that which attracts him is a group of figures: but what is it?
It is not a funeral, for there are no mourners.
It is not a funeral, but a corpse lying on a rude bier, covered with an old sail, carried between two bearers.
It is not a funeral, for the bearers are fishermen–fishermen in their everyday garb.
About a hundred yards from him they rest their burden on a bank–one stands at the head of the bier, the other throws himself down at the foot of it.
And thus they form the perfect group; he walks back two or three paces, selects his point of sight, and begins to sketch a hurried outline. He has finished it before they move; he hears their voices, though he cannot hear their words, and wonders what they can be talking of. Presently he walks on and joins them.
“You have a corpse there, my friends?” he says.
“Yes; a corpse washed ashore an hour ago.”
“Yes, drowned. A young girl, very handsome.”
“Suicides are always handsome,” says the painter; and then he stands for a little while idly smoking and meditating, looking at the sharp outline of the corpse and the stiff folds of the rough canvas covering.
Life is such a golden holiday for him–young, ambitious, clever–that it seems as though sorrow and death could have no part in his destiny.
At last he says that, as this poor suicide is so handsome, he should like to make a sketch of her.
He gives the fishermen some money, and they offer to remove the sailcloth that covers her features.
No; he will do it himself. He lifts the rough, coarse, wet canvas from her face. What face?
The face that shone on the dreams of his foolish boyhood; the face which once was the light of his uncle’s home. His cousin Gertrude–his betrothed!
He sees, as in one glance, while he draws one breath, the rigid features–the marble arms–the hands crossed on the cold bosom; and, on the third finger of the left hand, the ring which had been his mother’s–the golden serpent; the ring which, if he were to become blind, he could select from a thousand others by the touch alone.
But he is a genius and a metaphysician–grief, true grief, is not for such as he. His first thought is flight–flight anywhere out of that accursed city–anywhere far from the brink of that hideous river–anywhere away from remorse–anywhere to forget.
He is miles on the road that leads away from Brunswick before he knows that he has walked a step.
It is only when his dog lies down panting at his feet that he feels how exhausted he is himself, and sits down upon a bank to rest. How the landscape spins round and round before his dazzled eyes, while his morning’s sketch of the two fishermen and the canvas-covered bier glares redly at him out of the twilight.
At last, after sitting a long time by the roadside, idly playing with his dog, idly smoking, idly lounging, looking as any idle, light-hearted travelling student might look, yet all the while acting over that morning’s scene in his burning brain a hundred times a minute; at last he grows a little more composed, and tries presently to think of himself as he is, apart from his cousin’s suicide. Apart from that, he was no worse off than he was yesterday. His genius was not gone; the money he had earned at Florence still lined his pocket-book; he was his own master, free to go whither he would.
And while he sits on the roadside, trying to separate himself from the scene of that morning–trying to put away the image of the corpse covered with the damp canvas sail–trying to think of what he should do next, where he should go, to be farthest away from Brunswick and remorse, the old diligence coming rumbling and jingling along. He remembers it; it goes from Brunswick to Aix-la-Chapelle.
He whistles to the dog, shouts to the postillion to stop, and springs into the coupé.
During the whole evening, through the long night, though he does not once close his eyes, he never speaks a word; but when morning dawns, and the other passengers awake and begin to talk to each other, he joins in the conversation. He tells them that he is an artist, that he is going to Cologne and to Antwerp to copy Rubenses, and the great picture by Quentin Matsys, in the museum. He remembered afterwards that he talked and laughed boisterously, and that when he was talking and laughing loudest, a passenger, older and graver than the rest, opened the window near him, and told him to put his head out. He remembered the fresh air blowing in his face, the singing of the birds in his ears, and the flat fields and roadside reeling before his eyes. He remembered this, and then falling in a lifeless heap on the floor of the diligence.
It is a fever that keeps him for six long weeks on a bed at a hotel in Aix-la-Chapelle.
He gets well, and, accompanied by his dog, starts on foot for Cologne. By this time he is his former self once more. Again the blue smoke from his short meerschaum curls upwards in the morning air–again he sings some old university drinking song–again stops here and there, meditating and sketching.
He is happy, and has forgotten his cousin–and so on to Cologne.
It is by the great cathedral he is standing, with his dog at his side. It is night, the bells have just chimed the hour, and the clocks are striking eleven; the moonlight shines full upon the magnificent pile, over which the artist’s eye wanders, absorbed in the beauty of form.
He is not thinking of his drowned cousin, for he has forgotten her and is happy.
Suddenly someone, something from behind him, puts two cold arms round his neck, and clasps its hands on his breast.
And yet there is no one behind him, for on the flags bathed in the broad moonlight there are only two shadows, his own and his dog’s. He turns quickly round–there is no one–nothing to be seen in the broad square but himself and his dog; and though he feels, he cannot see the cold arms clasped round his neck.
It is not ghostly, this embrace, for it is palpable to the touch–it cannot be real, for it is invisible.
He tries to throw off the cold caress. He clasps the hands in his own to tear them asunder, and to cast them off his neck. He can feel the long delicate fingers cold and wet beneath his touch, and on the third finger of the left hand he can feel the ring which was his mother’s–the golden serpent–the ring which he has always said he would know among a thousand by the touch alone. He knows it now!
His dead cousin’s cold arms are round his neck–his dead cousin’s wet hands are clasped upon his breast. He asks himself if he is mad. “Up, Leo!” he shouts. “Up, up, boy!” and the Newfoundland leaps to his shoulders–the dog’s paws are on the dead hands, and the animal utters a terrific howl, and springs away from his master.
The student stands in the moonlight, the dead arms around his neck, and the dog at a little distance moaning piteously.
Presently a watchman, alarmed by the howling of the dog, comes into the square to see what is wrong.
In a breath the cold arms are gone.
He takes the watchman home to the hotel with him and gives him money; in his gratitude he could have given the man half his little fortune.
Will it ever come to him again, this embrace of the dead?
He tries never to be alone; he makes a hundred acquaintances, and shares the chamber of another student. He starts up if he is left by himself in the public room of the inn where he is staying, and runs into the street. People notice his strange actions, and begin to think that he is mad.
But, in spite of all, he is alone once more; for one night the public room being empty for a moment, when on some idle pretence he strolls into the street, the street is empty too, and for the second time he feels the cold arms round his neck, and for the second time, when he calls his dog, the animal shrinks away from him with a piteous howl.
After this he leaves Cologne, still travelling on foot–of necessity now, for his money is getting low. He joins travelling hawkers, he walks side by side with labourers, he talks to every foot-passenger he falls in with, and tries from morning till night to get company on the road.
At night he sleeps by the fire in the kitchen of the inn at which he stops; but do what he will, he is often alone, and it is now a common thing for him to feel the cold arms around his neck.
Many months have passed since his cousin’s death–autumn, winter, early spring. His money is nearly gone, his health is utterly broken, he is the shadow of his former self, and he is getting near to Paris. He will reach that city at the time of the Carnival. To this he looks forward. In Paris, in Carnival time, he need never, surely, be alone, never feel that deadly caress; he may even recover his lost gaiety, his lost health, once more resume his profession, once more earn fame and money by his art.
How hard he tries to get over the distance that divides him from Paris, while day by day he grows weaker, and his step slower and more heavy!
But there is an end at last; the long dreary roads are passed. This is Paris, which he enters for the first time–Paris, of which he has dreamed so much–Paris, whose million voices are to exorcise his phantom.
To him tonight Paris seems one vast chaos of lights, music, and confusion–lights which dance before his eyes and will not be still–music that rings in his ears and deafens him–confusion which makes his head whirl round and round.
But, in spite of all, he finds the opera-house, where there is a masked ball. He has enough money left to buy a ticket of admission, and to hire a domino to throw over his shabby dress. It seems only a moment after his entering the gates of Paris that he is in the very midst of all the wild gaiety of the opera-house ball.
No more darkness, no more loneliness, but a mad crowd, shouting and dancing, and a lovely Débardeuse hanging on his arm.
The boisterous gaiety he feels surely is his old light-heartedness come back. He hears the people round him talking of the outrageous conduct of some drunken student, and it is to him they point when they say this–to him, who has not moistened his lips since yesterday at noon, for even now he will not drink; though his lips are parched, and his throat burning, he cannot drink. His voice is thick and hoarse, and his utterance indistinct; but still this must be his old light-heartedness come back that makes him so wildly gay.
The little Débardeuse is wearied out–her arm rests on his shoulder heavier than lead–the other dancers one by one drop off.
The lights in the chandeliers one by one die out.
The decorations look pale and shadowy in that dim light which is neither night nor day.
A faint glimmer from the dying lamps, a pale streak of cold grey light from the new-born day, creeping in through half-opened shutters.
And by this light the bright-eyed Débardeuse fades sadly. He looks her in the face. How the brightness of her eyes dies out! Again he looks her in the face. How white that face has grown! Again–and now it is the shadow of a face alone that looks in his.
Again–and they are gone–the bright eyes, the face, the shadow of the face. He is alone; alone in that vast saloon.
Alone, and, in the terrible silence, he hears the echoes of his own footsteps in that dismal dance which has no music.
No music but the beating of his breast. The the cold arms are round his neck–they whirl him round, they will not be flung off, or cast away; he can no more escape from their icy grasp than he can escape from death. He looks behind him–there is nothing but himself in the great empty salle; but he can feel–cold, deathlike, but O, how palpable!–the long slender fingers, and the ring which was his mother’s.
He tries to shout, but he has no power in his burning throat. The silence of the place is only broken by the echoes of his own footsteps in the dance from which he cannot extricate himself. Who says he has no partner? The cold hands are clasped on his breast, and now he does not shun their caress. No! One more polka, if he drops down dead.
The lights are all out, and, half an hour after, the gendarmes come in with a lantern to see that the house is empty; they are followed by a great dog that they have found seated howling on the steps of the theatre. Near the principal entrance they stumble over–
The body of a student, who has died from want of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood-vessel.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 — 1915)