Em fevereiro de 2019 comecei a trabalhar em algumas traduções de contos de terror de escritoras do século XIX. Minha intenção era lançar uma coletânea de 10 contos góticos com uma bela capa e uma apresentação de cada uma das autoras. Uma homenagem, um resgate dessas histórias e quem sabe ganhar um troco, visto que estão todos em domínio público.
Como sou um preguiçoso, esse projeto está parado há meses. Meio que me desanimei ao ver gente mais capaz lançando projetos semelhantes recentemente. Ao mesmo tempo, de repente me senti idiota porque talvez não caia bem que tais contos sejam traduzidos por um homem, um tradutor de fim de semana, para uma editora de fim semana como é a minha.
Entre jogar fora o que foi feito ou publicar os rascunhos no meu humilde blog, fico com a segunda opção. Então aí vai.
Eu sei, deveria terminar o que comecei. Abandonando as coisas no meio nunca serei um bom tradutor, nem vou ganhar meus trocos etc, mas a conjuntura atual tem me jogado pra baixo que só. Estou paralisado, prendendo a respiração faz um tempo. Todos estamos, né?
Além disso, vai que também pego essa doença e de uma hora pra outra nem tem mais Roberto? Melhor jogar pra galera o que tenho de pronto, compartilhar enquanto estou por aqui.
Algumas traduções estão terminadas, mas faltam alguns arredondamentos, além de uma formatação dos diálogos de acordo com o praticado na nossa língua, então perdoe qualquer erro ou coisa muito feia. Os contos originais são muito bons.
Estão em ordem de autora, com os textos originais seguidos pelas minhas traduções "prontas".
- The phantom coach - Amelia B. Edwards (O coche fantasma)
- The open door - Charlotte Riddell
- Man-size in marble - Edith Nesbit (No tamanho de homem em mármore)
- Bewitched - Edith Wharton
- The vengeance of a tree - Eleanor F. Lewis (Uma árvore vingativa)
- The old nurse's story - Elizabeth Gaskell
- A curious experience - Ellen Wood
- The Lost Ghost - Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (O fantasma perdido)
- At Chrighton Abbey - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
- A haunted house - Virginia Woolf (Uma casa assombrada)
The phantom coach
Amelia B. Edwards
The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them. They happened to myself, and my recollection of them is as vivid as if they had taken place only yesterday. Twenty years, however, have gone by since that night. During those twenty years I have told the story to but one other person. I tell it now with a reluctance which I find it difficult to overcome. All I entreat, meanwhile, is that you will abstain from forcing your own conclusions upon me. I want nothing explained away. I desire no arguments. My mind on this subject is quite made up, and, having the testimony of my own senses to rely upon, I prefer to abide by it.
Well! It was just twenty years ago, and within a day or two of the end of the grouse season. I had been out all day with my gun, and had had no sport to speak of. The wind was due east; the month, December; the place, a bleak wide moor in the far north of England. And I had lost my way. It was not a pleasant place in which to lose one’s way, with the first feathery flakes of a coming snowstorm just fluttering down upon the heather, and the leaden evening closing in all around. I shaded my eyes with my hand, and stared anxiously into the gathering darkness, where the purple moorland melted into a range of low hills, some ten or twelve miles distant. Not the faintest smoke-wreath, not the tiniest cultivated patch, or fence, or sheep-track, met my eyes in any direction. There was nothing for it but to walk on, and take my chance of finding what shelter I could, by the way. So I shouldered my gun again, and pushed wearily forward; for I had been on foot since an hour after daybreak, and had eaten nothing since breakfast.
Meanwhile, the snow began to come down with ominous steadiness, and the wind fell. After this, the cold became more intense, and the night came rapidly up. As for me, my prospects darkened with the darkening sky, and my heart grew heavy as I thought how my young wife was already watching for me through the window of our little inn parlour, and thought of all the suffering in store for her throughout this weary night. We had been married four months, and, having spent our autumn in the Highlands, were now lodging in a remote little village situated just on the verge of the great English moorlands. We were very much in love, and, of course, very happy. This morning, when we parted, she had implored me to return before dusk, and I had promised her that I would. What would I not have given to have kept my word!
Even now, weary as I was, I felt that with a supper, an hour’s rest, and a guide, I might still get back to her before midnight, if only guide and shelter could be found.
And all this time, the snow fell and the night thickened. I stopped and shouted every now and then, but my shouts seemed only to make the silence deeper. Then a vague sense of uneasiness came upon me, and I began to remember stories of travellers who had walked on and on in the falling snow until, wearied out, they were fain to lie down and sleep their lives away. Would it be possible, I asked myself, to keep on thus through all the long dark night? Would there not come a time when my limbs must fail, and my resolution give way? When I, too, must sleep the sleep of death. Death! I shuddered. How hard to die just now, when life lay all so bright before me! How hard for my darling, whose whole loving heart but that thought was not to be borne! To banish it, I shouted again, louder and longer, and then listened eagerly. Was my shout answered, or did I only fancy that I heard a far-off cry? I halloed again, and again the echo followed. Then a wavering speck of light came suddenly out of the dark, shifting, disappearing, growing momentarily nearer and brighter. Running towards it at full speed, I found myself, to my great joy, face to face with an old man and a lantern.
“Thank God!” was the exclamation that burst involuntarily from my lips.
Blinking and frowning, he lifted his lantern and peered into my face.
“What for?” growled he, sulkily.
“Well—for you. I began to fear I should be lost in the snow.”
“Eh, then, folks do get cast away hereabouts fra’ time to time, an’ what’s to hinder you from bein’ cast away likewise, if the Lord’s so minded?”
“If the Lord is so minded that you and I shall be lost together, friend, we must submit,” I replied; “but I don’t mean to be lost without you. How far am I now from Dwolding?”
“A gude twenty mile, more or less.”
“And the nearest village?”
“The nearest village is Wyke, an’ that’s twelve mile t’other side.”
“Where do you live, then?”
“Out yonder,” said he, with a vague jerk of the lantern.
“You’re going home, I presume?”
“Maybe I am.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
The old man shook his head, and rubbed his nose reflectively with the handle of the lantern.
“It ain’t o’ no use,” growled he. “He ‘ont let you in—not he.”
“We’ll see about that,” I replied, briskly. “Who is He?”
“Who is the master?”
“That’s nowt to you,” was the unceremonious reply.
“Well, well; you lead the way, and I’ll engage that the master shall give me shelter and a supper to-night.”
“Eh, you can try him!” muttered my reluctant guide; and, still shaking his head, he hobbled, gnome-like, away through the falling snow. A large mass loomed up presently out of the darkness, and a huge dog rushed out, barking furiously.
“Is this the house?” I asked.
“Ay, it’s the house. Down, Bey!” And he fumbled in his pocket for the key.
I drew up close behind him, prepared to lose no chance of entrance, and saw in the little circle of light shed by the lantern that the door was heavily studded with iron nails, like the door of a prison. In another minute he had turned the key and I had pushed past him into the house.
Once inside, I looked round with curiosity, and found myself in a great raftered hall, which served, apparently, a variety of uses. One end was piled to the roof with corn, like a barn. The other was stored with flour-sacks, agricultural implements, casks, and all kinds of miscellaneous lumber; while from the beams overhead hung rows of hams, flitches, and bunches of dried herbs for winter use. In the centre of the floor stood some huge object gauntly dressed in a dingy wrapping-cloth, and reaching half way to the rafters. Lifting a corner of this cloth, I saw, to my surprise, a telescope of very considerable size, mounted on a rude movable platform, with four small wheels. The tube was made of painted wood, bound round with bands of metal rudely fashioned; the speculum, so far as I could estimate its size in the dim light, measured at least fifteen inches in diameter. While I was yet examining the instrument, and asking myself whether it was not the work of some self-taught optician, a bell rang sharply.
“That’s for you,” said my guide, with a malicious grin. “Yonder’s his room.”
He pointed to a low black door at the opposite side of the hall. I crossed over, rapped somewhat loudly, and went in, without waiting for an invitation. A huge, white-haired old man rose from a table covered with books and papers, and confronted me sternly.
“Who are you?” said he. “How came you here? What do you want?”
“James Murray, barrister-at-law. On foot across the moor. Meat, drink, and sleep.”
He bent his bushy brows into a portentous frown.
“Mine is not a house of entertainment,” he said, haughtily. “Jacob, how dared you admit this stranger?”
“I didn’t admit him,” grumbled the old man. “He followed me over the muir, and shouldered his way in before me. I’m no match for six foot two.”
“And pray, sir, by what right have you forced an entrance into my house?”
“The same by which I should have clung to your boat, if I were drowning. The right of self-preservation.”
“There’s an inch of snow on the ground already,” I replied, briefly; “and it would be deep enough to cover my body before daybreak.”
He strode to the window, pulled aside a heavy black curtain, and looked out.
“It is true,” he said. “You can stay, if you choose, till morning. Jacob, serve the supper.”
With this he waved me to a seat, resumed his own, and became at once absorbed in the studies from which I had disturbed him.
I placed my gun in a corner, drew a chair to the hearth, and examined my quarters at leisure. Smaller and less incongruous in its arrangements than the hall, this room contained, nevertheless, much to awaken my curiosity. The floor was carpetless. The whitewashed walls were in parts scrawled over with strange diagrams, and in others covered with shelves crowded with philosophical instruments, the uses of many of which were unknown to me. On one side of the fireplace, stood a bookcase filled with dingy folios; on the other, a small organ, fantastically decorated with painted carvings of mediæval saints and devils. Through the half-opened door of a cupboard at the further end of the room, I saw a long array of geological specimens, surgical preparations, crucibles, retorts, and jars of chemicals; while on the mantelshelf beside me, amid a number of small objects, stood a model of the solar system, a small galvanic battery, and a microscope. Every chair had its burden. Every corner was heaped high with books. The very floor was littered over with maps, casts, papers, tracings, and learned lumber of all conceivable kinds.
I stared about me with an amazement increased by every fresh object upon which my eyes chanced to rest. So strange a room I had never seen; yet seemed it stranger still, to find such a room in a lone farmhouse amid those wild and solitary moors! Over and over again, I looked from my host to his surroundings, and from his surroundings back to my host, asking myself who and what he could be? His head was singularly fine; but it was more the head of a poet than of a philosopher. Broad in the temples, prominent over the eyes, and clothed with a rough profusion of perfectly white hair, it had all the ideality and much of the ruggedness that characterises the head of Louis von Beethoven. There were the same deep lines about the mouth, and the same stern furrows in the brow. There was the same concentration of expression. While I was yet observing him, the door opened, and Jacob brought in the supper. His master then closed his book, rose, and with more courtesy of manner than he had yet shown, invited me to the table.
A dish of ham and eggs, a loaf of brown bread, and a bottle of admirable sherry, were placed before me.
“I have but the homeliest farmhouse fare to offer you, sir,” said my entertainer. “Your appetite, I trust, will make up for the deficiencies of our larder.”
I had already fallen upon the viands, and now protested, with the enthusiasm of a starving sportsman, that I had never eaten anything so delicious.
He bowed stiffly, and sat down to his own supper, which consisted, primitively, of a jug of milk and a basin of porridge. We ate in silence, and, when we had done, Jacob removed the tray. I then drew my chair back to the fireside. My host, somewhat to my surprise, did the same, and turning abruptly towards me, said:
“Sir, I have lived here in strict retirement for three-and-twenty years. During that time, I have not seen as many strange faces, and I have not read a single newspaper. You are the first stranger who has crossed my threshold for more than four years. Will you favour me with a few words of information respecting that outer world from which I have parted company so long?”
“Pray interrogate me,” I replied. “I am heartily at your service.”
He bent his head in acknowledgment; leaned forward, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin supported in the palms of his hands; stared fixedly into the fire; and proceeded to question me.
His inquiries related chiefly to scientific matters, with the later progress of which, as applied to the practical purposes of life, he was almost wholly unacquainted. No student of science myself, I replied as well as my slight information permitted; but the task was far from easy, and I was much relieved when, passing from interrogation to discussion, he began pouring forth his own conclusions upon the facts which I had been attempting to place before him. He talked, and I listened spellbound. He talked till I believe he almost forgot my presence, and only thought aloud. I had never heard anything like it then; I have never heard anything like it since. Familiar with all systems of all philosophies, subtle in analysis, bold in generalisation, he poured forth his thoughts in an uninterrupted stream, and, still leaning forward in the same moody attitude with his eyes fixed upon the fire, wandered from topic to topic, from speculation to speculation, like an inspired dreamer. From practical science to mental philosophy; from electricity in the wire to electricity in the nerve; from Watts to Mesmer, from Mesmer to Reichenbach, from Reichenbach to Swedenborg, Spinoza, Condillac, Descartes, Berkeley, Aristotle, Plato, and the Magi and mystics of the East, were transitions which, however bewildering in their variety and scope, seemed easy and harmonious upon his lips as sequences in music. By-and-by—I forget now by what link of conjecture or illustration—he passed on to that field which lies beyond the boundary line of even conjectural philosophy, and reaches no man knows whither. He spoke of the soul and its aspirations; of the spirit and its powers; of second sight; of prophecy; of those phenomena which, under the names of ghosts, spectres, and supernatural appearances, have been denied by the sceptics and attested by the credulous, of all ages.
“The world,” he said, “grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. They condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly? Show me any fact in physics, in history, in archæology, which is supported by testimony so wide and so various. Attested by all races of men, in all ages, and in all climates, by the soberest sages of antiquity, by the rudest savage of to-day, by the Christian, the Pagan, the Pantheist, the Materialist, this phenomenon is treated as a nursery tale by the philosophers of our century. Circumstantial evidence weighs with them as a feather in the balance. The comparison of causes with effects, however valuable in physical science, is put aside as worthless and unreliable. The evidence of competent witnesses, however conclusive in a court of justice, counts for nothing. He who pauses before he pronounces, is condemned as a trifler. He who believes, is a dreamer or a fool.”
He spoke with bitterness, and, having said thus, relapsed for some minutes into silence. Presently he raised his head from his hands, and added, with an altered voice and manner, “I, sir, paused, investigated, believed, and was not ashamed to state my convictions to the world. I, too, was branded as a visionary, held up to ridicule by my contemporaries, and hooted from that field of science in which I had laboured with honour during all the best years of my life. These things happened just three-and-twenty years ago. Since then, I have lived as you see me living now, and the world has forgotten me, as I have forgotten the world. You have my history.”
“It is a very sad one,” I murmured, scarcely knowing what to answer.
“It is a very common one,” he replied. “I have only suffered for the truth, as many a better and wiser man has suffered before me.”
He rose, as if desirous of ending the conversation, and went over to the window.
“It has ceased snowing,” he observed, as he dropped the curtain, and came back to the fireside.
“Ceased!” I exclaimed, starting eagerly to my feet. “Oh, if it were only possible—but no! it is hopeless. Even if I could find my way across the moor, I could not walk twenty miles to-night.”
“Walk twenty miles to-night!” repeated my host. “What are you thinking of?”
“Of my wife,” I replied, impatiently. “Of my young wife, who does not know that I have lost my way, and who is at this moment breaking her heart with suspense and terror.”
“Where is she?”
“At Dwolding, twenty miles away.”
“At Dwolding,” he echoed, thoughtfully. “Yes, the distance, it is true, is twenty miles; but—are you so very anxious to save the next six or eight hours?”
“So very, very anxious, that I would give ten guineas at this moment for a guide and a horse.”
“Your wish can be gratified at a less costly rate,” said he, smiling. “The night mail from the north, which changes horses at Dwolding, passes within five miles of this spot, and will be due at a certain cross-road in about an hour and a quarter. If Jacob were to go with you across the moor, and put you into the old coach-road, you could find your way, I suppose, to where it joins the new one?”
He smiled again, rang the bell, gave the old servant his directions, and, taking a bottle of whisky and a wineglass from the cupboard in which he kept his chemicals, said:
“The snow lies deep, and it will be difficult walking to-night on the moor. A glass of usquebaugh before you start?”
I would have declined the spirit, but he pressed it on me, and I drank it. It went down my throat like liquid flame, and almost took my breath away.
“It is strong,” he said; “but it will help to keep out the cold. And now you have no moments to spare. Good night!”
I thanked him for his hospitality, and would have shaken hands, but that he had turned away before I could finish my sentence. In another minute I had traversed the hall, Jacob had locked the outer door behind me, and we were out on the wide white moor.
Although the wind had fallen, it was still bitterly cold. Not a star glimmered in the black vault overhead. Not a sound, save the rapid crunching of the snow beneath our feet, disturbed the heavy stillness of the night. Jacob, not too well pleased with his mission, shambled on before in sullen silence, his lantern in his hand, and his shadow at his feet. I followed, with my gun over my shoulder, as little inclined for conversation as himself. My thoughts were full of my late host. His voice yet rang in my ears. His eloquence yet held my imagination captive. I remember to this day, with surprise, how my over-excited brain retained whole sentences and parts of sentences, troops of brilliant images, and fragments of splendid reasoning, in the very words in which he had uttered them. Musing thus over what I had heard, and striving to recall a lost link here and there, I strode on at the heels of my guide, absorbed and unobservant. Presently—at the end, as it seemed to me, of only a few minutes—he came to a sudden halt, and said:
“Yon’s your road. Keep the stone fence to your right hand, and you can’t fail of the way.”
“This, then, is the old coach-road?”
“Ay, ’tis the old coach-road.”
“And how far do I go, before I reach the cross-roads?”
“Nigh upon three mile.”
I pulled out my purse, and he became more communicative.
“The road’s a fair road enough,” said he, “for foot passengers; but ’twas over steep and narrow for the northern traffic. You’ll mind where the parapet’s broken away, close again the sign-post. It’s never been mended since the accident.”
“Eh, the night mail pitched right over into the valley below—a gude fifty feet an’ more—just at the worst bit o’ road in the whole county.”
“Horrible! Were many lives lost?”
“All. Four were found dead, and t’other two died next morning.”
“How long is it since this happened?”
“Just nine year.”
“Near the sign-post, you say? I will bear it in mind. Good night.”
“Gude night, sir, and thankee.” Jacob pocketed his half-crown, made a faint pretence of touching his hat, and trudged back by the way he had come.
I watched the light of his lantern till it quite disappeared, and then turned to pursue my way alone. This was no longer matter of the slightest difficulty, for, despite the dead darkness overhead, the line of stone fence showed distinctly enough against the pale gleam of the snow. How silent it seemed now, with only my footsteps to listen to; how silent and how solitary! A strange disagreeable sense of loneliness stole over me. I walked faster. I hummed a fragment of a tune. I cast up enormous sums in my head, and accumulated them at compound interest. I did my best, in short, to forget the startling speculations to which I had but just been listening, and, to some extent, I succeeded.
Meanwhile the night air seemed to become colder and colder, and though I walked fast I found it impossible to keep myself warm. My feet were like ice. I lost sensation in my hands, and grasped my gun mechanically. I even breathed with difficulty, as though, instead of traversing a quiet north country highway, I were scaling the uppermost heights of some gigantic Alp. This last symptom became presently so distressing, that I was forced to stop for a few minutes, and lean against the stone fence. As I did so, I chanced to look back up the road, and there, to my infinite relief, I saw a distant point of light, like the gleam of an approaching lantern. I at first concluded that Jacob had retraced his steps and followed me; but even as the conjecture presented itself, a second light flashed into sight—a light evidently parallel with the first, and approaching at the same rate of motion. It needed no second thought to show me that these must be the carriage-lamps of some private vehicle, though it seemed strange that any private vehicle should take a road professedly disused and dangerous.
There could be no doubt, however, of the fact, for the lamps grew larger and brighter every moment, and I even fancied I could already see the dark outline of the carriage between them. It was coming up very fast, and quite noiselessly, the snow being nearly a foot deep under the wheels.
And now the body of the vehicle became distinctly visible behind the lamps. It looked strangely lofty. A sudden suspicion flashed upon me. Was it possible that I had passed the cross-roads in the dark without observing the sign-post, and could this be the very coach which I had come to meet?
No need to ask myself that question a second time, for here it came round the bend of the road, guard and driver, one outside passenger, and four steaming greys, all wrapped in a soft haze of light, through which the lamps blazed out, like a pair of fiery meteors.
I jumped forward, waved my hat, and shouted. The mail came down at full speed, and passed me. For a moment I feared that I had not been seen or heard, but it was only for a moment. The coachman pulled up; the guard, muffled to the eyes in capes and comforters, and apparently sound asleep in the rumble, neither answered my hail nor made the slightest effort to dismount; the outside passenger did not even turn his head. I opened the door for myself, and looked in. There were but three travellers inside, so I stepped in, shut the door, slipped into the vacant corner, and congratulated myself on my good fortune.
The atmosphere of the coach seemed, if possible, colder than that of the outer air, and was pervaded by a singularly damp and disagreeable smell. I looked round at my fellow-passengers. They were all three, men, and all silent. They did not seem to be asleep, but each leaned back in his corner of the vehicle, as if absorbed in his own reflections. I attempted to open a conversation.
“How intensely cold it is to-night,” I said, addressing my opposite neighbour.
He lifted his head, looked at me, but made no reply.
“The winter,” I added, “seems to have begun in earnest.”
Although the corner in which he sat was so dim that I could distinguish none of his features very clearly, I saw that his eyes were still turned full upon me. And yet he answered never a word.
At any other time I should have felt, and perhaps expressed, some annoyance, but at the moment I felt too ill to do either. The icy coldness of the night air had struck a chill to my very marrow, and the strange smell inside the coach was affecting me with an intolerable nausea. I shivered from head to foot, and, turning to my left-hand neighbour, asked if he had any objection to an open window?
He neither spoke nor stirred.
I repeated the question somewhat more loudly, but with the same result. Then I lost patience, and let the sash down. As I did so, the leather strap broke in my hand, and I observed that the glass was covered with a thick coat of mildew, the accumulation, apparently, of years. My attention being thus drawn to the condition of the coach, I examined it more narrowly, and saw by the uncertain light of the outer lamps that it was in the last stage of dilapidation. Every part of it was not only out of repair, but in a condition of decay. The sashes splintered at a touch. The leather fittings were crusted over with mould, and literally rotting from the woodwork. The floor was almost breaking away beneath my feet. The whole machine, in short, was foul with damp, and had evidently been dragged from some outhouse in which it had been mouldering away for years, to do another day or two of duty on the road.
I turned to the third passenger, whom I had not yet addressed, and hazarded one more remark.
“This coach,” I said, “is in a deplorable condition. The regular mail, I suppose, is under repair?”
He moved his head slowly, and looked me in the face, without speaking a word. I shall never forget that look while I live. I turned cold at heart under it. I turn cold at heart even now when I recall it. His eyes glowed with a fiery unnatural lustre. His face was livid as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth between.
The words that I was about to utter died upon my lips, and a strange horror—a dreadful horror—came upon me. My sight had by this time become used to the gloom of the coach, and I could see with tolerable distinctness. I turned to my opposite neighbour. He, too, was looking at me, with the same startling pallor in his face, and the same stony glitter in his eyes. I passed my hand across my brow. I turned to the passenger on the seat beside my own, and saw—oh Heaven! how shall I describe what I saw? I saw that he was no living man—that none of them were living men, like myself! A pale phosphorescent light—the light of putrefaction—played upon their awful faces; upon their hair, dank with the dews of the grave; upon their clothes, earth-stained and dropping to pieces; upon their hands, which were as the hands of corpses long buried. Only their eyes, their terrible eyes, were living; and those eyes were all turned menacingly upon me!
A shriek of terror, a wild unintelligible cry for help and mercy; burst from my lips as I flung myself against the door, and strove in vain to open it.
In that single instant, brief and vivid as a landscape beheld in the flash of summer lightning, I saw the moon shining down through a rift of stormy cloud—the ghastly sign-post rearing its warning finger by the wayside—the broken parapet—the plunging horses—the black gulf below. Then, the coach reeled like a ship at sea. Then, came a mighty crash—a sense of crushing pain—and then, darkness.
It seemed as if years had gone by when I awoke one morning from a deep sleep, and found my wife watching by my bedside I will pass over the scene that ensued, and give you, in half a dozen words, the tale she told me with tears of thanksgiving. I had fallen over a precipice, close against the junction of the old coach-road and the new, and had only been saved from certain death by lighting upon a deep snowdrift that had accumulated at the foot of the rock beneath. In this snowdrift I was discovered at daybreak, by a couple of shepherds, who carried me to the nearest shelter, and brought a surgeon to my aid. The surgeon found me in a state of raving delirium, with a broken arm and a compound fracture of the skull. The letters in my pocket-book showed my name and address; my wife was summoned to nurse me; and, thanks to youth and a fine constitution, I came out of danger at last. The place of my fall, I need scarcely say, was precisely that at which a frightful accident had happened to the north mail nine years before.
I never told my wife the fearful events which I have just related to you. I told the surgeon who attended me; but he treated the whole adventure as a mere dream born of the fever in my brain. We discussed the question over and over again, until we found that we could discuss it with temper no longer, and then we dropped it. Others may form what conclusions they please—I know that twenty years ago I was the fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach.
O coche fantasma
Amelia B. Edwards
As circunstâncias que estou prestes a lhe relatar têm fatos que as corroboram. Elas se passaram comigo e a lembrança é tão vívida como se tivesse sido ontem. Vinte anos, entretanto, passaram desde aquela noite. Nesse tempo todo, apenas uma pessoa ouviu essa história. Narro agora com uma relutância que foi difícil de superar. Antes, tudo o que peço é que você se abstenha de me julgar. Não quero explicações. Não quero debates. O que penso sobre esse assunto já está definido. Tendo meus sentidos como testemunha, prefiro obedecê-los.
Pois muito bem! Ocorreu há vinte anos, faltando um ou dois dias para o fim da temporada de caça. Eu estivera fora o dia inteiro com minha carabina e não tinha conseguido nada. O vento era do leste, o mês era dezembro. O lugar, um pântano ermo e extenso no extremo norte da Inglaterra. E eu tinha me perdido. Não era um lugar agradável para alguém se perder. Os primeiros flocos de uma tempestade de neve caíam sobre a urze e a noite escura se aproximava. Protegi os olhos e mirei ansioso a escuridão crescente, onde o horizonte arroxeado se fundia com uma fileira de colinas baixas a cerca de 15 ou 30 quilômetros de distância. Meus olhos não encontraram chaminé, plantação, estrada ou cercas em nenhuma direção. Não havia nada a fazer além de arriscar ir em frente em busca de abrigo. Então empunhei novamente minha arma e avancei fatigado porque estivera andando desde o amanhecer e não havia comido nada além do desjejum.
A neve passou a cair ameaçadoramente volumosa, e com isso o frio se intensificou e a noite chegou mais cedo. Minhas perspectivas escureceram como o céu. Meu coração ficou aflito quando imaginei minha esposa vigiando na janela da sala da pequena pousada, e todo o sofrimento que a aguardava nessa noite difícil. Estávamos casados há quatro meses. Após passar o outono na Escócia, estávamos agora hospedados numa pequena vila remota, situada à beira dos grandes pântanos ingleses. Estávamos muito apaixonados e, claro, muito felizes. Nesta manhã, quando nos separamos, ela implorou que eu voltasse antes de escurecer e eu prometi que faria exatamente isso. O que eu não teria dado para cumprir minha palavra!
Se ao menos eu encontrasse um abrigo e um guia, mesmo cansado como estava, acreditava que de estômago cheio, uma hora de descanso e uma direção certa a seguir, seria possível voltar para seus braços antes da meia-noite.
Durante todo esse tempo a neve caiu e a noite se fechou. Às vezes eu parava e gritava, mas meus gritos apenas aprofundavam o silêncio. Uma sensação sutil de desconforto me envolveu e fui tomado por lembranças de histórias de viajantes que caminharam indefinidamente na nevasca até que, cansados, se deitavam e dormiam para sempre. Seria possível, me perguntei, continuar assim por toda essa escura e longa noite? Não chegaria um momento em que minhas pernas falhariam e eu esgotaria minhas forças? Quando eu também poderia dormir no sono da morte? Morte! Estremeci. Quão duro é morrer já, quando a vida se descortina toda tão brilhante diante de mim! Quão duro para minha querida, que tem um coração tão amoroso. Esse pensamento não deve ser alimentado! Para afastá-lo, gritei de novo, mais alto e por mais tempo, e depois esperei ansioso por uma resposta. O meu grito foi respondido ou apenas imaginei ter ouvido um grito ao longe? Chamei outra vez e outra vez seguiu-se o eco. Uma luz vacilante subitamente surgiu na escuridão, dançando e desaparecendo, momentaneamente crescendo e brilhando mais. Correndo o mais rápido que pude, encontrei-me, para minha grande alegria, cara a cara com um homem velho e sua lanterna.
"Graças a Deus!" Foi a exclamação que explodiu involuntariamente dos meus lábios.
Piscando e franzindo as sobrancelhas, ele levantou a lanterna e espreitou meu rosto.
“Pelo quê?” grasnou ele, carrancudo.
“Bem... por você. Eu temia perder-me na neve.”
“Ora, tem gente que fica perdida nessas redondezas de tempos em tempos, o que impede que você se perca também, se o Senhor se importa tanto?”
“Se Ele quer que nós nos percamos, amigo, devemos aceitar a Sua vontade,” respondi; “mas eu prefiro me perder acompanhado. O quão distante estou de Dwolding?”
“Uns bons trinta quilômetros, mais ou menos.”
“E o vilarejo mais próximo?”
“É Wyke, e é 20 km pro outro lado.”
“Onde você reside, então?”
“Lá adiante”, disse ele, com um vago balanço da lanterna.
“Suponho que você esteja indo para casa, sim?”
“Então irei com você.”
O velho meneou a cabeça e coçou o nariz com a alça da lanterna, refletindo.
"Não adianta", rosnou ele. “Ele não vai deixar você entrar, não ele.”
“Isso nós veremos,” respondi prontamente. “Quem é ele?”
“E quem é o mestre?”
“Não importa,” foi a respondeu seca.
“Pois muito bem, você me mostra o caminho e eu verei se o tal mestre me dará abrigo e janta por esta noite.”
“Ora, você pode tentar!” murmurou meu relutante guia. Ainda balançando a cabeça, partiu mancando como um gnomo pela neve. Uma grande sombra surgiu da escuridão e um cão enorme avançou latindo furiosamente.
“Essa é a casa?” perguntei.
“É, é a casa. Senta, Bey!” Ele cavou as chaves no bolso.
Chegando bem próximo a ele, me preparei para não perder a chance de entrar. Vi através do pequeno círculo de luz da lanterna que a porta estava fortemente cravejada de ferro, como a porta de uma prisão. Assim que ele virou a chave, forcei passagem e entrei.
Uma vez lá dentro, olhei à volta com curiosidade e me vi num grande salão que aparentava servir a uma variedade de propósitos. Num canto, uma pilha de milho ia até o teto, como um celeiro. No outro, estavam armazenados sacos de farinha, implementos agrícolas, barris e todo tipo de tranqueira; enquanto das vigas do teto pendiam fileiras de presuntos, peixes e maços de folhagem seca para uso no inverno. No centro, no chão, havia alguma coisa enorme que quase alcançava o teto, coberta com um oleado sujo. Para minha surpresa, erguendo uma das pontas, vi que se tratava de um telescópio de tamanho considerável, montado sobre uma rudimentar plataforma móvel com quatro pequenas rodas. O tubo era feito de madeira pintada, preso com cintas de metal rústicas; O espelho, até onde eu poderia estimar naquela penumbra, media ao menos 40 centímetros de diâmetro. Enquanto eu ainda examinava o instrumento e me perguntava se não era obra de algum optometrista autodidata, um sino tocou abruptamente.
"É para você", disse meu guia, com um sorriso zombeteiro. “Lá é o escritório dele.”
Ele apontou para uma porta preta e baixa no lado oposto do salão. Atravessei o recinto, bati na porta um pouco forte demais e entrei, sem esperar por um convite. Um homem velho e enorme, de cabelos brancos, levantou-se de uma mesa forrada de livros e papéis e me encarou severamente.
“Quem é você?” disse ele. “Como chegou aqui? O que você quer?”
“James Murray, advogado licenciado. A pé, através do pântano. Carne, bebida e cama.”
Ele dobrou as espessas sobrancelhas numa careta portentosa.
"Minha casa não é um hotel", disse ele com altivez. “Jacob, como ousa permitir a entrada deste estranho?”
“Não permiti”, resmungou o velho. “Ele me seguiu no pântano e me empurrou para entrar. Não aguento com alguém de dois metros.”
“Exijo que me diga, senhor, com que direito invade minha casa?”
“Com o mesmo que me faria agarrar seu barco se eu estivesse a me afogar. O direito de autopreservação.”
“A neve já cobriu o chão”, respondi de pronto; “e seria profunda o suficiente para cobrir meu corpo antes que amanheça.”
Ele andou até a janela, puxou uma pesada cortina negra e observou o tempo lá fora.
“É verdade,” disse. “Se você quiser, pode ficar até o amanhecer. Jacob, sirva a ceia."
Dizendo isso, ele me apontou um assento e retornou a sua mesa, concentrando-se imediatamente nos estudos que eu havia interrompido.
Apoiei minha arma num canto, aproximei uma cadeira da lareira e examinei o aposento onde descansaria. Embora menor e menos incongruente do que o salão, esta sala continha muito para despertar minha curiosidade. O assoalho não era acarpetado. As paredes caiadas de branco exibiam partes rabiscadas com diagramas estranhos e prateleiras cheias de instrumentos científicos. Eu desconhecia a finalidade da maioria deles. De um lado da lareira, havia uma estante repleta de fólios encardidos; do outro, um pequeno órgão fantasticamente decorado com entalhes pintados de santos e demônios medievais. Pela fresta da porta de um armário no outro lado da sala, vi uma grande variedade de espécimes geológicos, materiais cirúrgicos, cadinhos, retortas e frascos de substâncias químicas. Na prateleira acima da lareira ao meu lado, em meio a numerosos pequenos objetos, estavam um modelo do sistema solar, uma pequena bateria galvânica e um microscópio. Todas as cadeiras estavam ocupadas. Todos os cantos estavam tomados por pilhas de livros. O próprio chão estava forrado de mapas, moldes, papéis, esboços e protótipos de toda espécie.
Eu admirava com assombro crescente cada objeto novo em que pousava os olhos. A sala mais estranha que já vi, ainda mais estranha por estar numa casa de fazenda isolada no meio do pântano selvagem e desabitado! De novo e de novo eu olhava do meu anfitrião para o lugar e do lugar para o meu anfitrião, me perguntando: quem ele era ou poderia ser? Sua cabeça tinha um desenho particularmente bom; porém era mais a cabeça de um poeta do que a de um filósofo. Larga nas têmporas e proeminente acima dos olhos. Coberta com uma profusão selvagem de cabelos perfeitamente brancos. Toda a idealidade e robustez que caracterizam a cabeça de Louis von Beethoven. Havia as mesmas linhas de rugas profundas na boca e na testa. A mesma expressão concentrada. Enquanto eu ainda o examinava, a porta se abriu e Jacob trouxe a ceia. Seu mestre então fechou o livro, levantou-se e, com gentileza não demonstrada antes, convidou-me para a mesa.
Um prato de presunto e ovos, um pedaço de pão preto e uma admirável garrafa de xerez foram colocados diante de mim.
“Tenho somente o alimento mais simples de uma fazenda para oferecer, senhor”, disse meu anfitrião. "Acredito que seu apetite compensará as deficiências de nossa despensa."
Eu já devorava a comida com o entusiasmo de um atleta faminto e protestei dizendo que nunca comera nada tão delicioso.
Ele curvou-se com dificuldade e sentou-se diante do próprio jantar, que consistia simplesmente de uma caneca de leite e uma tigela de mingau de aveia. Comemos em silêncio e quando terminamos Jacob limpou a mesa. Eu então puxei minha cadeira de volta para a lareira. Para minha surpresa, meu anfitrião fez o mesmo. Voltando-se repentinamente para mim, disse:
“Tenho vivido aqui em isolamento absoluto há vinte e três anos, senhor. Nesse tempo não vi muitos rostos diferentes e não li um único jornal. Você é o primeiro desconhecido a cruzar minha soleira em quatro anos. Você me favoreceria com algumas informações a respeito do mundo exterior do qual me separei há tanto tempo?”
"Por favor, interrogue-me", respondi. "Estou totalmente a sua disposição."
Ele inclinou a cabeça em reconhecimento. Olhando fixamente para o fogo, curvou-se para a frente, apoiou os cotovelos nos joelhos e o queixo nas palmas das mãos. E começou a fazer perguntas.
Seu inquérito relacionava-se principalmente aos avanços científicos, cujo progresso e aplicação prática estavam escapando ao seu conhecimento. Não sendo um estudante da ciência, respondi da melhor forma possível, mas a tarefa estava longe de ser fácil. Para meu alívio, ele passou do interrogatório para o debate e começou a verter suas considerações sobre os fatos que eu havia apresentado. Ele falou e eu ouvi fascinado. E continuou falando até eu acreditar que esquecera da minha presença e só estava pensando em voz alta. Eu nunca tinha ouvido nada parecido antes e nunca mais ouvi desde então. Familiarizado com todos os sistemas de todas as filosofias, sutil na análise, largo na generalização, ele despejou seus pensamentos em um fluxo ininterrupto. Obstinado na mesma posição curvada com os olhos fixos no fogo, vagou de tópico para tópico, de especulação a especulação, como um sonhador inspirado. Da ciência prática à filosofia; da eletricidade nos fios para a eletricidade nos nervos; de Watts a Mesmer, de Mesmer a Reichenbach, de Reichenbach a Swedenborg, Spinoza, Condillac, Descartes, Berkeley, Aristóteles, Platão, os Reis Magos e os místicos do Oriente. Transições desconcertantes em sua variedade e alcance que pareciam fáceis e harmoniosas em seus lábios como se fossem segmentos musicais. Não me lembro agora por qual elo de conjectura ou explicação, mas pouco a pouco ele chegou naquele campo que fica além dos limites da filosofia conjetural e ninguém sabe onde vai dar. Ele falou da alma e suas aspirações; do espírito e seus poderes; de sexto sentido; de profecia; daqueles fenômenos que, em todas as eras, sob os nomes de fantasmas, espectros e aparições sobrenaturais, foram negados pelos céticos e atestados pelos crédulos.
"O mundo", disse ele, "está a cada dia mais e mais cético em relação a tudo o que existe além de seu próprio raio estreito; e nossos homens da ciência fomentam essa tendência fatal. Eles rotulam como fábula aquilo que resiste ao experimento. Eles rejeitam como falso todas as coisas que não podem ser postas à prova num laboratório ou sala de anatomia. Contra qual outra superstição eles têm travado uma guerra tão longa e obstinada quanto a crença em aparições? E, no entanto, qual superstição tem se mantido mais firme e permanente na mente humana? Mostre-me qualquer outro fato na física, na história, na arqueologia, que seja apoiado por um testemunho tão amplo e variado. Atestado por todas as raças humanas, em todas as eras e em todo lugar, pelos sábios mais sóbrios da antiguidade, pelo selvagem mais rude de hoje, pelos cristãos, pagãos, panteístas e materialistas; esse fenômeno é tratado como conto infantil pelos pensadores do nosso século. Para eles, evidência circunstancial pesa na balança tanto quanto uma pena. A comparação de causas com efeitos, por mais valiosa na ciência física, é posta de lado como insignificante e duvidosa. A existência de testemunhas confiáveis, mesmo convincentes num tribunal, não vale nada. E aquele que pondera antes de pronunciar-se é taxado de leviano. Aquele que crê, como sonhador ou tolo.”
Ele falava com amargura, e tendo dito isso, calou-se por alguns minutos. De volta a si, ergueu a cabeça e acrescentou num tom e modo diferentes: "Eu ponderei, investiguei, acreditei e não tive vergonha de declarar minhas convicções ao mundo, meu senhor. Eu também fui rotulado de visionário, ridicularizado por meus colegas e afugentado do campo científico a qual dediquei honradamente os melhores anos da minha vida. Essas coisas se passaram há apenas vinte e três anos. Desde então tenho vivido como você me vê agora. O mundo me esqueceu e eu esqueci o mundo. Essa é a minha história.”
"É deveras triste", murmurei, mal sabendo o que responder.
"É deveras comum", respondeu ele. "Sofri tão somente pela verdade, como sofreram muitos outros melhores e mais sábios antes de mim."
Como se desejasse terminar a conversa, ele levantou-se e foi à janela.
"Parou de nevar", observou ele, soltando a cortina e aproximando-se da lareira.
“Parou!?” Exclamei, pronto para me levantar. “Ah, se fosse possível, mas não é! É inútil. Mesmo que eu conseguisse atravessar o pântano, não poderia caminhar 30 quilômetros esta noite.”
“Caminhar 30 quilômetros esta noite!” Repetiu meu anfitrião. “Onde está com a cabeça?”
“Na minha esposa,” respondi impaciente. ““Na minha jovem esposa que não sabe de mim e que está neste momento com o coração partido e cheio de aflição.”
“Onde ela está?”
“Em Dwolding, há 30 quilômetros daqui.”
“Em Dwolding,” ele ecoou pensativo. “Sim, realmente são 30 quilômetros. Mas, diga-me, está tão ansioso assim para recuperar as próximas seis ou oito horas?”
“Tão ansioso que daria neste momento dez guinéus por um guia e um cavalo.”
“Seu desejo pode lhe custar bem menos,” disse ele sorrindo. “O correio noturno do norte faz troca de cavalos em Dwolding e vai passar por uma determinada encruzilhada a caminho de lá, há 8 km daqui, em aproximadamente uma hora e 15 minutos. Se Jacob o acompanhasse pelo pântano até a antiga estrada, posso supor que você encontraria o caminho até a encruzilhada?”
“Facilmente e de bom grado.”
Ele sorriu de novo, tocou a campainha e deu instruções ao velho criado. Pegando uma garrafa de uísque e um copo no armário onde guardava seus apetrechos químicos, disse:
“A neve está profunda e será difícil caminhar esta noite no pântano. Uma dose de água da vida antes de partir?”
Eu teria recusado o álcool, mas ele praticamente pôs o copo nas minhas mãos, então bebi. A bebida desceu pela minha garganta como fogo líquido e quase me deixou sem ar.
“É forte,” disse ele; “mas o ajudará a manter-se aquecido. Depressa, você não tem tempo a perder. Boa noite!”
Agradeci-lhe a hospitalidade e teria lhe apertado a mão, mas ele se afastou antes que eu pudesse terminar de me despedir. Num instante atravessei o corredor e Jacob trancou o portão atrás de mim. Estávamos no pântano branco sem fim.
Embora já amainado, o vento estava terrivelmente frio. Nenhuma estrela cintilava no alto da abóbada negra. Além do ruído rápido dos nossos pés esmigalhando a neve, nenhum som perturbava o denso silêncio da noite. Não muito feliz com sua missão, Jacob seguia na frente, sombrio e mudo, com sua lanterna a fazer-lhe a sombra sob os pés. Com minha arma ao ombro e tão disposto a conversar quanto ele, eu o seguia. Meus pensamentos se voltavam para meu anfitrião já distante. Sua voz ainda ressoava em meus ouvidos. Sua eloquência ainda prendia minha imaginação. Lembro-me até hoje, surpreso por meu cérebro superestimulado ter guardado frases inteiras, colossais projeções impressionantes e fragmentos de esplêndida retórica nas próprias palavras pronunciadas por ele. Meditando sobre o que ouvira e tentando me lembrar de um elo perdido aqui e ali, segui os passos de meu guia, absorto e desatento. Passado algum tempo — que ao final me pareceu apenas alguns minutos — ele estacou de súbito e disse:
“Tá aí sua estrada. Mantenha a mureta de pedra na sua direita e não perderá o rumo.”
“Então, essa é a antiga estrada?”
“E quanto mais tenho que ir para chegar à encruzilhada?”
“Uns cinco quilômetros.”
Abri minha carteira e ele prosseguiu, mais comunicativo.
"É uma estrada boa o bastante", disse ele, "para viajar a pé; mas é íngreme e estreita para o tráfego do norte. Você vai notar o parapeito quebrado, pouco antes do poste de sinalização. Não consertaram desde o acidente.”
“Oh, o correio noturno foi direto vale abaixo - uns bons quinze metros ou mais - bem na pior parte da estrada em todo o condado."
"Que lamentável! Perdera-se muitas vidas?”
“Todas. Quatro quando foram encontrados e dois na manhã seguinte.”
“Quanto tempo faz?”
“Próximo ao poste, você disse? Lembrar-me-ei disso. Boa noite.”
“Noite, senhor, e obrigado." Jacob pôs no bolso a meia-coroa que lhe dei, esboçou um cumprimento quase tocando o chapéu e foi embora manqueteando pelo mesmo caminho.
Acompanhei a luz de sua lanterna até que desaparecesse e virei-me para seguir meu caminho solitário. Não seria tão difícil pois, apesar da escuridão absoluta do alto, a linha da mureta de pedras se mostrava distintamente contrastando com a fraca claridade da neve. Como está silencioso agora, ouvindo apenas meus passos: silencioso e solitário! Uma sensação de solitude estranha e desagradável me envolveu. Caminhei depressa. Cantarolei o fragmento de uma música. Lancei enormes somas na minha cabeça e as calculei com juros compostos. Fiz o que pude, em suma, para esquecer as especulações surpreendentes que ouvira há pouco e, até certo ponto, obtive sucesso.
Enquanto isso, o ar da noite parecia ficar mais e mais frio e, embora eu andasse rápido, estava impossível me manter aquecido. Meus pés pareciam feitos de gelo. Perdi a sensibilidade das mãos e involuntariamente agarrei minha arma. Respirei com dificuldade como se estivesse escalando as alturas de um alpe gigantesco e não atravessando uma estrada tranquila no norte do país. Esse último sintoma tornou-se tão angustiante que me forçou a parar e me escorar na mureta. Ao fazê-lo, olhei ao caso o caminho que percorrera pela estrada e, para meu imenso alívio, vi um ponto de luz distante, como o brilho de uma lanterna que se aproximava. Concluí prontamente que Jacob refizera seus passos e me seguira; mas subitamente uma segunda luz brilhou - uma luz evidentemente paralela à primeira e se aproximando na mesma cadência. Não foi preciso mais para me convencer que tais luzes eram as lâmpadas de uma carruagem, embora parecesse estranho que qualquer veículo particular seguisse por uma estrada claramente abandonada e perigosa.
No entanto, não havia dúvida do fato, pois as lâmpadas se tornavam maiores e mais brilhantes a cada instante e até imaginei que já podia ver o contorno escuro do veículo entre elas, que chegava rápido e silencioso com a neve de quase 30 centímetros de profundidade sob suas rodas.
E agora a carroceria tornava-se distinta atrás das lâmpadas. Parecia estranhamente alta. Uma suspeita repentina me apossou. Seria possível eu ter passado as cegas pela encruzilhada sem dar pelo poste de sinalização e ser esse o próprio coche que vim para encontrar?
Não precisei me questionar uma segunda vez pois aqui estava ele contornando a curva da estrada, com guarda e cocheiro, um passageiro externo e quatro cavalos fumegantes, todos envoltos em uma névoa de luz suave, atrás do par de lâmpadas brilhantes como meteoros de fogo.
Saltei para a frente, balancei meu chapéu e gritei. O veículo chegou a toda velocidade e passou por mim. Por alguns segundos, receei não ter sido visto ou ouvido. O cocheiro fez com que os cavalos parassem. O guarda, afundado em capas e cobertores, e aparentemente também no sono, sequer respondeu minha saudação ou fez o menor esforço para descer. O passageiro de fora não virou a cabeça. Abri a porta eu mesmo e observei o interior. Havia apenas três viajantes, então entrei e fechei a porta, me acomodando no canto vago e me parabenizando pela minha boa sorte.
A atmosfera ali, como se fosse possível, estava mais fria do que a do lado de fora. O ar estava permeado por um cheiro singularmente úmido e desagradável. Observei meus companheiros de viagem. Eram três homens silenciosos. Não pareciam dormir, mas cada um deles se recostava no seu canto, absortos em seus próprios pensamentos. Tentei travar uma conversa.
"Quão intensamente fria está essa noite", eu disse, abordando meu vizinho da frente.
Ele levantou a cabeça e olhou para mim, mas nada respondeu.
"O inverno", acrescentei, "parece ter começado verdadeiramente".
Embora o canto em que ele estivesse sentado fosse tão escuro que eu mal distinguisse seus traços com clareza, vi que seus olhos estavam voltados para mim. Ainda assim, ele não disse palavra.
Em qualquer outra situação eu teria experimentado e até manifestado aborrecimento mas naquele momento eu estava fraco demais para fazer uma coisa ou outra. O ar gélido da noite atingiu minha espinha com um calafrio e o cheiro estranho ali dentro me deu náuseas. Arrepiado da cabeça aos pés, voltei-me para meu vizinho à esquerda e lhe perguntei se tinha alguma objeção a uma janela aberta.
Ele nada falou e nem se mexeu.
Repeti a pergunta um pouco mais alto, mas obtive o mesmo resultado. Então perdi a paciência e corri a cortina da janela. Ao fazê-lo, a alça de couro partiu-se na minha mão e observei que o vidro estava coberto com uma espessa camada de bolor, aparentemente acumulado por anos. Minha atenção voltou-se para as condições do coche e examinei-o com atenção. Vi com ajuda da tênue luz externa que ele estava decrépito. Cada parte dele não estava apenas gasta, mas irrecuperável. As cortinas se desmanchavam ao toque. Os couros estavam cobertos de mofo e apodreciam junto com a madeira. O assoalho estava se rompendo sob meus pés. O veículo todo, em suma, estava apodrecido e evidentemente posto a circular após anos de deterioração em algum galpão, talvez para cumprir um ou dois fretes na estrada.
Virei-me para o terceiro passageiro, a quem ainda não havia me dirigido, e arrisquei mais um comentário.
“Esse coche”, eu disse, “está em um péssimas condições. Posso supor que o transporte regular está em manutenção?”
Ele virou a cabeça lentamente e olhou diretamente para mim mas nada falou. Nunca esquecerei aquele olhar enquanto eu viver. Senti meu coração esfriar. Meu coração congela simplesmente por recordar aquele momento. Os olhos dele cintilavam com um brilho ardente anormal. Seu rosto estava lívido como o de um cadáver. Seus lábios sem sangue se repuxaram como se ele estivesse agonizando e mostraram dentes brilhantes.
As palavras que eu estava prestes a proferir morreram nos meus lábios, e um estranho horror - um horror terrível - caiu sobre mim. A essa altura minha visão já se acostumara à escuridão no interior do veículo e eu podia ver com suficiente nitidez. Eu me virei para o vizinho da frente. Também ele me fitava com a mesma lividez na face e o mesmo brilho marmóreo nos olhos. Esfreguei a mão no rosto. Virei-me para o passageiro no banco ao lado do meu e vi - oh, céus! como posso descrever o que vi? Vi que ele não era homem vivo - que nenhum deles era homem vivo como eu! Uma luz fina e fosforescente - a luz da putrefação - corria em seus rostos medonhos; sobre os cabelos úmidos com o sereno da sepultura; sobre as roupas sujas de terra e caindo aos pedaços; sobre as mãos deles, que eram como as mãos dos cadáveres há muito sepultados. Somente seus olhos, seus olhos terríveis, estavam vivos; e aqueles olhares ameaçadores estavam todos pousados em mim!
Um guincho de terror, um pedido de socorro ininteligível e primal rasgou meus lábios quando me joguei contra a porta e o esforço de abri-la foi inútil.
Naquele instante, breve e vívido como contemplar uma paisagem iluminada por um relâmpago no verão, vi a lua por uma brecha entre nuvens tempestuosas - o pavoroso poste de sinalização erguendo seu dedo de advertência na beira do caminho - o parapeito arrebentado - os cavalos mergulhando - o abismo negro abaixo. O coche ondulou como um navio, depois houve um fortíssimo estrondo - uma dor esmagadora - e depois trevas.
Pareceu-me que anos haviam se passado quando acordei de um sono profundo numa manhã e vi minha esposa velando por mim ao lado da cama. Deixarei de lado a cena que se seguiu e contarei a você em poucas palavras a história que ela narrou entre lágrimas de alívio. Eu caíra no precipício perto da junção entre as estradas velha e nova e fora salvo da morte certa por ter aterrissado num monte de neve acumulada ao pé das rochas. Fui encontrado ao amanhecer por dois pastores que me carregaram para o abrigo mais próximo e chamaram um médico. O doutor me encontrou em estado de febre delirante, com um braço quebrado e mais de uma fratura no crânio. Os papéis no meu bolso revelaram meu nome e endereço; minha esposa foi contactada e veio em meu auxílio. Graças à sua dedicação e boa disposição, finalmente me recuperei. Não preciso dizer que o local da minha queda foi o exato em que ocorreu um terrível acidente com o correio do norte, nove anos antes.
Nunca contei para minha esposa sobre os eventos terríveis que acabei de lhe relatar. Eu os narrei ao médico que me assistiu, mas ele julgou a aventura toda como sendo alucinação provinda de febre cerebral. Discutimos a questão muitas e muitas vezes até descobrirmos ser impossível continuar sem que brigássemos, então paramos. Outros podem concluir o que quiserem, mas eu sei que vinte anos atrás fui eu o quarto passageiro interno daquele coche fantasma.
The open door
Some people do not believe in ghosts. For that matter, some people do not believe in anything.
There are persons who even affect incredulity concerning that open door at Ladlow Hall. They say it did not stand wide open--that they could have shut it; that the whole affair was a delusion; that they are sure it must have been a conspiracy; that they are doubtful whether there is such a place as Ladlow on the face of the earth; that the first time they are in Meadowshire they will look it up.
That is the manner in which this story, hitherto unpublished, has been greeted by my acquaintances. How it will be received by strangers is quite another matter. I am going to tell what happened to me exactly as it happened, and readers can credit or scoff at the tale as it pleases them. It is not necessary for me to find faith and comprehension in addition to a ghost story, for the world at large. If such were the case, I should lay down my pen.
Perhaps, before going further, I ought to premise there was a time when I did not believe in ghosts either. If you had asked me one summer's morning years ago when you met me on London Bridge if I held such appearances to be probable or possible, you would have received an emphatic 'No' for answer.
But, at this rate, the story of the Open Door will never be told; so we will, with your permission, plunge into it immediately.
'What do you want?'
'Should you like to earn a sovereign?'
'Of course I should.'
A somewhat curt dialogue, but we were given to curtness in the office of Messrs Frimpton, Frampton and Fryer, auctioneers and estate agents, St Benet's Hill, City.
(My name is not Sandy or anything like it, but the other clerks so styled me because of a real or fancied likeness to some character, an ill-looking Scotchman, they had seen at the theatre. From this it may be inferred I was not handsome. Far from it. The only ugly specimen in my family, I knew I was very plain; and it chanced to be no secret to me either that I felt grievously discontented with my lot. I did not like the occupation of clerk in an auctioneer's office, and I did not like my employers.
We are all of us inconsistent, I suppose, for it was a shock to me to find they entertained a most cordial antipathy to me.)
'Because,' went on Parton, a fellow, my senior by many years--a fellow who delighted in chaffing me, 'I can tell you how to lay hands on one.'
'How?' I asked, sulkily enough, for I felt he was having what he called his fun.
'You know that place we let to Carrison, the tea-dealer?' Carrison was a merchant in the China trade, possessed of fleets of vessels and towns of warehouses; but I did not correct Parton's expression, I simply nodded.
'He took it on a long lease, and he can't live in it; and our governor said this morning he wouldn't mind giving anybody who could find out what the deuce is the matter, a couple of sovereigns and his travelling expenses.'
'Where is the place?' I asked, without turning my head; for the convenience of listening I had put my elbows on the desk and propped up my face with both hands.
'Away down in Meadowshire, in the heart of the grazing country.'
'And what is the matter?' I further enquired.
'A door that won't keep shut.'
'A door that will keep open, if you prefer that way of putting it,' said Parton.
'You are jesting.'
'If I am, Carrison is not, or Fryer either. Carrison came here in a nice passion, and Fryer was in a fine rage; I could see he was, though he kept his temper outwardly. They have had an active correspondence it appears, and Carrison went away to talk to his lawyer. Won't make much by that move, I fancy.'
'But tell me,' I entreated, 'why the door won't keep shut?'
'They say the place is haunted.'
'What nonsense!' I exclaimed.
Then you are just the person to take the ghost in hand. I thought so while old Fryer was speaking.'
'If the door won't keep shut,' I remarked, pursuing my own train of thought, 'why can't they let it stay open?'
'I have not the slightest idea. I only know there are two sovereigns to be made, and that I give you a present of the information.'
And having thus spoken, Parton took down his hat and went out, either upon his own business or that of his employers.
There was one thing I can truly say about our office, we were never serious in it. I fancy that is the case in most offices nowadays; at all events, it was the case in ours. We were always chaffing each other, playing practical jokes, telling stupid stories, scamping our work, looking at the clock, counting the weeks to next St Lubbock's Day, counting the hours to Saturday.
For all that we were all very earnest in our desire to have our salaries raised, and unanimous in the opinion no fellows ever before received such wretched pay. I had twenty pounds a year, which I was aware did not half provide for what I ate at home. My mother and sisters left me in no doubt on the point, and when new clothes were wanted I always hated to mention the fact to my poor worried father.
We had been better off once, I believe, though I never remember the time. My father owned a small property in the country, but owing to the failure of some bank, I never could understand what bank, it had to be mortgaged; then the interest was not paid, and the mortgages foreclosed, and we had nothing left save the half-pay of a major, and about a hundred a year which my mother brought to the common fund.
We might have managed on our income, I think, if we had not been so painfully genteel; but we were always trying to do something quite beyond our means, and consequently debts accumulated, and creditors ruled us with rods of iron.
Before the final smash came, one of my sisters married the younger son of a distinguished family, and even if they had been disposed to live comfortably and sensibly she would have kept her sisters up to the mark. My only brother, too, was an officer, and of course the family thought it necessary he should see we preserved appearances.
It was all a great trial to my father, I think, who had to bear the brunt of the dunning and harass, and eternal shortness of money; and it would have driven me crazy if I had not found a happy refuge when matters were going wrong at home at my aunt's. She was my father's sister, and had married so 'dreadfully below her' that my mother refused to acknowledge the relationship at all.
For these reasons and others, Parton's careless words about the two sovereigns stayed in my memory.
I wanted money badly--I may say I never had sixpence in the world of my own--and I thought if I could earn two sovereigns I might buy some trifles I needed for myself, and present my father with a new umbrella. Fancy is a dangerous little jade to flirt with, as I soon discovered.
She led me on and on. First I thought of the two sovereigns; then I recalled the amount of the rent Mr Carrison agreed to pay for Ladlow Hall; then I decided he would gladly give more than two sovereigns if he could only have the ghost turned out of possession. I fancied I might get ten pounds--twenty pounds. I considered the matter all day, and I dreamed of it all night, and when I dressed myself next morning I was determined to speak to Mr Fryer on the subject.
I did so--I told that gentleman Parton had mentioned the matter to me, and that if Mr Fryer had no objection, I should like to try whether I could not solve the mystery. I told him I had been accustomed to lonely houses, and that I should not feel at all nervous; that I did not believe in ghosts, and as for burglars, I was not afraid of them.
'I don't mind your trying,' he said at last. 'Of course you understand it is no cure, no pay. Stay in the house for a week; if at the end of that time you can keep the door shut, locked, bolted, or nailed up, telegraph for mc, and I will go down--if not, come back. If you like to take a companion there is no objection.'
I thanked him, but said I would rather not have a companion.
'There is only one thing, sir, I should like,' I ventured.
'And that--?' he interrupted.
'Is a little more money. If I lay the ghost, or find out the ghost, I think I ought to have more than two sovereigns.'
'How much more do you think you ought to have?' he asked.
His tone quite threw me off my guard, it was so civil and conciliatory, and I answered boldly:
'Well, if Mr Carrison cannot now live in the place perhaps he wouldn't mind giving me a ten-pound note.'
Mr Fryer turned, and opened one of the books lying on his desk. He did not look at or refer to it in any war--I saw that.
'You have been with us how long, Edlyd?' he said.
'Eleven months tomorrow,' I replied.
'And our arrangement was, I think, quarterly payments, and one month's notice on either side?'
'Yes, sir.' I heard my voice tremble, though I could not have said what frightened me.
'Then you will please to take your notice now. Come in before you leave this evening, and I'll pay you three months' salary, and then we shall be quits.'
'I don't think I quite understand,' I was beginning, when he broke in:
'But I understand, and that's enough. I have had enough of you and your airs, and your indifference, and your insolence here. I never had a clerk I disliked as I do you. Coming and dictating terms, forsooth! No, you shan't go to Ladlow. Many a poor chap'--(he said 'devil')--- 'would have been glad to earn half a guinea, let alone two sovereigns; and perhaps you may be before you are much older.'
'Do you mean that you won't keep me here any longer, sir?' I asked in despair. I had no intention of offending you. I--'
'Now you need not say another word,' he interrupted, 'for I won't bandy words with you.
Since you have been in this place you have never known your position, and you don't seem able to realize it. When I was foolish enough to take you, I did it on the strength of your connections, but your connections have done nothing for mc. I have never had a penny out of any one of your friends--if you have any. You'll not do any good in business for yourself or anybody else, and the sooner you go to Australia'--(here he was very emphatic)--and get off these premises, the better I shall be pleased.'
I did not answer him--I could not. He had worked himself to a white heat by this time, and evidently intended I should leave his premises then and there. He counted five pounds out of his cash-box, and, writing a receipt, pushed it and the money across the table, and bade me sign and be off at once.
My hand trembled So I could scarcely hold the pen, but I had presence of mind enough left to return one pound ten in gold, and three shillings and fourpence I had, quite by the merest good fortune, in my waistcoat pocket.
'I can't take wages for work I haven't done,' I said, as well as sorrow and passion would let me. 'Good-morning,' and I left his office and passed out among the clerks.
I took from my desk the few articles belonging to me, left the papers it contained in order, and then, locking it, asked Parton if he would be so good as to give the key to Mr Fryer.
'What's up?' he asked 'Are you going?'
I said, 'Yes, I am going'.
'Got the sack?'
'That is exactly what has happened.'
'Well, I'm--!' exclaimed Mr Parton.
I did not stop to hear any further commentary on the matter, but bidding my fellow-clerks goodbye, shook the dust of Frimpton's Estate and Agency Office from off my feet.
I did not like to go home and say I was discharged, so I walked about aimlessly, and at length found myself in Regent Street. There I met my father, looking more worried than usual.
'Do you think, Phil,' he said (my name is Theophilus), 'you could get two or three pounds from your employers?'
Maintaining a discreet silence regarding what had passed, I answered:
'No doubt I could.'
I shall be glad if you will then, my boy,' he went on, for we are badly in want of it.'
I did not ask him what was the special trouble. Where would have been the use? There was always something--gas, or water, or poor-rates, or the butcher, or the baker, or the bootmaker.
Well, it did not much matter, for we were well accustomed to the life; but, I thought, 'if ever I marry, we will keep within our means'. And then there rose up before me a vision of Patty, my cousin--the blithest, prettiest, most useful, most sensible girl that ever made sunshine in poor man's house.
My father and I had parted by this time, and I was still walking aimlessly on, when all at once an idea occurred to me. Mr Fryer had not treated me well or fairly. I would hoist him on his own petard. I would go to headquarters, and try to make terms with Mr Carrison direct.
No sooner thought than done. I hailed a passing omnibus, and was ere long in the heart of the city. Like other great men, Mr Carrison was difficult of access--indeed, so difficult of access, that the clerk to whom I applied for an audience told me plainly I could not see him at all. I might send in my message if I liked, he was good enough to add, and no doubt it would be attended to. I said I should not send in a message, and was then asked what I would do. My answer was simple. I meant to wait till I did see him. I was told they could not have people waiting about the office in this way.
I said I supposed I might stay in the street. 'Carrison didn't own that,' I suggested.
The clerk advised me not to try that game, or I might get locked up.
I said I would take my chance of it.
After that we went on arguing the question at some length, and we were in the middle of a heated argument, in which several of Carrison's 'young gentlemen', as they called themselves, were good enough to join, when we were all suddenly silenced by a grave-looking individual, who authoritatively enquired:
'What is all this noise about?'
Before anyone could answer I spoke up:
'I want to see Mr Carrison, and they won't let me.'
'What do you want with Mr Garrison?'
'I will tell that to himself only.'
'Very well, say on--I am Mr Garrison.'
For a moment I felt abashed and almost ashamed of my persistency; next instant, however, what Mr Fryer would have called my 'native audacity' came to the rescue, and I said, drawing a step or two nearer to him, and taking off my hat:
'I wanted to speak to you about Ladlow hall, if you please, sir.'
In an instant the fashion of his face changed, a look of irritation succeeded to that of immobility; an angry contraction of the eyebrows disfigured the expression of his countenance.
'Ladlow Hall!' he repeated; 'and what have you got to say about Ladlow Hall?'
'That is what I wanted to tell you, sir,' I answered, and a dead hush seemed to fall on the office as I spoke.
The silence seemed to attract his attention, for he looked sternly at the clerks, who were not using a pen or moving a finger.
'Come this way, then,' he said abruptly; and next minute I was in his private office.
'Now, what is it?' he asked, flinging himself into a chair, and addressing me, who stood hat in hand beside the great table in the middle of the room.
I began--I will say he was a patient listener--at the very beginning, and told my story straight trough. I concealed nothing. I enlarged on nothing. A discharged clerk I stood before him, and in the capacity of a discharged clerk I said what I had to say. He heard me to the end, then he sat silent, thinking.
At last he spoke.
'You have heard a great deal of conversation about Ladlow, I suppose?' he remarked.
'No sir; I have heard nothing except what I have told you.'
'And why do you desire to strive to solve such a mystery?'
'If there is any money to be made, I should like to make it, sir.'
'How old are you?'
'Two-and-twenty last January.'
'And how much salary had you at Frimpton's?'
'Twenty pounds a year.'
'Humph! More than you are worth, I should say.'
'Mr Fryer seemed to imagine so, sir, at any rate,' I agreed, sorrowfully.
'But what do you think?' he asked, smiling in spite of himself.
'I think I did quite as much work as the other clerks,' I answered.
'That is not saying much, perhaps,' he observed. I was of his opinion, but I held my peace.
'You will never make much of a clerk, I am afraid,' Mr Garrison proceeded, fitting his disparaging remarks upon me as he might on a lay figure. 'You don't like desk work?'
'Not much, sir.'
'I should judge the best thing you could do would be to emigrate,' he went on, eyeing me critically.
'Mr Fryer said I had better go to Australia or--' I stopped, remembering the alternative that gentleman had presented.
'Or where?' asked Mr Carrison.
'The---, sir' I explained, softly and apologetically.
He laughed--he lay back in his chair and laughed--and I laughed myself, though ruefully.
After all, twenty pounds was twenty pounds, though I had not thought much of the salary till I lost it.
We went on talking for a long time after that; he asked me all about my father and my early life, and how we lived, and where we lived, and the people we knew; and, in fact, put more questions than I can well remember.
'It seems a crazy thing to do,' he said at last; 'and yet I feel disposed to trust you. The house is standing perfectly empty. I can't live in it, and I can't get rid of it; all my own furniture I have removed, and there is nothing in the place except a few old-fashioned articles belonging to Lord Ladlow. The place is a loss to me. It is of no use trying to let it, and thus, in fact, matters are at a deadlock. You won't be able to find out anything, I know, because, of course, others have tried to solve the mystery ere now; still, if you like to try you may. I will make this bargain with you.
If you like to go down, I will pay your reasonable expenses for a fortnight; and if you do any good for mc, I will give you a ten-pound note for yourself. Of course I must be satisfied that what you have told me is true and tat you are what you represent. Do you know anybody in the city who would speak for you?'
I could think of no one but my uncle. I hinted to Mr Carrison he was not grand enough or rich enough, perhaps, but I knew nobody else to whom I could refer him.
'What!' he said, 'Robert Dorland, of Cullum Street. He does business with us. If he will go bail for your good behaviour I shan't want any further guarantee. Come along.' And to my intense amazement, he rose, put on his hat, walked me across the outer office and along the pavements till we came to Cullum Street.
'Do you know this youth, Mr Dorland?' he said, standing in front of my uncle's desk, and laying a hand on my shoulder.
'Of course I do, Mr Carrison,' answered my uncle, a little apprehensively; for, as he told me afterwards, he could not imagine what mischief I had been up to. 'He is my nephew.'
'And what is your opinion of him--do you think he is a young fellow I may safely trust?'
My uncle smiled, and answered, 'That depends on what you wish to trust him with.'
'A long column of addition, for instance.'
'It would be safer to give that task to somebody else.'
'Oh, uncle!' I remonstrated; for I had really striven to conquer my natural antipathy to figures--worked hard, and every bit of it against the collar.
My uncle got off his stool, and said, standing with his back to the empty fire-grate: 'Tell me what you wish the boy to do, Mr Carrison, and I will tell you whether he will suit your purpose or not. I know him, I believe, better than he knows himself.'
In an easy, affable way, for so rich a man, Mr Carrison took possession of the vacant stool, and nursing his right leg over his left knee, answered:
'He wants to go and shut the open door at Ladlow for mc. Do you think he can do that?'
My uncle looked steadily back at the speaker, and said, 'I thought, Mr Carrison, it was quite settled no one could shut it?'
Mr Carrison shifted a little uneasily on his scat, and replied: I did not set your nephew the task he fancies he would like to undertake.'
'Have nothing to do with it, Phil,' advised my uncle, shortly.
'You don't believe in ghosts, do you, Mr Dorland?' asked Mr Carrison, with a slight sneer.
'Don't you, Mr Carrison?' retorted my uncle.
There was a pause--an uncomfortable pause--during the course of which I felt the ten pounds, which, in imagination, I had really spent, trembling in the scale. I was not afraid. For ten pounds, or half the money, I would have faced all the inhabitants of spirit land. I longed to tell them so; but something in the way those two men looked at each other stayed my tongue.
'If you ask me the question here in the heart of the city, Mr Dorland,' said Mr Carrison, at length, slowly and carefully, 'I answer "No"; but it you were to put it to me on a dark night at Ladlow, I should beg time to consider. I do not believe in supernatural phenomena myself, and yet--the door at Ladlow is as much beyond my comprehension as the ebbing and flowing of the sea.'
'And you can't Live at Ladlow?' remarked my uncle.
'I can't live at Ladlow, and what is more, I can't get anyone else to live at Ladlow.'
'And you want to get rid of your lease?'
'I want so much to get rid of my lease that I told Fryer I would give him a handsome sum if he could induce anyone to solve the mystery. Is there any other information you desire, Mr Dorland? Because if here is, you have only to ask and have. I feel I am not here in a prosaic office in the city of London, but in the Palace of Truth.'
My uncle took no notice of the implied compliment. When wine is good it needs no bush. If a man is habitually honest in his speech and in his thoughts, he desires no recognition of the fact.
'I don't think so,' he answered; 'it is for the boy to say what he will do. If he be advised by me he will stick to his ordinary work in his employers' office, and leave ghost-hunting and spirit-laying alone.'
Mr Carrison shot a rapid glance in my direction, a glance which, implying a secret understanding, might have influenced my uncle could I have stooped to deceive my uncle.
'I can't stick to my work there any longer,' I said. 'I got my marching orders today.'
'What had you been doing, Phil?' asked my uncle.
'I wanted ten pounds to go and lay the ghost!' I answered, so dejectedly, that both Mr Carrison and my uncle broke out laughing.
'Ten pounds!' cried my uncle, almost between laughing and crying. 'Why, Phil boy, I had rather, poor man though I am, have given thee ten pounds than that thou should'st go ghost-hunting or ghostlaying.'
When he was very much in earnest my uncle went back to thee and thou of his native dialect. I liked the vulgarism, as my mother called it, and I knew my aunt loved to hear him use the caressing words to her. He had risen, not quite from the ranks it is true, but if ever a gentleman came ready born into the world it was Robert Dorland, upon whom at our home everyone seemed to look down.
'What will you do, Edlyd?' asked Mr Carrison; 'you hear what your uncle says, "Give up the enterprise," and what I say; I do not want either to bribe or force your inclinations.'
'I will go, sir,' I answered quite steadily. I am not afraid, and I should like to show you--' I stopped. I had been going to say, 'I should like to show you I am not such a fool as you all take me for', but I felt such an address would be too familiar, and refrained.
Mr Carrison looked at me curiously. I think he supplied the end of the sentence for himself, but he only answered:
'I should like you to show me that door fast shut; at any rate, if you can stay in the place alone for a fortnight, you shall have your money.'
'I don't like it, Phil,' said my uncle: 'I don't like this freak at all.'
'I am sorry for that, uncle,' I answered, 'for I mean to go.
'When?' asked Mr Carrison.
'Tomorrow morning,' I replied.
'Give him five pounds, Dorland, please, and I will send you my cheque. You will account to me for that sum, you understand,' added Mr Garrison, turning to where I stood.
'A sovereign will be quite enough,' I said.
'You will take five pounds, and account to me for it,' repeated Mr Carrison, firmly; 'also, you will write to me every day, to my private address, and if at any moment you feel the thing too much for you, throw it up. Good afternoon,' and without more formal leavetaking he departed.
'It is of no use talking to you, Phil, I suppose?' said my uncle.
'I don't think it is,' I replied; 'you won't say anything to them at home, will you?'
'I am not very likely to meet any of them, am I?' he answered, without a shade of bitterness---merely stating a fact.
'I suppose I shall not see you again before I start,' I said, 'so I will bid you goodbye now.
'Goodbye, my lad; I wish I could see you a bit wiser and steadier.'
I did not answer him; my heart was very full, and my eyes too. I had tried, but office-work was not in me, and I felt it was just as vain to ask me to sit on a stool and pore over writing and figures as to think a person born destitute of musical ability could compose an opera.
Of course I went straight to Patty; though we were not then married, though sometimes it seemed to me as if we never should be married, she was my better half then as she is my better half now.
She did not throw cold water on the project; she did not discourage me. What she said, with her dear face aglow with excitement, was, 'I only wish, Phil, I was going with you.' Heaven knows, so did I.
Next morning I was up before the milkman. I had told my people overnight I should be going out of town on business. Patty and I settled the whole plan in detail. I was to breakfast and dress there, for I meant to go down to Ladlow in my volunteer garments. That was a subject upon which my poor father and I never could agree; he called volunteering child's play, and other things equally hard to bear; whilst my brother, a very carpet warrior to my mind, was never weary of ridiculing the force, and chaffing me for imagining I was 'a soldier'.
Patty and I had talked matters over, and settled, as I have said, that I should dress at her father's.
A young fellow I knew had won a revolver at a raffle, and willingly lent it to me. With that and my rifle I felt I could conquer an army.
It was a lovely afternoon when I found myself walking through leafy lanes in the heart of Meadowshire. With every vein of my heart I loved the country, and the country was looking its best just then: grass ripe for the mower, grain forming in the ear, rippling streams, dreamy rivers, old orchards, quaint cottages.
'Oh that I had never to go back to London,' I thought, for I am one of the few people left on earth who love the country and hate cities. I walked on, I walked a long way, and being uncertain as to my road, asked a gentleman who was slowly riding a powerful roan horse under arching trees--a gentleman accompanied by a young lady mounted on a stiff white pony--my way to Ladlow Hall.
'That is Ladlow Hall,' he answered, pointing with his whip over the fence to my left hand. I thanked him and was going on, when he said:
'No one is living there now.'
'I am aware of that,' I answered.
He did not say anything more, only courteously bade me good-day, and rode off. The young lady inclined her head in acknowledgement of my uplifted cap, and smiled kindly. Altogether I felt pleased, little things always did please me. It was a good beginning--half-way to a good ending!
When I got to the Lodge I showed Mr Garrison's letter to the woman, and received the key.
'You are not going to stop up at the Hall alone, are you, sir?' she asked.
'Yes, I am,' I answered, uncompromisingly, so uncompromisingly that she said no more.
The avenue led straight to the house; it was uphill all the way, and bordered by rows of the most magnificent limes I ever beheld. A light iron fence divided the avenue from the park, and between the trunks of the trees I could see the deer browsing and cattle grazing. Ever and anon there came likewise to my ear the sound of a sheep-bell.
It was a long avenue, but at length I stood in front of the Hall--a square, solid-looking, old-fashioned house, three stories high, with no basement; a flight of steps up to the principal entrance; four windows to the right of the door, four windows to the left; the whole building flanked and backed with trees; all the blinds pulled down, a dead silence brooding over the place: the sun westering behind the great trees studding the park. I took all this in as I approached, and afterwards as I stood for a moment under the ample porch; then, remembering the business which had brought me so far, I fitted the great key in the lock, turned the handle, and entered Ladlow Hall.
For a minute--stepping out of the bright sunlight--the place looked to me so dark that I could scarcely distinguish the objects by which I was surrounded; but my eyes soon grew accustomed to the comparative darkness, and I found I was in an immense hall, lighted from the roof, a magnificent old oak staircase conducted to the upper rooms.
The floor was of black and white marble. There were two fireplaces, fitted with dogs for burning wood; around the walls hung pictures, antlers, and horns, and in odd niches and corners stood groups of statues, and the figures of men in complete suits of armour.
To look at the place outside, no one would have expected to find such a hall. I stood lost in amazement and admiration, and then I began to glance more particularly around.
Mr Garrison had not given me any instructions by which to identify the ghostly chamber---which I concluded would most probably be found on the first floor.
I knew nothing of the story connected with it--if there were a story. On that point I had left London as badly provided with mental as with actual luggage--worse provided, indeed, for a hamper, packed by Patty, and a small bag were coming over from the station; but regarding the mystery I was perfectly unencumbered. I had not the faintest idea in which apartment it resided.
Well, I should discover that, no doubt, for myself ere long.
I looked around me--doors--doors--doors I had never before seen so many doors together all at once. Two of them stood open--one wide, the other slightly ajar.
'I'll just shut them as a beginning,' I thought, 'before I go upstairs.'
The doors were of oak, heavy, well-fitting, furnished with good locks and sound handles. After I had closed I tried them. Yes, they were quite secure. I ascended the great staircase feeling curiously like an intruder, paced the corridors, entered the many bed-chambers--some quite bare of furniture, others containing articles of an ancient fashion, and no doubt of considerable value--chairs, antique dressing- tables, curious wardrobes, and such like. For the most part the doors were closed, and I shut those that stood open before making my way into the attics.
I was greatly delighted with the attics. The windows lighting them did not, as a rule, overlook the front of the Hall, but commanded wide views over wood, and valley, and meadow. Leaning out of one, I could see, that to the right of the Hall the ground, thickly planted, shelved down to a stream, which came out into the daylight a little distance beyond the plantation, and meandered through the deer park. At the back of the Hall the windows looked out on nothing save a dense wood and a portion of the stable-yard, whilst on the side nearest the point from whence I had come there were spreading gardens surrounded by thick yew hedges, and kitchen-gardens protected by high walls; and further on a farmyard, where I could perceive cows and oxen, and, further still, luxuriant meadows, and fields glad with waving corn.
'What a beautiful place!' I said. 'Garrison must have been a duffer to leave it.' And then I thought what a great ramshackle house it was for anyone to be in all alone.
Getting heated with my long walk, I suppose, made me feel chilly, for I shivered as I drew my head in from the last dormer window, and prepared to go downstairs again.
In the attics, as in the other parts of the house I had as yet explored, I closed the doors, when there were keys locking them; when there were not, trying them, and in all cases, leaving them securely fastened.
When I reached the ground floor the evening was drawing on apace, and I felt that if I wanted to explore the whole house before dusk I must hurry my proceedings.
'I'll take the kitchens next,' I decided, and so made my way to a wilderness of domestic offices lying to the rear of the great hall. Stone passages, great kitchens, an immense servants'-hall, larders, pantries, coal-cellars, beer-cellars, laundries, brewhouses, housekeeper's room--it was not of any use lingering over these details. The mystery that troubled Mr Garrison could scarcely lodge amongst cinders and empty bottles, and there did not seem much else left in this part of the building.
I would go through the living-rooms, and then decide as to the apartments I should occupy myself.
The evening shadows were drawing on apace, so I hurried back into the hall, feeling it was a weird position to be there all alone with those ghostly hollow figures of men in armour, and the statues on which the moon's beams must fall so coldly. I would just look through the lower apartments and then kindle a fire. I had seen quantities of wood in a cupboard close at hand, and felt that beside a blazing hearth, and after a good cup of tea, I should not feel the solitary sensation which was oppressing me.
The sun had sunk below the horizon by this time, for to reach Ladlow I had been obliged to travel by cross lines of railway, and wait besides for such trains as condescended to carry third-class passengers; but there was still light enough in the hail to see all objects distinctly. With my own eyes I saw that one of the doors I had shut with my own hands was standing wide!
I turned to the door on the other side of the hail. It was as I had left it--closed. This, then, was the room--this with the open door For a second I stood appalled; I think I was fairly frightened.
That did not last long, however. There lay the work I had desired to undertake, the foe I had offered to fight; so without more ado I shut the door and tried it.
'Now I will walk to the end of the hall and sec what happens,' I considered. I did so. I walked to the foot of the grand staircase and back again, and looked.
The door stood wide open.
I went into the room, after just a spasm of irresolution--went in and pulled up the blinds: a good-sized room, twenty by twenty (I knew, because I paced it afterwards), lighted by two long windows.
The floor, of polished oak, was partially covered with a Turkey carpet. There were two recesses beside the fireplace, one fitted up as a bookcase, the other with an old and elaborately caned cabinet. I was astonished also to find a bedstead in an apartment so little retired from the traffic of the house; and there were also some chairs of an obsolete make, covered, so far as I could make out, with Faded tapestry. Beside the bedstead, which stood against the wall opposite to the door, I perceived another door. It was fast locked, the only locked door I had as yet met with in the interior of the house. It was a dreary, gloomy room: the dark panelled walls; the black, shining floor; the windows high from the ground; the antique furniture; the dull four-poster bedstead, with dingy velvet curtains; the gaping chimney; the silk counterpane that looked like a pall.
'Any crime might have been committed in such a room,' I thought pettishly; and then I looked at the door critically.
Someone had been at the trouble of fitting bolts upon it, for when I passed out I not merely shut the door securely, but bolted it as well.
'I will go and get some wood, and then look at it again,' I soliloquized. When I came back it stood wide open once more.
'Stay open, then!' I cried in a fury. 'I won't trouble myself any more with you tonight!'
Almost as I spoke the words, there came a ring at the front door. Echoing through the desolate house, the peal in the then state of my nerves startled me beyond expression.
It was only the man who had agreed to bring over my traps. I bade him lay them down in the ball, and, while looking out some small silver, asked where the nearest post-office was to be found. Not far from the park gates, he said; if I wanted any letter sent, he would drop it in the box for me; the mail-cart picked up the bag at ten o'clock.
I had nothing ready to post then, and told him so. Perhaps the money I gave was more than he expected, or perhaps the dreariness of my position impressed him as it had impressed mc, for he paused with his hand on the lock, and asked:
'Are you going to stop here all alone, master?'
'All alone,' I answercd, with such cheerfulness as was possible under the circumstances.
'That's the room, you know,' he said, nodding in the direction of the open door, and dropping his voice to a whisper.
'Yes, I know,' I replied.
'What you've been trying to shut it already, have you? Well, you are a game one!' And with this complementary if not very respectful comment he hastened out of the house. Evidently he had no intention of proffering his services towards the solution of the mystery.
I cast one glance at the door--it stood wide open. Through the windows I had left bare to the night, moonlight was beginning to stream cold and silvery. Before I did aught else I felt I must write to Mr Carrison and Patty, so straightway I hurried to one of the great tables in the hall, and lighting a candle my thoughtful link girl had provided, with many other things, sat down and dashed off the two epistles.
Then down the long avenue, with its mysterious lights and shades, with the moonbeams glinting here and there, playing at hide-and-seek round the boles of the trees and through the tracery of quivering leaf and stem, I walked as fast as if I were doing a match against time.
It was delicious, the scent of the summer odours, the smell of the earth; if it had not been for the door I should have felt too happy. As it was--'Look here, Phil,' I said, all of a sudden; 'life's not child's play, as uncle truly remarks. That door is just the trouble you have now to face, and you must face it! But for that door you would never have been here. I hope you are not going to turn coward the very first night. Courage!--that is your enemy--conquer it.'
'I will try,' my other self answered back. 'I can but try. I can but fail.'
The post-office was at Ladlow Hollow, a little hamlet through which the stream I had remarked dawdling on its way across the park flowed swiftly, spanned by an ancient bridge.
As I stood by the door of the little shop, asking some questions of the postmistress, the same gentleman I had met in the afternoon mounted on his roan horse, passed on foot. He wished me goodnight as he went by, and nodded familiarly to my companion, who curtseyed her acknowledgements.
'His lordship ages fast,' she remarked, following the retreating figure with her eyes.
'His lordship,' I repeated. 'Of whom are you speaking?'
'Of Lord Ladlow,' she said.
'Oh! I have never seen him,' I answered, puzzled.
'Why, that was Lord Ladlow!' she exclaimed.
You may be sure I had something to think about as I walked back to the Hall--something beside the moonlight and the sweet night-scents, and the rustle of beast and bird and leaf, that make silence seem more eloquent than noise away down in the heart of the country.
Lord Ladlow! my word, I thought he was hundreds, thousands of miles away; and here I find him--he walking in the opposite direction from his own home--I an inmate of his desolate abode. Hi!--what was that? I heard a noise in a shrubbery close at hand, and in an instant I was in the thick of the underwood. Something shot out and darted into the cover of the further plantation. I followed, but I could catch never a glimpse of it. I did not know the lie of the ground sufficiently to course with success, and I had at length to give up the hunt--heated, baffled, and annoyed.
When I got into the house the moon's beams were streaming down upon the hall; I could see every statue, every square of marble, every piece of armour. For all the world it seemed to me like something in a dream; but I was tired and sleepy, and decided I would not trouble about fire or food, or the open door, till the next morning: I would go to sleep.
With this intention I picked up some of my traps and carried them to a room on the first floor I had selected as small and habitable. I went down for the rest, and this time chanced to lay my hand on my rifle.
It was wet. I touched the floor--it was wet likewise.
I never felt anything like the thrill of delight which shot through me. I had to deal with flesh and blood, and I would deal with it, heaven helping me.
The next morning broke clear and bright. I was up with the lark--had washed, dressed, breakfasted, explored the house before the postman came with my letters.
One from Mr Carrison, one from Patty, and one from my uncle: I gave the man half a crown, I was so delighted, and said I was afraid my being at the Hall would cause him some additional trouble.
'No, sir,' he answered, profuse in his expressions of gratitude; 'I pass here every morning on my way to her ladyship's.'
'Who is her ladyship?' I asked.
'The Dowager Lady Ladlow,' he answered--'the old lord's widow.'
'And where is her place?' I persisted.
'If you keep on through the shrubbery and across the waterfall, you come to the house about a quarter of a mile further up the stream.'
He departed, after telling me there was only one post a day; and I hurried back to the room in which I had breakfasted, carrying my letters with me.
I opened Mr Carrison's first. The gist of it was, 'Spare no expense; if you run short of money telegraph for it.'
I opened my uncle's next. He implored me to return; he had always thought me hair-brained, but he felt a deep interest in and affection for me, and thought he could get me a good berth if I would only try to settle down and promise to stick to my work. The last was from Patty. O Patty, God bless you! Such women, I fancy, the men who fight best in battle, who stick last to a sinking ship, who are firm in life's struggles, who are brave to resist temptation, must have known and loved. I can't tell you more about the letter, except that it gave me strength to go on to the end.
I spent the forenoon considering that door. I looked at it from within and from without. I eyed it critically. I tried whether there was any reason why it should fly open, and I found that so long as I remained on the threshold it remained closed; if I walked even so far away as the opposite side of the hall, it swung wide.
Do what I would, it burst from latch and bolt. I could not lock it because there was no key.
Well, before two o'clock I confess I was baffled.
At two there came a visitor--none other than Lord Ladlow himself. Sorely I wanted to take his horse round to the stables, but he would not hear of it.
'Walk beside me across the park, if you will be so kind,' he said; 'I want to speak to you.
We went together across the park, and before we parted I felt I could have gone through fire and water for this simple-spoken nobleman.
'You must not stay here ignorant of the rumours which are afloat,' he said. 'Of course, when I let the place to Mr Carrison I knew nothing of the open door.'
'Did you not, sir?--my lord, I mean,' I stammered.
He smiled. 'Do not trouble yourself about my title, which, indeed, carries a very empty state with it, but talk to me as you might to a friend. I had no idea there was any ghost story connected with the Hall, or I should have kept the place empty.'
I did not exactly know what to answer, so I remained silent.
'How did you chance to be sent here?' he asked, after a pause.
I told him. When the first shock was over, a lord did not seem very different from anybody else. If an emperor had taken a morning canter across the park, I might, supposing him equally affable, have spoken as familiarly to him as to Lord Ladlow. My mother always said I entirely lacked the bump of veneration! Beginning at the beginning, I repeated the whole story, from Parton's remark about the sovereign to Mr Carrison's conversation with my uncle. When I had left London behind in the narrative, however, and arrived at the Hall, I became somewhat more reticent. After all, it was his Hall people could not live in--his door that would not keep shut; and it seemed to me these were facts he might dislike being forced upon his attention.
But he would have it. What had I seen? What did I think of the matter? Very honestly I told him I did not know what to say. The door certainly would not remain shut, and there seemed no human agency to account for its persistent opening; but then, on the other hand, ghosts generally did not tamper with firearms, and my rifle, though not loaded, had been tampered with--I was sure of that.
My companion listened attentively. 'You are not frightened, are you?' he enquired at length.
'Not now,' I answered. 'The door did give me a start last evening, but I am not afraid of that since I find someone else is afraid of a bullet.'
He did not answer for a minute; then he said:
'The theory people have set up about the open door is this: As in that room my uncle was murdered, they say the door will never remain shut till the murderer is discovered.'
'Murdered!' I did not like the word at all; it made me feel chill and uncomfortable.
'Yes--he was murdered sitting in his chair, and the assassin has never been discovered. At first mans persons inclined to the belief that I killed him; indeed, many are of that opinion still.'
'But you did not, sir--there is not a word of truth in that story, is there?'
He laid his hand on my shoulder as he said:
'No, my lad; not a word. I loved the old man tenderly. Even when he disinherited me for the sake of his young wife, I was sorry, but not angry; and when he sent for me and assured me he had resolved to repair that wrong, I tried to induce him to leave the lady a handsome sum in addition to her jointure. "If you do not, people may think she has not been the source of happiness you expected," I added.
"Thank you, Hal," he said. "You are a good fellow; we will talk further about this tomorrow."
And then he bade me goodnight.
'Before morning broke--it was in the summer two years ago--the household was aroused by a fearful scream. It was his death-cry. He had been stabbed from behind in the neck. He was seated in his chair writing--writing a letter to me. But for that I might have found it harder to clear myself than was in the case; for his solicitors came forward and said he had signed a will leaving all his personalty to me--he was very rich--unconditionally, only three days previously. That, of course, supplied the motive, as my lady's lawyer put it. She was very vindictive, spared no expense in trying to prove my guilt, and said openly she would never rest till she saw justice done, if it cost her the whole of her fortune. The letter lying before the dead man, over which blood had spurted, she declared must have been placed on his table by me; but the coroner saw there was an animus in this, for the few opening lines stated my uncle's desire to confide in me his reasons for changing his will--reasons, he said, that involved his honour, as they had destroyed his peace. "In the statement you will find sealed up with my will in--" At that point he was dealt his death-blow. The papers were never found, and the will was never proved. My lady put in the former will, leaving her everything. Ill as I could afford to go to law, I was obliged to dispute the matter, and the lawyers are at it still, and very likely will continue at it for years.
When I lost my good name, I lost my good health, and had to go abroad; and while I was away Mr Carrison took the Hall. Till I returned, I never heard a word about the open door. My solicitor said Mr Carrison was behaving badly; but I think now I must see them or him, and consider what can be done in the affair. As for yourself, it is of vital importance to me that this mystery should be cleared up, and if you are really not timid, stay on. I am too poor to make rash promises, but you won't find me ungrateful.'
'Oh, my lord!' I cried--the address slipped quite easily and naturally off my tongue--'I don't want any more money or anything, if I can only show Patty's father I am good for something--'
'Who is Patty?' he asked.
He read the answer in my face, for he said no more.
'Should you like to have a good dog for company?' he enquired after a pause.
I hesitated; then I said:
'No, thank you. I would rather watch and hunt for myself.'
And as I spoke, the remembrance of that 'something' in the shrubbery recurred to me, and I told him I thought there had been someone about the place the previous evening.
'Poachers,' he suggested; but I shook my head.
'A girl or a woman I imagine. However, I think a dog might hamper me.'
He went away, and I returned to the house. I never left it all day. I did not go into the garden, or the stable-yard, or the shrubbery, or anywhere; I devoted myself solely and exclusively to that door.
If I shut it once, I shut it a hundred times, and always with the same result. Do what I would, it swung wide. Never, however, when I was looking at it. So long as I could endure to remain, it stayed shut-- the instant I turned my back, it stood open.
About four o'clock I had another visitor; no other than Lord Ladlow's daughter--the Honourable Beatrice, riding her funny little white pony.
She was a beautiful girl of fifteen or thereabouts, and she had the sweetest smile you ever saw.
'Papa sent me with this,' she said; 'he would not trust any other messenger,' and she put a piece of paper in my hand.
'Keep your food under lock and key; buy what you require yourself. Get your water from the pump in the stable-yard. I am going from home; but if you want anything, go or send to my daughter.'
'Any answer?' she asked, patting her pony's neck.
'Tell his lordship, if you please, I will "keep my powder dry"!' I replied.
'You have made papa look so happy,' she said, still patting that fortunate pony.
'If it is in my power, I will make him look happier still, Miss---' and I hesitated, not knowing how to address her.
'Call me Beatrice,' she said, with an enchanting grace; then added, slily, 'Papa promises me I shall be introduced to Patty ere long,' and before I could recover from my astonishment, she had tightened the bit and was turning across the park.
'One moment, please,' I cried. 'You can do something for me.'
'What is it?' and she came back, trotting over the great sweep in front of the house.
'Lend me your pony for a minute.'
She was off before I could even offer to help her alight--off, and gathering up her habit dexterously with one hand, led the docile old sheep forward with the other.
I took the bridle--when I was with horses I felt amongst my own kind-- stroked the pony, pulled his ears, and let him thrust his nose into my hand.
Miss Beatrice is a countess now, and a happy wife and mother; but I sometimes see her, and the other night she took me carefully into a conservatory and asked:
'Do you remember Toddy, Mr Edlyd?'
'Remember him!' I exclaimed; 'I can never forget him!'
'He is dead!' she told me, and there were tears in her beautiful eyes as she spoke the words.
'Mr Edlyd, I loved Toddy!'
Well, I took Toddy up to the house, and under the third window to the right hand. He was a docile creature, and let me stand on the saddle while I looked into the only room in Ladlow Hall I had been unable to enter.
It was perfectly bare of furniture, there was not a thing in it--not a chair or table, not a picture on the walls, or ornament on the chimney-piece.
'That is where my grand-uncle's valet slept,' said Miss Beatrice. 'It was he who first ran in to help him the night he was murdered.'
'Where is the valet?' I asked.
'Dead,' she answered. 'The shock killed him. He loved his master more than he loved himself.'
I had seen all I wished, so I jumped off the saddle, which I had carefully dusted with a branch plucked from a lilac tree; between jest and earnest pressed the hem of Miss Beatrice's habit to my lips as I arranged its folds; saw her wave her hand as she went at a hand-gallop across the park; and then turned back once again into the lonely house, with the determination to solve the mystery attached to it or die in the attempt.
Why, I cannot explain, but before I went to bed that night I drove a gimlet I found in the stables hard into the floor, and said to the door:
'Now I am keeping you open.'
When I went down in the morning the door was close shut, and the handle of the gimlet, broken off short, lying in the hall.
I put my hand to wipe my forehead; it was dripping with perspiration. I did not know what to make of the place at all! I went out into the open air for a few minutes; when I returned the door again stood wide.
If I were to pursue in detail the days and nights that followed, I should weary my readers. I can only say they changed my life. The solitude, the solemnity, the mystery, produced an effect I do not profess to understand, but that I cannot regret.
I have hesitated about writing of the end, but it must come, so let me hasten to it.
Though feeling convinced that no human agency did or could keep the door open, I was certain that some living person had means of access to the house which I could not discover, This was made apparent in trifles which might well have escaped unnoticed had several, or even two people occupied the mansion, but that in my solitary position it was impossible to overlook. A chair would be misplaced, for instance; a path would be visible over a dusty floor; my papers I found were moved; my clothes touched--letters I carried about with me, and kept under my pillow at night; still, the fact remained that when I went to the post-office, and while I was asleep, someone did wander over the house. On Lord Ladlow's return I meant to ask him for some further particulars of his uncle's death, and I was about to write to Mr Carrison and beg permission to have the door where the valet had slept broken open, when one morning, very early indeed, I spied a hairpin lying close beside it.
What an idiot I had been! If I wanted to solve the mystery of the open door, of course I must keep watch in the room itself. The door would not stay wide unless there was a reason for it, and most certainly a hairpin could not have got into the house without assistance.
I made up my mind what I should do--that I would go to the post early, and take up my position about the hour I had hitherto started for Ladlow Hollow. I felt on the eve of a discovery, and longed for the day to pass, that the night might come.
It was a lovely morning; the weather had been exquisite during the whole week, and I flung the hall-door wide to let in the sunshine and the breeze. As I did so, I saw there was a basket on the top step--a basket filled with rare and beautiful fruit and flowers.
Mr Carrison had let off the gardens attached to Ladlow Hall for the season--he thought he might as well save something out of the fire, he said, so my fare had not been varied with delicacies of that kind. I was very fond of fruit in those days, and seeing a card addressed to me, I instantly selected a tempting peach, and ate it a little greedily perhaps.
I might say I had barely swallowed the last morsel, when Lord Ladlow's caution recurred to me. The fruit had a curious flavour--there was a strange taste hanging about my palate. For a moment, sky, trees and park swam before my eyes; then I made up my mind what to do.
I smelt the fruit--it had all the same faint odour; then I put some in my pocket--took the basket and locked it away--walked round to the farmyard--asked for the loan of a horse that was generally driven in a light cart, and in less than half an hour was asking in Ladlow to be directed to a doctor.
Rather cross at being disturbed so early, he was at first inclined to pooh-pooh my idea; but I made him cut open a pear and satisfy himself the fruit had been tampered with.
'It is fortunate you stopped at the first peach,' he remarked, after giving me a draught, and some medicine to take back, and advising me to keep in the open air as much as possible. 'I should like to retain this fruit and see you again tomorrow.'
We did not think then on how many morrows we should see each other!
Riding across to Ladlow, the postman had given me three letters, but I did not read them till I was seated under a great tree in the park, with a basin of milk and a piece of bread beside me.
Hitherto, there had been nothing exciting in my correspondence. Patty's epistles were always delightful, but they could not be regarded as sensational; and about Mr Carrison's there was a monotony I had begun to find tedious. On this occasion, however, no fault could be found on that score. The contents of his letter greatly surprised me. He said Lord Ladlow had released him from his bargain--that I could, therefore, leave the Hall at once. He enclosed me ten pounds, and said he would consider how he could best advance my interests; and that I had better call upon him at his private house when I returned to London.
'I do not think I shall leave Ladlow yet awhile,' I considered, as I replaced his letter in its envelope. 'Before I go I should like to make it hot for whoever sent me that fruit; so unless Lord Ladlow turns me out I'll stay a little longer.'
Lord Ladlow did not wish me to leave. The third letter was from him.
'I shall return home tomorrow night,' he wrote, 'and see you on Wednesday. I have arranged satisfactorily with Mr Carrison, and as the Hall is my own again, I mean to try to solve the mystery it contains myself. If you choose to stop and help me to do so, you would confer a favour, and I will try to make it worth your while.'
'I will keep watch tonight, and see if I cannot give you some news tomorrow,' I thought. And then I opened Patty's letter--the best, dearest, sweetest letter any postman in all the world could have brought me.
If it had not been for what Lord Ladlow said about his sharing my undertaking, I should not have chosen that night for my vigil. I felt ill and languid--fancy, no doubt, to a great degree inducing these sensations. I had lost energy in a most unaccountable manner. The long, lonely days had told upon my spirits--the fidgety feeling which took me a hundred times in the twelve hours to look upon the open door, to close it, and to count how many steps I could take before it opened again, had tried my mental strength as a perpetual blister might have worn away my physical. In no sense was I fit for the task I had set myself, and yet I determined to go through with it. Why had I never before decided to watch in that mysterious chamber? Had I been at the bottom of my heart afraid? In the bravest of us there are depths of cowardice that lurk unsuspected till they engulf our courage.
The day wore on--the long, dreary day; evening approached--the night shadows closed over the Hall. The moon would not rise for a couple of hours more. Everything was still as death. The house had never before seemed to me so silent and so deserted.
I took a light, and went up to my accustomed room, moving about for a time as though preparing for bed; then I extinguished the candle, softly opened the door, turned the key, and put it in my pocket, slipped softly downstairs, across the hail, through the open door. Then I knew I had been afraid, for I felt a thrill of terror as in the dark I stepped over the threshold. I paused and listened--there was not a sound--the night was still and sultry, as though a storm were brewing.
Not a leaf seemed moving--the very mice remained in their holes! Noiselessly I made my way to the other side of the room. There was an old-fashioned easy-chair between the bookshelves and the bed; I sat down in it, shrouded by the heavy curtain.
The hours passed--were ever hours so long? The moon rose, came and looked in at the windows, and then sailed away to the west; but not a sound, no, not even the cry of a bird. I seemed to myself a mere collection of nerves. Every part of my body appeared twitching. It was agony to remain still; the desire to move became a form of torture. Ah! a streak in the sky; morning at last, Heaven be praised! Had ever anyone before so welcomed the dawn? A thrush began to sing--was there ever heard such delightful music? It was the morning twilight, soon the sun would rise; soon that awful vigil would be over, and yet I was no nearer the mystery than before. Hush! what was that? It had come. After the hours of watching and waiting; after the long night and the long suspense, it came in a moment.
The locked door opened--so suddenly, so silently, that I had barely time to draw back behind the curtain, before I saw a woman in the room. She went straight across to the other door and closed it, securing it as I saw with bolt and lock. Then just glancing around, she made her way to the cabinet, and with a key she produced shot back the wards. I did not stir, I scarcely breathed, and yet she seemed uneasy. Whatever she wanted to do she evidently was in haste to finish, for she took out the drawers one by one, and placed them on the floor; then, as the light grew better, I saw her first kneel on the floor, and peer into every aperture, and subsequently repeat the same process, standing on a chair she drew forward for the purpose. A slight, lithe woman, not a lady, clad all in black--not a bit of white about her. What on earth could she want? In a moment it flashed upon me--THE WILL AND THE LETTER! SHE IS SEARCHING FOR THEM.
I sprang from my concealment--I had her in my grasp; but she tore herself out of my hands, fighting like a wild-cat: she hit, scratched, kicked, shifting her body as though she had not a bone in it, and at last slipped herself free, and ran wildly towards the door by which she had entered.
If she reached it, she would escape me. I rushed across the room and just caught her dress as she was on the threshold. My blood was up, and I dragged her back: she had the strength of twenty devils, I think, and struggled as surely no woman ever did before.
'I do not want to kill you,' I managed to say in gasps, 'but I will if you do not keep quiet.'
'Bah!' she cried; and before I knew what she was doing she had the revolver out of my pocket and fired.
She missed: the ball just glanced off my sleeve. I fell upon her--I can use no other expression, for it had become a fight for life, and no man can tell the ferocity there is in him till he is placed as I was then--fell upon her, and seized the weapon. She would not let it go, but I held her so tight she could not use it. She bit my face; with her disengaged hand she tore my hair. She turned and twisted and slipped about like a snake, but I did not feel pain or anything except a deadly horror lest my strength should give out.
Could I hold out much longer? She made one desperate plunge, I felt the grasp with which I held her slackening; she felt it too, and seizing her advantage tore herself free, and at the same instant fired again blindly, and again missed.
Suddenly there came a look of horror into her eyes--a frozen expression of fear.
'See!' she cried; and flinging the revolver at me, fled.
I saw, as in a momentary flash, that the door I had beheld locked stood wide--that there stood beside the table an awful figure, with uplifted hand--and then I saw no more. I was struck at last; as she threw the revolver at me she must have pulled the trigger, for I felt something like red-hot iron enter my shoulder, and I could but rush from the room before I fell senseless on the marble pavement of the ball.
When the postman came that morning, finding no one stirring, be looked through one of the long windows that flanked the door; then he ran to the farmyard and called for help.
'There is something wrong inside,' be cried. 'That young gentleman is lying on the floor in a pool of blood.'
As they rushed round to the front of the house they saw Lord Ladlow riding up the avenue, and breathlessly told him what had happened.
'Smash in one of the windows,' be said; 'and go instantly for a doctor.'
They laid me on the bed in that terrible room, and telegraphed for my father. For long I hovered between life and death, but at length I recovered sufficiently to be removed to the house Lord Ladlow owned on the other side of the Hollow.
Before that time I had told him all I knew, and begged him to make instant search for the will.
'Break up the cabinet if necessary,' I entreated, 'I am sure the papers are there.'
And they were. His lordship got his own, and as to the scandal and the crime, one was hushed up and the other remained unpunished. The dowager and her maid went abroad the very morning I lay on the marble pavement at Ladlow Hall--they never returned.
My lord made that one condition of his silence.
Not in Meadowshire, but in a fairer county still, I have a farm which I manage, and make both ends meet comfortably.
Patty is the best wife any man ever possessed--and I--well, I am just as happy if a trifle more serious than of old; but there are times when a great horror of darkness seems to fall upon me, and at such periods I cannot endure to be left alone.
Man-size in marble
Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it. Nowadays a "rational explanation" is required before belief is possible. Let me then, at once, offer the "rational explanation" which finds most favour among those who have heard the tale of my life's tragedy. It is held that we were "under a delusion," Laura and I, on that 31st of October; and that this supposition places the whole matter on a satisfactory and believable basis. The reader can judge, when he, too, has heard my story, how far this is an "explanation," and in what sense it is "rational." There were three who took part in this: Laura and I and another man. The other man still lives, and can speak to the truth of the least credible part of my story.
I never in my life knew what it was to have as much money as I required to supply the most ordinary needs--good colours, books, and cab-fares--and when we were married we knew quite well that we should only be able to live at all by "strict punctuality and attention to business." I used to paint in those days, and Laura used to write, and we felt sure we could keep the pot at least simmering. Living in town was out of the question, so we went to look for a cottage in the country, which should be at once sanitary and picturesque. So rarely do these two qualities meet in one cottage that our search was for some time quite fruitless. We tried advertisements, but most of the desirable rural residences which we did look at proved to be lacking in both essentials, and when a cottage chanced to have drains it always had stucco as well and was shaped like a tea-caddy. And if we found a vine or rose-covered porch, corruption invariably lurked within. Our minds got so befogged by the eloquence of house-agents and the rival disadvantages of the fever-traps and outrages to beauty which we had seen and scorned, that I very much doubt whether either of us, on our wedding morning, knew the difference between a house and a haystack. But when we got away from friends and house-agents, on our honeymoon, our wits grew clear again, and we knew a pretty cottage when at last we saw one. It was at Brenzett--a little village set on a hill over against the southern marshes. We had gone there, from the seaside village where we were staying, to see the church, and two fields from the church we found this cottage. It stood quite by itself, about two miles from the village. It was a long, low building, with rooms sticking out in unexpected places. There was a bit of stone-work--ivy-covered and moss-grown, just two old rooms, all that was left of a big house that had once stood there--and round this stone-work the house had grown up. Stripped of its roses and jasmine it would have been hideous. As it stood it was charming, and after a brief examination we took it. It was absurdly cheap. The rest of our honeymoon we spent in grubbing about in second-hand shops in the county town, picking up bits of old oak and Chippendale chairs for our furnishing. We wound up with a run up to town and a visit to Liberty's, and soon the low oak-beamed lattice-windowed rooms began to be home. There was a jolly old-fashioned garden, with grass paths, and no end of hollyhocks and sunflowers, and big lilies. From the window you could see the marsh-pastures, and beyond them the blue, thin line of the sea. We were as happy as the summer was glorious, and settled down into work sooner than we ourselves expected. I was never tired of sketching the view and the wonderful cloud effects from the open lattice, and Laura would sit at the table and write verses about them, in which I mostly played the part of foreground.
We got a tall old peasant woman to do for us. Her face and figure were good, though her cooking was of the homeliest; but she understood all about gardening, and told us all the old names of the coppices and cornfields, and the stories of the smugglers and highwaymen, and, better still, of the "things that walked," and of the "sights" which met one in lonely glens of a starlight night. She was a great comfort to us, because Laura hated housekeeping as much as I loved folklore, and we soon came to leave all the domestic business to Mrs. Dorman, and to use her legends in little magazine stories which brought in the jingling guinea.
We had three months of married happiness, and did not have a single quarrel. One October evening I had been down to smoke a pipe with the doctor--our only neighbour--a pleasant young Irishman. Laura had stayed at home to finish a comic sketch of a village episode for the Monthly Marplot. I left her laughing over her own jokes, and came in to find her a crumpled heap of pale muslin weeping on the window seat.
"Good heavens, my darling, what's the matter?" I cried, taking her in my arms. She leaned her little dark head against my shoulder and went on crying. I had never seen her cry before--we had always been so happy, you see--and I felt sure some frightful misfortune had happened.
"What is the matter? Do speak."
"It's Mrs. Dorman," she sobbed.
"What has she done?" I inquired, immensely relieved.
"She says she must go before the end of the month, and she says her niece is ill; she's gone down to see her now, but I don't believe that's the reason, because her niece is always ill. I believe someone has been setting her against us. Her manner was so queer---"
"Never mind, Pussy," I said; "whatever you do, don't cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you'll never respect your man again!"
She dried her eyes obediently on my handkerchief, and even smiled faintly.
"But you see," she went on, "it is really serious, because these village people are so sheepy, and if one won't do a thing you may be quite sure none of the others will. And I shall have to cook the dinners, and wash up the hateful greasy plates; and you'll have to carry cans of water about, and clean the boots and knives--and we shall never have any time for work, or earn any money, or anything. We shall have to work all day, and only be able to rest when we are waiting for the kettle to boil!"
I represented to her that even if we had to perform these duties, the day would still present some margin for other toils and recreations. But she refused to see the matter in any but the greyest light. She was very unreasonable, my Laura, but I could not have loved her any more if she had been as reasonable as Whately.
"I'll speak to Mrs. Dorman when she comes back, and see if I can't come to terms with her," I said. "Perhaps she wants a rise in her screw. It will be all right. Let's walk up to the church."
The church was a large and lonely one, and we loved to go there, especially upon bright nights. The path skirted a wood, cut through it once, and ran along the crest of the hill through two meadows, and round the churchyard wall, over which the old yews loomed in black masses of shadow. This path, which was partly paved, was called "the bier-balk," for it had long been the way by which the corpses had been carried to burial. The churchyard was richly treed, and was shaded by great elms which stood just outside and stretched their majestic arms in benediction over the happy dead. A large, low porch let one into the building by a Norman doorway and a heavy oak door studded with iron. Inside, the arches rose into darkness, and between them the reticulated windows, which stood out white in the moonlight. In the chancel, the windows were of rich glass, which showed in faint light their noble colouring, and made the black oak of the choir pews hardly more solid than the shadows. But on each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church. Their names were lost, but the peasants told of them that they had been fierce and wicked men, marauders by land and sea, who had been the scourge of their time, and had been guilty of deeds so foul that the house they had lived in--the big house, by the way, that had stood on the site of our cottage--had been stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven. But for all that, the gold of their heirs had bought them a place in the church. Looking at the bad hard faces reproduced in the marble, this story was easily believed.
The church looked at its best and weirdest on that night, for the shadows of the yew trees fell through the windows upon the floor of the nave and touched the pillars with tattered shade. We sat down together without speaking, and watched the solemn beauty of the old church, with some of that awe which inspired its early builders. We walked to the chancel and looked at the sleeping warriors. Then we rested some time on the stone seat in the porch, looking out over the stretch of quiet moonlit meadows, feeling in every fibre of our being the peace of the night and of our happy love; and came away at last with a sense that even scrubbing and blackleading were but small troubles at their worst.
Mrs. Dorman had come back from the village, and I at once invited her to a tête-à-tête.
"Now, Mrs. Dorman," I said, when I had got her into my painting room, "what's all this about your not staying with us?"
"I should be glad to get away, sir, before the end of the month," she answered, with her usual placid dignity.
"Have you any fault to find, Mrs. Dorman?"
"None at all, sir; you and your lady have always been most kind, I'm sure---"
"Well, what is it? Are your wages not high enough?"
"No, sir, I gets quite enough."
"Then why not stay?"
"I'd rather not"--with some hesitation--"my niece is ill."
"But your niece has been ill ever since we came."
No answer. There was a long and awkward silence. I broke it.
"Can't you stay for another month?" I asked.
"No, sir. I'm bound to go by Thursday."
And this was Monday!
"Well, I must say, I think you might have let us know before. There's no time now to get any one else, and your mistress is not fit to do heavy housework. Can't you stay till next week?"
"I might be able to come back next week."
I was now convinced that all she wanted was a brief holiday, which we should have been willing enough to let her have, as soon as we could get a substitute.
"But why must you go this week?" I persisted. "Come, out with it."
Mrs. Dorman drew the little shawl, which she always wore, tightly across her bosom, as though she were cold. Then she said, with a sort of effort---
"They say, sir, as this was a big house in Catholic times, and there was a many deeds done here."
The nature of the "deeds" might be vaguely inferred from the inflection of Mrs. Dorman's voice--which was enough to make one's blood run cold. I was glad that Laura was not in the room. She was always nervous, as highly-strung natures are, and I felt that these tales about our house, told by this old peasant woman, with her impressive manner and contagious credulity, might have made our home less dear to my wife.
"Tell me all about it, Mrs. Dorman," I said; "you needn't mind about telling me. I'm not like the young people who make fun of such things."
Which was partly true.
"Well, sir"--she sank her voice--"you may have seen in the church, beside the altar, two shapes."
"You mean the effigies of the knights in armour," I said cheerfully.
"I mean them two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble," she returned, and I had to admit that her description was a thousand times more graphic than mine, to say nothing of a certain weird force and uncanniness about the phrase "drawed out man-size in marble."
"They do say, as on All Saints' Eve them two bodies sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble"--(another good phrase, Mrs. Dorman)--"and as the church clock strikes eleven they walks out of the church door, and over the graves, and along the bier-balk, and if it's a wet night there's the marks of their feet in the morning."
"And where do they go?" I asked, rather fascinated.
"They comes back here to their home, sir, and if any one meets them---"
"Well, what then?" I asked.
But no--not another word could I get from her, save that her niece was ill and she must go. After what I had heard I scorned to discuss the niece, and tried to get from Mrs. Dorman more details of the legend. I could get nothing but warnings.
"Whatever you do, sir, lock the door early on All Saints' Eve, and make the cross-sign over the doorstep and on the windows."
"But has any one ever seen these things?" I persisted.
"That's not for me to say. I know what I know, sir."
"Well, who was here last year?"
"No one, sir; the lady as owned the house only stayed here in summer, and she always went to London a full month afore the night. And I'm sorry to inconvenience you and your lady, but my niece is ill and I must go on Thursday."
I could have shaken her for her absurd reiteration of that obvious fiction, after she had told me her real reasons.
She was determined to go, nor could our united entreaties move her in the least.
I did not tell Laura the legend of the shapes that "walked in their marble," partly because a legend concerning our house might perhaps trouble my wife, and partly, I think, from some more occult reason. This was not quite the same to me as any other story, and I did not want to talk about it till the day was over. I had very soon ceased to think of the legend, however. I was painting a portrait of Laura, against the lattice window, and I could not think of much else. I had got a splendid background of yellow and grey sunset, and was working away with enthusiasm at her lace. On Thursday Mrs. Dorman went. She relented, at parting, so far as to say---
"Don't you put yourself about too much, ma'am, and if there's any little thing I can do next week, I'm sure I shan't mind."
From which I inferred that she wished to come back to us after Hallowe'en. Up to the last she adhered to the fiction of the niece with touching fidelity.
Thursday passed off pretty well. Laura showed marked ability in the matter of steak and potatoes, and I confess that my knives, and the plates, which I insisted upon washing, were better done than I had dared to expect.
Friday came. It is about what happened on that Friday that this is written. I wonder if I should have believed it, if any one had told it to me. I will write the story of it as quickly and plainly as I can. Everything that happened on that day is burnt into my brain. I shall not forget anything, nor leave anything out.
I got up early, I remember, and lighted the kitchen fire, and had just achieved a smoky success, when my little wife came running down, as sunny and sweet as the clear October morning itself. We prepared breakfast together, and found it very good fun. The housework was soon done, and when brushes and brooms and pails were quiet again, the house was still indeed. It is wonderful what a difference one makes in a house. We really missed Mrs. Dorman, quite apart from considerations concerning pots and pans. We spent the day in dusting our books and putting them straight, and dined gaily on cold steak and coffee. Laura was, if possible, brighter and gayer and sweeter than usual, and I began to think that a little domestic toil was really good for her. We had never been so merry since we were married, and the walk we had that afternoon was, I think, the happiest time of all my life. When we had watched the deep scarlet clouds slowly pale into leaden grey against a pale-green sky, and saw the white mists curl up along the hedgerows in the distant marsh, we came back to the house, silently, hand in hand.
"You are sad, my darling," I said, half-jestingly, as we sat down together in our little parlour. I expected a disclaimer, for my own silence had been the silence of complete happiness. To my surprise she said---
"Yes. I think I am sad, or rather I am uneasy. I don't think I'm very well. I have shivered three or four times since we came in, and it is not cold, is it?"
"No," I said, and hoped it was not a chill caught from the treacherous mists that roll up from the marshes in the dying light. No--she said, she did not think so. Then, after a silence, she spoke suddenly---
"Do you ever have presentiments of evil?"
"No," I said, smiling, "and I shouldn't believe in them if I had."
"I do," she went on; "the night my father died I knew it, though he was right away in the north of Scotland." I did not answer in words.
She sat looking at the fire for some time in silence, gently stroking my hand. At last she sprang up, came behind me, and, drawing my head back, kissed me.
"There, it's over now," she said. "What a baby I am! Come, light the candles, and we'll have some of these new Rubinstein duets."
And we spent a happy hour or two at the piano.
At about half-past ten I began to long for the good-night pipe, but Laura looked so white that I felt it would be brutal of me to fill our sitting-room with the fumes of strong cavendish.
"I'll take my pipe outside," I said.
"Let me come, too."
"No, sweetheart, not to-night; you're much too tired. I shan't be long. Get to bed, or I shall have an invalid to nurse to-morrow as well as the boots to clean."
I kissed her and was turning to go, when she flung her arms round my neck, and held me as if she would never let me go again. I stroked her hair.
"Come, Pussy, you're over-tired. The housework has been too much for you."
She loosened her clasp a little and drew a deep breath.
"No. We've been very happy to-day, Jack, haven't we? Don't stay out too long."
"I won't, my dearie."
I strolled out of the front door, leaving it unlatched. What a night it was! The jagged masses of heavy dark cloud were rolling at intervals from horizon to horizon, and thin white wreaths covered the stars. Through all the rush of the cloud river, the moon swam, breasting the waves and disappearing again in the darkness. When now and again her light reached the woodlands they seemed to be slowly and noiselessly waving in time to the swing of the clouds above them. There was a strange grey light over all the earth; the fields had that shadowy bloom over them which only comes from the marriage of dew and moonshine, or frost and starlight.
I walked up and down, drinking in the beauty of the quiet earth and the changing sky. The night was absolutely silent. Nothing seemed to be abroad. There was no skurrying of rabbits, or twitter of the half-asleep birds. And though the clouds went sailing across the sky, the wind that drove them never came low enough to rustle the dead leaves in the woodland paths. Across the meadows I could see the church tower standing out black and grey against the sky. I walked there thinking over our three months of happiness--and of my wife, her dear eyes, her loving ways. Oh, my little girl! my own little girl; what a vision came then of a long, glad life for you and me together!
I heard a bell-beat from the church. Eleven already! I turned to go in, but the night held me. I could not go back into our little warm rooms yet. I would go up to the church. I felt vaguely that it would be good to carry my love and thankfulness to the sanctuary whither so many loads of sorrow and gladness had been borne by the men and women of the dead years.
I looked in at the low window as I went by. Laura was half lying on her chair in front of the fire. I could not see her face, only her little head showed dark against the pale blue wall. She was quite still. Asleep, no doubt. My heart reached out to her, as I went on. There must be a God, I thought, and a God who was good. How otherwise could anything so sweet and dear as she have ever been imagined?
I walked slowly along the edge of the wood. A sound broke the stillness of the night, it was a rustling in the wood. I stopped and listened. The sound stopped too. I went on, and now distinctly heard another step than mine answer mine like an echo. It was a poacher or a wood-stealer, most likely, for these were not unknown in our Arcadian neighbourhood. But whoever it was, he was a fool not to step more lightly. I turned into the wood, and now the footstep seemed to come from the path I had just left. It must be an echo, I thought. The wood looked perfect in the moonlight. The large dying ferns and the brushwood showed where through thinning foliage the pale light came down. The tree trunks stood up like Gothic columns all around me. They reminded me of the church, and I turned into the bier-balk, and passed through the corpse-gate between the graves to the low porch. I paused for a moment on the stone seat where Laura and I had watched the fading landscape. Then I noticed that the door of the church was open, and I blamed myself for having left it unlatched the other night. We were the only people who ever cared to come to the church except on Sundays, and I was vexed to think that through our carelessness the damp autumn airs had had a chance of getting in and injuring the old fabric. I went in. It will seem strange, perhaps, that I should have gone half-way up the aisle before I remembered--with a sudden chill, followed by as sudden a rush of self-contempt--that this was the very day and hour when, according to tradition, the "shapes drawed out man-size in marble" began to walk.
Having thus remembered the legend, and remembered it with a shiver, of which I was ashamed, I could not do otherwise than walk up towards the altar, just to look at the figures--as I said to myself; really what I wanted was to assure myself, first, that I did not believe the legend, and, secondly, that it was not true. I was rather glad that I had come. I thought now I could tell Mrs. Dorman how vain her fancies were, and how peacefully the marble figures slept on through the ghastly hour. With my hands in my pockets I passed up the aisle. In the grey dim light the eastern end of the church looked larger than usual, and the arches above the two tombs looked larger too. The moon came out and showed me the reason. I stopped short, my heart gave a leap that nearly choked me, and then sank sickeningly.
The "bodies drawed out man-size" were gone, and their marble slabs lay wide and bare in the vague moonlight that slanted through the east window.
Were they really gone? or was I mad? Clenching my nerves, I stooped and passed my hand over the smooth slabs, and felt their flat unbroken surface. Had some one taken the things away? Was it some vile practical joke? I would make sure, anyway. In an instant I had made a torch of a newspaper, which happened to be in my pocket, and lighting it held it high above my head. Its yellow glare illumined the dark arches and those slabs. The figures were gone. And I was alone in the church; or was I alone?
And then a horror seized me, a horror indefinable and indescribable--an overwhelming certainty of supreme and accomplished calamity. I flung down the torch and tore along the aisle and out through the porch, biting my lips as I ran to keep myself from shrieking aloud. Oh, was I mad--or what was this that possessed me? I leaped the churchyard wall and took the straight cut across the fields, led by the light from our windows. Just as I got over the first stile, a dark figure seemed to spring out of the ground. Mad still with that certainty of misfortune, I made for the thing that stood in my path, shouting, "Get out of the way, can't you!"
But my push met with a more vigorous resistance than I had expected. My arms were caught just above the elbow and held as in a vice, and the raw-boned Irish doctor actually shook me.
"Would ye?" he cried, in his own unmistakable accents--"would ye, then?"
"Let me go, you fool," I gasped. "The marble figures have gone from the church; I tell you they've gone."
He broke into a ringing laugh. "I'll have to give ye a draught to-morrow, I see. Ye've bin smoking too much and listening to old wives' tales."
"I tell you, I've seen the bare slabs."
"Well, come back with me. I'm going up to old Palmer's--his daughter's ill; we'll look in at the church and let me see the bare slabs."
"You go, if you like," I said, a little less frantic for his laughter; "I'm going home to my wife."
"Rubbish, man," said he; "d'ye think I'll permit of that? Are ye to go saying all yer life that ye've seen solid marble endowed with vitality, and me to go all me life saying ye were a coward? No, sir--ye shan't do ut."
The night air--a human voice--and I think also the physical contact with this six feet of solid common sense, brought me back a little to my ordinary self, and the word "coward" was a mental shower-bath.
"Come on, then," I said sullenly; "perhaps you're right."
He still held my arm tightly. We got over the stile and back to the church. All was still as death. The place smelt very damp and earthy. We walked up the aisle. I am not ashamed to confess that I shut my eyes: I knew the figures would not be there. I heard Kelly strike a match.
"Here they are, ye see, right enough; ye've been dreaming or drinking, asking yer pardon for the imputation."
I opened my eyes. By Kelly's expiring vesta I saw two shapes lying "in their marble" on their slabs. I drew a deep breath, and caught his hand.
"I'm awfully indebted to you," I said. "It must have been some trick of light, or I have been working rather hard, perhaps that's it. Do you know, I was quite convinced they were gone."
"I'm aware of that," he answered rather grimly; "ye'll have to be careful of that brain of yours, my friend, I assure ye."
He was leaning over and looking at the right-hand figure, whose stony face was the most villainous and deadly in expression.
"By Jove," he said, "something has been afoot here--this hand is broken."
And so it was. I was certain that it had been perfect the last time Laura and I had been there.
"Perhaps some one has tried to remove them," said the young doctor.
"That won't account for my impression," I objected.
"Too much painting and tobacco will account for that, well enough."
"Come along," I said, "or my wife will be getting anxious. You'll come in and have a drop of whisky and drink confusion to ghosts and better sense to me."
"I ought to go up to Palmer's, but it's so late now I'd best leave it till the morning," he replied. "I was kept late at the Union, and I've had to see a lot of people since. All right, I'll come back with ye."
I think he fancied I needed him more than did Palmer's girl, so, discussing how such an illusion could have been possible, and deducing from this experience large generalities concerning ghostly apparitions, we walked up to our cottage. We saw, as we walked up the garden-path, that bright light streamed out of the front door, and presently saw that the parlour door was open too. Had she gone out?
"Come in," I said, and Dr. Kelly followed me into the parlour. It was all ablaze with candles, not only the wax ones, but at least a dozen guttering, glaring tallow dips, stuck in vases and ornaments in unlikely places. Light, I knew, was Laura's remedy for nervousness. Poor child! Why had I left her? Brute that I was.
We glanced round the room, and at first we did not see her. The window was open, and the draught set all the candles flaring one way. Her chair was empty and her handkerchief and book lay on the floor. I turned to the window. There, in the recess of the window, I saw her. Oh, my child, my love, had she gone to that window to watch for me? And what had come into the room behind her? To what had she turned with that look of frantic fear and horror? Oh, my little one, had she thought that it was I whose step she heard, and turned to meet--what?
She had fallen back across a table in the window, and her body lay half on it and half on the window-seat, and her head hung down over the table, the brown hair loosened and fallen to the carpet. Her lips were drawn back, and her eyes wide, wide open. They saw nothing now. What had they seen last?
The doctor moved towards her, but I pushed him aside and sprang to her; caught her in my arms and cried---
"It's all right, Laura! I've got you safe, wifie."
She fell into my arms in a heap. I clasped her and kissed her, and called her by all her pet names, but I think I knew all the time that she was dead. Her hands were tightly clenched. In one of them she held something fast. When I was quite sure that she was dead, and that nothing mattered at all any more, I let him open her hand to see what she held.
It was a grey marble finger.
No tamanho de homem em mármore
Embora cada palavra desta história seja tão verdadeira quanto angustiante, eu não espero que as pessoas acreditem nela. Nos dias de hoje, uma "explicação racional" vem antes de qualquer crença. Então, deixe-me fornecer a "explicação racional" que é a mais aceita entre aqueles que ouviram a história trágica da minha vida. Defendem que estávamos sob o efeito de uma alucinação, Laura e eu, naquele 31 de outubro. Essa hipótese coloca a questão toda num ponto de partida suficientemente plausível. Após ouvir o meu relato, o leitor poderá também julgar o quanto essa é uma "explicação" e em que nível ela é "racional". Três pessoas protagonizaram esse episódio: Laura, eu e um outro homem. O outro homem ainda vive e pode falar sobre a parte menos crível do que vou contar.
Em minha vida, eu nunca soube o que era ter dinheiro o bastante para suprir as necessidades mais comuns --- boas tintas, livros e passeios --- e quando nos casamos sabíamos muito bem que só poderíamos viver se seguíssemos um orçamento rigoroso e bem calculado. Naquela época, eu pintava, Laura escrevia. Acreditávamos que conseguiríamos ao menos manter as panelas no fogo. Morar na cidade estava fora de cogitação, então começamos a procurar um chalé no campo, necessariamente limpo e pitoresco. Fato é que essas duas qualidades raramente se juntam num único chalé e nossa busca mostrou-se infrutífera por algum tempo. Tentamos alguns anúncios, mas a maioria das residências rurais interessantes que vimos se mostraram carentes nos dois requisitos. Quando uma tinha encanamentos, invariavelmente tinha tambem reboco e o formato de uma lata de chá. E se encontrássemos uma com varanda coberta de rosas ou parreiras, quase sempre havia podres escondidos. Nossas mentes se afogaram tanto na conversa dos agentes imobiliários, na sua concorrência feroz e impertinente; e no mau gosto que víamos e recusávamos, que eu duvido que qualquer um de nós, na manhã de nosso casamento, soubesse diferenciar uma casa de um celeiro. Mas quando nos afastamos dos amigos e dos agentes, na nossa lua-de-mel, nosso juízo se recuperou e reconhecemos um lindo chalé quando vimos um. Foi em Brenzett[localização] --- uma pequena vila localizada numa colina acima e atrás dos pântanos do sul. Do vilarejo à beira-mar em que estávamos hospedados, fomos até lá para ver a igreja. Encontramos o chalé a dois pastos de distância. Ficava bastante isolado, a cerca de três quilômetros da vila. Era uma construção comprida e baixa, com cômodos que se projetavam de lugares inusitados. Havia algumas ruínas de pedra cobertas de hera e musgo. Apenas dois cômodos antigos que eram tudo o que sobrara de uma casa grande que existira ali. A propriedade se erguia ao redor dessas ruínas. Sem as roseiras e os jasmins, seria horrível, mas do jeito que estava, era encantador. Após um exame muito breve, ficamos com ela. Estava absurdamente barata. Passamos o resto da nossa lua-de-mel garimpando nas lojas de usados do condado, recolhendo pedaços de carvalho velho e cadeiras Chippendale*. Encerramos com uma corrida ao centro e uma visita ao Liberty's,** e logo as divisórias de treliça feitas de ripas de carvalho começaram a se parecer com um lar. Havia um jardim tradicional com caminhos gramados e um sem-fim de girassóis, malvas e lírios enormes. Da janela você podia ver os pastos, o pântano e, logo além, a linha fina e azul do mar. Estávamos tão radiantes quanto o verão e nos concentramos no trabalho mais rápido do que esperávamos. Eu não me cansava de esboçar a paisagem e os maravilhosos tons das nuvens através das treliças abertas, enquanto Laura sentava-se à mesa e escrevia versos sobre elas, onde geralmente eu desempenhava o papel de protagonista.
Conseguimos uma camponesa um tanto idosa mas esguia para trabalhar para nós. Tinha bom porte e aparência, embora seus dotes culinários fossem rústicos. Ela sabia tudo sobre jardinagem e nos contou os antigos nomes dos campos e plantações da região e histórias sobre contrabandistas e salteadores. E, o que é melhor, contou das "coisas que vagavam" e das "visões" que poderiam aparecer num vale isolado para alguém sozinho sob a luz das estrelas. Ela era um grande conforto para nós porque Laura odiava trabalhos domésticos tanto quanto eu adorava folclore. Rapidamente deixamos todos os assuntos da casa aos cuidados da Sra. Dorman e começamos a usar suas lendas em pequenos contos de revista que rendiam alguns guinéis.***
Tivemos três meses de felicidade conjugal e nenhuma briga. Numa certa noite de outubro, fui fumar cachimbo com o médico --- nosso único vizinho --- um jovem irlandês agradável. Laura ficara em casa terminando o esboço de uma história em quadrinhos sobre um eposódio da vila para o Monthly Marplot.**** Deixei-a rindo de suas próprias piadas e voltei para encontrá-la um amontoado de musselina pálida chorando no assento da janela.
"Bom Deus, minha querida, qual é o problema?" clamei, abraçando-a. Ela encostou seus cabelos escuros no meu ombro e continuou a chorar. Eu nunca a tinha visto chorar --- nós sempre fôramos tão felizes, veja você --- e tive certeza de que alguma desgraça terrível acontecera.
"O que houve? Fale-me."
"É a Sra. Dorman", soluçou ela.
"O que ela fez?" perguntei, imensamente aliviado.
"Diz ela que precisa ir embora antes do fim do mês, que sua sobrinha está doente; ela partirá para vê-la. Mas eu não acredito que a razão seja esta porque essa sobrinha sempre esteve mal. Acredito que alguém a tenha colocado contra nós. Ela estava tão estranha---"
"Não se preocupe com isso, benzinho," eu disse; "faça o que quiser, mas não chore ou terei que chorar também para acompanhá-la e você não vai mais respeitar o seu homem!"
Ela obedeceu e secou os olhos no meu lenço. Até sorriu levemente.
"Mas você entende," ela prosseguiu, "isso é muito sério porque as pessoas dessa vila são tão apáticas que, se uma não fizer uma coisa, você pode ter certeza de que outras também não quererão fazer. E terei de preparar o jantar e lavar os odiosos pratos engordurados; e você terá que carregar baldes de água, limpar as botas, afiar as facas --- nunca teremos tempo para nosso trabalho, nem ganharemos dinheiro, nem nada. Teremos que trabalhar o dia todo e só poderemos descansar enquanto estivermos esperando a chaleira ferver!"
Eu argumentei que, mesmo que tivéssemos que fazer todas essas coisas, ainda sobraria algum tempo para outras atividades e divertimentos. Mas ela recusou-se a ver a questão por outra luz, exceto a mais cinzenta. Ela era muito intransigente, minha Laura, mas eu não poderia tê-la amado mais se ela fosse razoável como o Whately.*****[Richard Whately]
"Falarei com a Sra. Dorman quando ela voltar e verei se não é possível chegar a um acordo com ela", eu disse. "Talvez ela queira um aumento. Tudo ficará bem. Vamos caminhar até a igreja."
Era uma imensa igreja abandonada. Adorávamos ir até lá, especialmente nas noites claras. O caminho ladeava um bosque, cortava uma parte dele e corria pela crista de uma colina que separava dois prados. Chegava a igreja contornando a parede do pátio, onde antigos teixos agigantavam-se em suas massas negras de sombra. Esse caminho, que era parcialmente pavimentado, era chamado de "rua do féretro" porque era o antigo trajeto das procissões fúnebres. O cemitério da igreja era ricamente arborizado e estava à sombra de grandes olmos que o cercavam como sentinelas, estendendo seus braços majestosos abençoando o descanso dos mortos. Um pórtico grande e baixo conduzia o visitante ao interior, passando por uma entrada de arcos concêntricos e uma pesada porta de carvalho adornada com ferros. No interior, os arcos subiam das trevas e no alto, entre eles, janelas reticulares se destacavam muito brancas na luz do luar. No presbitério, vitrais intrincados exibiam suas cores nobres na luz tênue e faziam o carvalho negro dos bancos do coro dissolverem-se como sombras. De cada lado do altar-mor, havia uma estátua de mármore acinzentado de um cavaleiro completamente paramentado, deitado sobre uma mesa baixa e com as mãos erguidas juntas em eterna oração. Era incrível como essas figuras se destacavam com a cintilação da luz na igreja. Seus nomes foram esquecidos, mas os camponeses nos contaram que eles foram homens violentos e cruéis, saqueadores de terra e mar e flagelos de seu tempo. Culpados de atos tão perversos que a casa onde viveram --- por acaso, a casa grande que ficava onde foi erguido nosso chalé --- havia sido atingida por raios e a vingança dos céus. Mas apesar de tudo, a riqueza de seus herdeiros conseguira lhes um lugar na igreja. Vendo as faces rígidas e feias reproduzidas no mármore, é fácil crer nessa história.
A igreja parecia especialmente estranha e bela naquela noite, pois as sombras dos teixos derramavam-se através das janelas para o piso da nave e roçavam as colunas com sombras esfarrapadas. Nós nos sentamos juntos em silêncio e observamos a beleza solene do antigo templo, sentindo um pouco daquela reverência que deve ter inspirado seus primitivos construtores. Caminhamos até o altar-mor e observamos os guerreiros adormecidos. Depois descansamos por algum tempo no banco de pedra do pórtico, contemplando a extensão dos prados calmos e enluarados, sentindo em cada fibra do nosso ser a paz da noite e da nossa união feliz. A sensação de angústia desapareceu, deixando apenas o incômodo de um pequeno problema.
A Sra. Dorman voltara da vila. Convidei-a imediatamente para um tête-à-tête.
"Diga-me, Sra. Dorman", disse eu, após tê-la conduzido ao meu ateliê, "que história é essa sobre a senhora não mais permanecer conosco?"
"É de bom grado que eu vá antes do fim do mês, senhor", ela respondeu, com o seu jeito sereno habitual.
"Algo lhe faz falta, Sra. Dorman?"
"Absolutamente nada, senhor; o senhor e a sua senhora sempre foram muito gentis, tenho certeza que---"
"Bem, então o que há? Seus vencimentos não são suficientes?"
"Não, senhor, são mais que suficientes."
"Então, por que não ficar?"
"Eu prefiro não" -- hesitou um pouco -- "minha sobrinha está doente".
"Mas a sua sobrinha tem estado doente desde que chegamos."
Sem resposta. Houve um longo e constrangedor silêncio. Eu o quebrei.
"A senhora não poderia ficar por mais um mês?" perguntei.
"Não, senhor. Tenho que ir até quinta-feira."
E isso foi na segunda-feira!
"Bem, devo dizer, creio que a senhora poderia ter nos avisado antes. Agora não há tempo para conseguir alguém e a sua patroa não está apta para tarefas domésticas pesadas. A senhora não pode ficar até a próxima semana?"
"Eu poderia voltar na semana que vem."
Eu agora estava convencido de que o que ela queria era uma simples folga rápida, coisa que estávamos dispostos a lhe dar assim que conseguíssemos uma substituta.
"Mas por que a senhora deve ir esta semana?" eu insisti. "Vamos, conte."
A Sra. Dorman agarrou o pequeno xale que sempre usava e apertou ao peito, como se estivesse com frio. Ela então começou a falar apressadamente---
"Dizem, senhor, que esta era uma casa grande dos tempos católicos e muitos atos ocorreram aqui."
A natureza desses "atos" podia ser facilmente inferida a partir da inflexão na voz da Sra. Dorman --- o suficiente para gelar o sangue de alguém. Fiquei aliviado por Laura não estar presente. Ela sempre foi muito tensa, como é da natureza das pessoas sensíveis. Senti que essas histórias sobre nossa casa, contadas por essa velha camponesa de jeito impressionante e credulidade contagiosa, faria com que nosso lar fosse menos estimado por minha esposa.
"Conte-me tudo, Sra. Dorman," disse eu; "Não precisa esconder nada de mim. Eu não sou como os jovens que zombam de tais coisas".
O que era parcialmente verdadeiro.
"Bem, senhor" - ela baixou a voz - "talvez o senhor já tenha visto as duas formas que estão na igreja, ao lado do altar".
"Se refere as efígies dos cavaleiros armados", eu disse sorrindo.
"Quero dizer, os dois corpos, perpetuados em mármore no tamanho de homem," ela retrucou. Tive de admitir que a sua descrição era mil vezes mais viva que a minha, sem falar da má impressão e estranheza da frase "perpetuados em mármore no tamanho de homem."
"Dizem que na véspera do dia de todos os santos os dois corpos sentam-se em suas camas, levantam e caminham pelo corredor, em seu mármore" --- (outra boa frase, Sra. Dorman) --- "e quando o relógio da igreja bate onze horas eles saem pela porta da igreja, passam pelos túmulos e pela da rua do féretro. Se for uma noite úmida, as marcas de seus pés podem ser vistas de manhã."
"E para onde eles vão?" perguntei, fascinado.
"Eles voltam aqui para a casa deles, senhor, e se alguém os encontrar---"
"O que ocorre, então?" perguntei.
Mas não --- não obtive nenhuma outra palavra, exceto que a sobrinha estava mal e que ela deveria ir. Depois do que eu tinha ouvido, recusei-me discutir sobre a tal sobrinha e tentei extrair da Sra. Dorman mais detalhes da lenda. Não recebi mais que advertências.
"Faça o que fizer, senhor, tranque a porta mais cedo na véspera de Todos os Santos e faça o sinal da cruz na soleira e nas janelas."
"Mas alguém já viu essas coisas?" eu persisti.
"Isso não posso dizer. Eu sei o que sei, senhor".
"Bem, quem esteve aqui no ano passado?"
"Ninguém, senhor, a antiga dona só vinha no verão e ela sempre ia para Londres um mês antes da noite. Lamento o incômodo para o senhor e a sua senhora, mas minha sobrinha está doente e devo ir na quinta-feira."
Eu poderia tê-la chacoalhado por insistir absurdamente naquela ficção óbvia após ter contado suas verdadeiras razões.
Ela estava irredutível e nossos apelos somados não poderiam demovê-la.
Não contei a Laura sobre a lenda das formas que "caminhavam em seu mármore". Parte porque uma lenda a respeito de nossa casa talvez a deixasse incomodada e parte por outra razão oculta que eu não conseguia definir. Para mim, essa história não era como as outras e eu não queria tocar no assunto antes que o dito dia passasse. Porém, rapidamente a lenda saiu do meu pensamento. Eu estava pintando um retrato de Laura, em frente a janela de treliça, e não conseguia pensar em mais nada. Eu conseguira um esplêndido pôr-do-sol amarelo e cinza de fundo e estava trabalhando com entusiasmo nos detalhes. Na quinta-feira, a Sra. Dorman partiu. Na despedida, compadeceu-se a ponto de dizer---
"Não se esforce muito, minha senhora. Não me incomodarei com algum trabalho a mais na próxima semana."
De onde eu inferi que ela desejava voltar depois do Dia de Todos os Santos. Ela sustentou a desculpa da sobrinha com perfeição até o último momento.
A quinta-feira transcorreu tranquila. Laura mostrou grande habilidade com os bifes e as batatas. Também admito que a louça, que fiz questão de lavar, resultou num serviço bem-feito e melhor do que eu poderia esperar.
Sexta-feira chegou. É por causa do que houve naquela sexta-feira que isso está sendo escrito. Eu me pergunto se poderia acreditar nisso se alguém me contasse. Vou escrever a história da maneira mais rápida e simples possível. Tudo que se passou naquele dia está ardendo em meu cérebro. Não devo esquecer nada, nem omitir nada.
Levantei-me cedo, lembro-me, acendi o fogão e havia acabado de obter um sucesso fumacento quando minha querida esposa desceu, tão brilhante e doce quanto aquela clara manhã de outubro. Preparamos juntos o café da manhã, o que foi uma atividade muito divertida. As tarefas domésticas logo terminaram e quando os escovões, as vassouras e os baldes novamente ficaram quietos, a casa ainda estava em pé. É admirável o que a ausência de alguém faz a uma casa. Sentíamos muita falta da Sra. Dorman, muito além da questão das panelas e frigideiras. Passamos o dia limpando e organizando nossos livros e animadamente jantamos filés malpassados e café. Laura estava, como se isso fosse possível, mais bem-disposta, animada e alegre que o habitual. Eu começava a pensar que um pouco de trabalho doméstico fazia bem a ela. Nunca havíamos nos divertido tanto desde o casamento. A caminhada que fizemos naquela tarde foi, penso eu, o momento mais feliz de toda a minha vida. Após assistirmos as longínquas nuvens avermelhadas lentamente empalidecerem num chumbo acinzentado contra um céu esverdeado, e vermos a névoa branca se enroscando nas sebes lá longe no pântano, voltamos para casa em silêncio e de mãos dadas.
"Você está triste, minha querida", eu disse, por brincadeira, enquanto nos sentávamos em nossa pequena sala de visitas. Eu esperava um protesto, já que meu próprio silêncio era o silêncio da felicidade pura. Para minha surpresa, ela disse---
"Sim. Acho que estou triste ou um pouco ansiosa. Não acho que estou muito bem. Tive quatro ou três calafrios desde que voltamos e não está frio, está?"
"Não," respondi, desejando que não fosse um resfriado trazido pelas brumas traiçoeiras que percorrem os pântanos ao entardecer. Não --- ela disse, concordando. Então, após um instante de silêncio, falou de repente ---
"Você já teve maus pressentimentos?"
"Não," falei eu sorrindo, "e não acreditaria neles se os tivesse."
"Eu já," ela prosseguiu; "na noite em que meu pai morreu, eu o soube, embora ele estivesse no norte da Escócia." Não respondi em palavras.
Ela permaneceu sentada em silêncio, olhando o fogo e delicadamente acariciando minha mão. Por fim, se levantou, veio por trás de mim e, puxando minha cabeça para trás, me beijou.
"Pronto, já passou," disse ela. "Que infantilidade a minha! Venha, acenda os castiçais e eu tocarei um desses novos duetos de Rubinstein."******[Anton Rubinstein]
Passamos uma ou duas horas alegres ao piano.
Lá pelas dez e meia, tive vontade de fumar meu cachimbo da noite, mas Laura estava tão pálida que considerei desumano de minha parte encher nossa sala com a forte fumaça de tabaco.
"Vou fumar lá fora", eu disse.
"Não, querida, não esta noite; você está muito fatigada. Não me demorarei. Vá para a cama ou terei uma enferma para cuidar amanhã, além das botas para limpar."
Eu a beijei. Quando me virei para sair, ela jogou os braços em volta do meu pescoço e me segurou como se não pretendesse soltar nunca mais. Acariciei seus cabelos.
"Vamos, benzinho, você está muito cansada. O trabalho doméstico foi demais para você".
Ela afrouxou um pouco o abraço e respirou fundo.
"Não. Tivemos um dia muito feliz, Jack, não tivemos? Não se demore lá fora."
"Não demorarei, minha querida."
Saí pela porta da frente, deixando-a destrancada. Que noite aquela! Gomos de nuvens gordas e escuras rolavam de horizonte a horizonte e finas coroas brancas cobriam as estrelas. A lua nadou pelo caudaloso rio de nuvens e, atingindo uma onda, desapareceu novamente na escuridão. Sua luz intermitente alcançava os bosques, que pareciam sinalizar silenciosa e lentamente o ritmo do movimento das nuvens acima. Uma estranha luminosidade cinza pairava sobre à terra; e os campos exibiam aquela floração sombria que só surge do casamento do orvalho com o luar ou da geada com a luz das estrelas.
Caminhei de um lado a outro, absorvido na beleza tranquila daquelas terras e céus movediços. A noite estava absolutamente silenciosa. Nada parecida fora do lugar. Não havia coelhos saltando ou pios de pássaros sonolentos. Embora as nuvens navegassem no céu, o vento que as levava não baixava para arrastar as folhas secas nos caminhos da floresta. Eu podia ver a torre da igreja se destacando em preto e cinza contra o céu no outro lado dos prados. Dei alguns passos na direção dela pensando nos nossos três meses de felicidade --- e nos olhos adoráveis e amorosos da minha esposa. Ah, minha pequena! toda minha; que vislumbre tive de uma vida longa e feliz para nós dois juntos!
Ouvi o sino da igreja tocar. Já onze horas! Eu me virei para entrar, mas a noite me segurou. Eu não poderia voltar para nosso pequeno lar aconchegante ainda. Eu iria até a igreja, impelido por um vago sentimento de que seria bom apresentar meu amor e gratidão ao santuário onde tantas tristezas e alegrias haviam sido apresentadas por homens e mulheres de tempos passados.
Enquanto partia, olhei para a janela. Laura estava relaxada na cadeira em frente a lareira. Não pude ver seu rosto, só a sua cabecinha de cabelos escuros contra a parede azul clara. Estava muito quieta. Adormecida, sem dúvida. Envolvi-a de ternura em meu coração enquanto prosseguia. Deve haver um Deus, pensei, e um Deus que é bom. De outra forma, como imaginar algo tão doce e amável como ela?
Caminhei devagar ao lado do bosque. Um som quebrou a quietude da noite, era um farfalhar nas árvores. Parei para ouvir. O som parou também. Eu continuei e então ouvi distintamente outro passo ecoando o meu. Provavelmente um caçador furtivo ou um lenhador, pois estes não eram raros em nossa idílica vizinhança. Mas quem quer que fosse, era um tolo por não ser mais discreto. Entrei no bosque. Agora os passos pareciam vir do caminho que eu acabara de percorrer. Deve ser um eco, pensei. As árvores estavam perfeitas ao luar. As grandes samambaias secas e o matagal mostravam por onde a luz pálida descia, através da folhagem rala. Os troncos das árvores se erguiam ao meu redor como colunas góticas. Eles me lembravam a igreja. Eu me transformei no féretro e atravessei o portão, passando pelas sepulturas e indo até o pórtico baixo. Parei por um momento no banco de pedra onde Laura e eu assistimos o entardecer. Então notei que a porta da igreja estava aberta e me culpei por tê-la esquecido destrancada na outra noite. Nós éramos os únicos que iam até lá, exceto aos domingos, e fiquei aborrecido ao pensar que, devido ao nosso descuido, o ar úmido do outono tivera a chance de entrar e estragar os velhos estofados. Entrei. Talvez soe estranho que eu tenha avançado metade do corredor antes de lembrar-me --- com um arrepio súbito, seguido por uma repentina onda de autodesprezo --- que este era o exato dia e hora em que, segundo a tradição, as "formas perpetuadas em mármore no tamanho de homem" começavam a caminhar.
Recordando da lenda assim, com um arrepio que me deixou envergonhado, eu não poderia fazer outra coisa senão ir ao altar apenas para ver as figuras, como eu disse para mim mesmo. Na verdade, minha intenção era assegurar-me, em primeiro lugar de que não acreditava na lenda; e em segundo, de que não era real. Congratulei-me por ter vindo. Imediatamente pensei que poderia dizer à Sra. Dorman o quão infundadas eram suas fantasias e como as figuras de mármore dormiam pacificamente durante aquela hora sinistra. Com as mãos nos bolsos, percorri o corredor. Na luz difusa e cinzenta, a parte leste da igreja parecia mais alta do que o habitual, assim como os arcos acima dos dois túmulos. A lua surgiu e me mostrou o motivo. Estaquei, meu coração deu um salto que quase me sufocou e então afundou aterrado.
Os "corpos perpetuados no tamanho de homem" haviam sumido. Suas camas de mármore estavam expostas ao luar fraco que se estendia pela janela leste.
Eles realmente se foram? ou eu enlouquecera? Juntando coragem, abaixei-me e passei a mão pela pedra, sentindo a superfície lisa e sem defeitos. Alguém os levou? Foi alguma brincadeira perversa? De qualquer forma, eu descobriria. Rapidamente fiz uma tocha com o jornal que estava no meu bolso. Acendi-a, erguendo-a bem acima de minha cabeça. Seu brilho amarelo iluminou os arcos escuros e as mesas. As figuras sumiram. E eu estava sozinho na igreja. Estava?
E então um horror me envolveu, um horror indefinível e indescritível --- a certeza esmagadora de uma desgraça suprema e consumada. Larguei a tocha, disparei pelo corredor e atravessei o pórtico, mordendo e apertando meus lábios para não gritar, enquanto corria. Ah, eu estava louco, ou o que era isso que me possuía? Pulei o muro do cemitério e peguei um atalho pelo campo, guiado pela luz das janelas. Eu acabara de pisar no primeiro degrau junto a cerca quando uma figura escura pareceu saltar do chão. Ensandecido ainda por aquela sensação de desgraça iminente, gritei para a coisa em minha frente, "Saia do caminho, nada me deterá!"
Mas meu ombro encontrou mais resistência do que eu esperava. Meus braços foram contidos num aperto firme. O magricelo médico irlandês me sacudia.
"Não vou, é?" gritou ele, com seu sotaque inconfundível -- "senão o quê?"
"Largue-me, seu tolo", bradei sem fôlego. "As figuras de mármore saíram da igreja, elas saíram."
Ele disparou a gargalhar. "Vejo que terei que lhe dar uma prescrição amanhã. Você está fumando demais e dando ouvidos a histórias de velhas senhoras.
"Estou dizendo, vi as mesas vazias."
"Está bem, volte lá comigo. Eu vou até o velho Palmer, a filha está doente; passaremos pela igreja e verei essas lajes nuas."
"Vá, se quiser", disse eu, um pouco menos tenso após suas risadas; "Vou para casa, para minha esposa."
"Besteira, homem", disse ele; "Pensa que eu vou permitir isso? Você passará o resto da vida dizendo que viu mármore sólido dotado de vitalidade e eu passarei o resto da minha vida dizendo que você é um covarde? Não, senhor -- você não pode fazer tal coisa."
O ar da noite, a voz humana e, penso eu, também o contato físico com esses dois metros de bom senso sólido me trouxeram de volta o juízo. Também a palavra "covarde" foi um banho frio mental.
"Venha, então", eu disse, carrancudo; "talvez você esteja certo."
Ele ainda segurava meu braço com força. Descemos os degraus e nos encaminhamos para a igreja. Tudo estava imóvel como a morte. O lugar cheirava à terra e umidade. Caminhamos pelo corredor. Não tenho vergonha de confessar que fechei os olhos: eu sabia que as figuras não estariam lá. Ouvi Kelly riscar um fósforo.
"Aqui estão, vê, sem dúvida. Você esteve sonhando ou bebendo, com todo respeito."
Eu abri meus olhos. Com a luz de Kelly, eu vi duas formas repousando nas camas "em seu mármore". Respirei fundo e apertei a sua mão.
"Sou muito grato a você", eu disse. "Deve ter sido algum efeito da luz ou eu que tenho trabalhado demais, deve ser isso. Sabe, eu estava bastante convencido de que eles tinham saído".
"Eu estou ciente disso", ele respondeu com um pouco de severidade; "você terá que cuidar dessa sua imaginação, meu amigo, eu garanto."
Ele estava debruçado observando a figura da direita, cujo rosto de pedra tinha a expressão mais vil e terrível.
"Por Júpiter," ele disse, "algo está acontecendo aqui -- esta mão está quebrada."
E foi assim. Eu tinha certeza de que estava perfeita na última vez em que Laura e eu estivemos lá.
"Talvez alguém tenha tentado removê-los", disse o jovem médico.
"Isso não explica minha visão", me opus.
"Muita pintura e tabaco explicarão, isso já basta."
"Vamos", eu disse, "ou minha esposa ficará preocupada. Lhe darei uma dose de uísque e histórias de fantasmas e você me dará algum juízo."
"Eu deveria ir ao Palmer, mas já está tão tarde que é melhor deixar para amanhã," ele respondeu. "Fiquei preso na estação e ainda preciso ver muitas pessoas. Certo, voltarei com você."
Penso que ele imaginou que eu precisasse mais dele que a menina do Palmer, então caminhamos até meu chalé, enquanto discutíamos como tal ilusão era possível, generalizando a partir dessa experiência todos os relatos de aparições fantasmagóricas. Vimos a luz escapando pela porta da frente, enquanto caminhávamos no jardim, e que a porta da sala também estava aberta. Ela teria saído?
"Entre", eu disse, e o Dr. Kelly me seguiu até a sala de estar. Tudo estava iluminado. Todas as velas estavam acesas, muitas já no fim, gotejando. Havia pelo menos uma dúzia de poças gotejantes e grudentas, presas em jarras, vasos e lugares improváveis. Luz, eu sabia, era o remédio de Laura para a ansiedade. Pobrezinha! Por que a deixei sozinha? Como fui estúpido.
Observamos a sala e, a princípio, não a vimos. A janela estava aberta e a corrente de ar apontava a chama de todas as velas para a mesma direção. A cadeira estava vazia e seu xale e o livro estavam no chão. Eu me virei para a janela. Lá, em frente a janela, eu a vi. Oh, minha criança, meu amor, ela foi até ali para esperar por mim? E o que havia entrado na sala atrás dela? Para o quê ela se virou com aquele olhar de pavor? Oh, minha pequenina, pensou que os passos que escutava eram meus e se virou para encontrar --- o quê?
Ela estava caída de costas sobre uma mesinha próxima à janela e seu corpo estava metade sobre ela e metade no assento da janela. Sua cabeça pendia sobre a mesa, o cabelo castanho revolto tocava o carpete. Seus lábios estavam repuxados e seus olhos abertos, arregalados. Eles não enxergavam nada agora. O que eles viram pela última vez?
O médico se aproximou dela, mas eu o empurrei e saltei; peguei-a em meus braços e chorei ---
"Está tudo bem, Laura! Você está salva, minha amada."
Ela desmoronou em meus braços. Eu a apertei e a beijei, e chamei-a por todos os seus apelidos preferidos, mas acho que eu sabia o tempo todo que ela se fora. Seus punhos estavam cerrados. Ela segurava algo firmemente numa das mãos. Quando tive certeza de que ela estava morta e que nada mais importava, permiti que o doutor abrisse aquela mão para ver o que ela segurava.
Era um dedo de mármore.
The snow was still falling thickly when Orrin Bosworth, who farmed the land south of Lone-top, drove up in his cutter to Saul Rutledge’s gate. He was surprised to see two other cutters ahead of him. From them descended two muffled figures. Bosworth, with increasing surprise, recognized Deacon Hibben, from North Ashmore, and Sylvester Brand, the widower, from the old Bearcliff farm on the way to Lonetop.
It was not often that anybody in Hemlock County entered Saul Rutledge’s gate; least of all in the dead of winter, and summoned (as Bosworth, at any rate, had been) by Mrs. Rutledge, who passed, even in that unsocial region, for a woman of cold manners and solitary character. The situation was enough to excite the curiosity of a less imaginative man than Orrin Bosworth.
As he drove in between the broken-down white gate-posts topped by fluted urns the two men ahead of him were leading their horses to the adjoining shed. Bosworth followed, and hitched his horse to a post. Then the three tossed off the snow from their shoulders, clapped their numb hands together, and greeted each other.
“Well, well, Orrin — .” They shook hands.
“‘Day, Bosworth,” said Sylvester Brand, with a brief nod. He seldom put any cordiality into his manner, and on this occasion he was still busy about his horse’s bridle and blanket.
Orrin Bosworth, the youngest and most communicative of the three, turned back to Deacon Hibben, whose long face, queerly blotched and mouldy-looking, with blinking peering eyes, was yet less forbidding than Brand’s heavily-hewn countenance.
“Queer, our all meeting here this way. Mrs. Rutledge sent me a message to come,” Bosworth volunteered.
The Deacon nodded. “I got a word from her too — Andy Pond come with it yesterday noon. I hope there’s no trouble here — ”
He glanced through the thickening fall of snow at the desolate front of the Rutledge house, the more melancholy in its present neglected state because, like the gate-posts, it kept traces of former elegance. Bosworth had often wondered how such a house had come to be built in that lonely stretch between North Ashmore and Cold Corners. People said there had once been other houses like it, forming a little township called Ashmore, a sort of mountain colony created by the caprice of an English Royalist officer, one Colonel Ashmore, who had been murdered by the Indians, with all his family, long before the Revolution. This tale was confirmed by the fact that the ruined cellars of several smaller houses were still to be discovered under the wild growth of the adjoining slopes, and that the Communion plate of the moribund Episcopal church of Cold Corners was engraved with the name of Colonel Ashmore, who had given it to the church of Ashmore in the year 1723. Of the church itself no traces remained. Doubtless it had been a modest wooden edifice, built on piles, and the conflagration which had burnt the other houses to the ground’s edge had reduced it utterly to ashes. The whole place, even in summer, wore a mournful solitary air, and people wondered why Saul Rutledge’s father had gone there to settle.
“I never knew a place,” Deacon Hibben said, “as seemed as far away from humanity. And yet it ain’t so in miles.”
“Miles ain’t the only distance,” Orrin Bosworth answered; and the two men, followed by Sylvester Brand, walked across the drive to the front door. People in Hemlock County did not usually come and go by their front doors, but all three men seemed to feel that, on an occasion which appeared to be so exceptional, the usual and more familiar approach by the kitchen would not be suitable.
They had judged rightly; the Deacon had hardly lifted the knocker when the door opened and Mrs. Rutledge stood before them.
“Walk right in,” she said in her usual dead-level tone; and Bosworth, as he followed the others, thought to himself; “Whatever’s happened, she’s not going to let it show in her face.”
It was doubtful, indeed, if anything unwonted could be made to show in Prudence Rutledge’s face, so limited was its scope, so fixed were its features. She was dressed for the occasion in a black calico with white spots, a collar of crochet-lace fastened by a gold brooch, and a gray woollen shawl crossed under her arms and tied at the back. In her small narrow head the only marked prominence was that of the brow projecting roundly over pale spectacled eyes. Her dark hair, parted above this prominence, passed tight and fiat over the tips of her ears into a small braided coil at the nape; and her contracted head looked still narrower from being perched on a long hollow neck with cord-like throat-muscles. Her eyes were of a pale cold gray, her complexion was an even white. Her age might have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty.
The room into which she led the three men had probably been the dining-room of the Ashmore house. It was now used as a front parlour, and a black stove planted on a sheet of zinc stuck out from the delicately fluted panels of an old wooden mantel. A newly-lit fire smouldered reluctantly, and the room was at once close and bitterly cold.
“Andy Pond,” Mrs. Rutledge cried to some one at the back of the house, “step out and call Mr. Rutledge. You’ll likely find him in the wood-shed, or round the barn somewheres.” She rejoined her visitors. “Please suit yourselves to seats,” she said.
The three men, with an increasing air of constraint, took the chairs she pointed out, and Mrs. Rutledge sat stiffly down upon a fourth, behind a rickety bead-work table. She glanced from one to the other of her visitors.
“I presume you folks are wondering what it is I asked you to come here for,” she said in her dead-level voice. Orrin Bosworth and Deacon Hibben murmured an assent; Sylvester Brand sat silent, his eyes, under their great thicket of eyebrows, fixed on the huge boot-tip swinging before him.
“Well, I allow you didn’t expect it was for a party,” continued Mrs. Rutledge.
No one ventured to respond to this chill pleasantry, and she continued: “We’re in trouble here, and that’s the fact. And we need advice — Mr. Rutledge and myself do.” She cleared her throat, and added in a lower tone, her pitilessly clear eyes looking straight before her: “There’s a spell been cast over Mr. Rutledge.”
The Deacon looked up sharply, an incredulous smile pinching his thin lips. “A spell?”
“That’s what I said: he’s bewitched.”
Again the three visitors were silent; then Bosworth, more at ease or less tongue-tied than the others, asked with an attempt at humour: “Do you use the word in the strict Scripture sense, Mrs. Rutledge?”
She glanced at him before replying: “That’s how he uses it.”
The Deacon coughed and cleared his long rattling throat. “Do you care to give us more particulars before your husband joins us?”
Mrs. Rutledge looked down at her clasped hands, as if considering the question. Bosworth noticed that the inner fold of her lids was of the same uniform white as the rest of her skin, so that when she dropped them her rather prominent eyes looked like the sightless orbs of a marble statue. The impression was unpleasing, and he glanced away at the text over the mantelpiece, which read:
The Soul That Sinneth It Shall Die.
“No,” she said at length, “I’ll wait.”
At this moment Sylvester Brand suddenly stood up and pushed back his chair. “I don’t know,” he said, in his rough bass voice, “as I’ve got any particular lights on Bible mysteries; and this happens to be the day I was to go down to Starkfield to close a deal with a man.”
Mrs. Rutledge lifted one of her long thin hands. Withered and wrinkled by hard work and cold, it was nevertheless of the same leaden white as her face. “You won’t be kept long,” she said. “Won’t you be seated?”
Farmer Brand stood irresolute, his purplish underlip twitching. “The Deacon here —— such things is more in his line . . . ”
“I want you should stay,” said Mrs. Rutledge quietly; and Brand sat down again.
A silence fell, during which the four persons present seemed all to be listening for the sound of a step; but none was heard, and after a minute or two Mrs. Rutledge began to speak again.
“It’s down by that old shack on Lamer’s pond; that’s where they meet,” she said suddenly.
Bosworth, whose eyes were on Sylvester Brand’s face, fancied he saw a sort of inner flush darken the farmer’s heavy leathern skin. Deacon Hibben leaned forward, a glitter of curiosity in his eyes.
“They — who, Mrs. Rutledge?”
“My husband, Saul Rutledge . . . and her . . . ”
Sylvester Brand again stirred in his seat. “Who do you mean by her?” he asked abruptly, as if roused out of some far-off musing.
Mrs. Rutledge’s body did not move; she simply revolved her head on her long neck and looked at him.
“Your daughter, Sylvester Brand.”
The man staggered to his feet with an explosion of inarticulate sounds. “My — my daughter? What the hell are you talking about? My daughter? It’s a damned lie . . . it’s . . . it’s . . . ”
“Your daughter Ora, Mr. Brand,” said Mrs. Rutledge slowly.
Bosworth felt an icy chill down his spine. Instinctively he turned his eyes away from Brand, and, they rested on the mildewed countenance of Deacon Hibben. Between the blotches it had become as white as Mrs. Rutledge’s, and the Deacon’s eyes burned in the whiteness like live embers among ashes.
Brand gave a laugh: the rusty creaking laugh of one whose springs of mirth are never moved by gaiety. “My daughter Ora?” he repeated.
“My dead daughter?”
“That’s what he says.”
“That’s what Mr. Rutledge says.”
Orrin Bosworth listened with a sense of suffocation; he felt as if he were wrestling with long-armed horrors in a dream. He could no longer resist letting his eyes return to Sylvester Brand’s face. To his surprise it had resumed a natural imperturbable expression. Brand rose to his feet. “Is that all?” he queried contemptuously.
“All? Ain’t it enough? How long is it since you folks seen Saul Rutledge, any of you?” Mrs. Rutledge flew out at them.
Bosworth, it appeared, had not seen him for nearly a year; the Deacon had only run across him once, for a minute, at the North Ashmore post office, the previous autumn, and acknowledged that he wasn’t looking any too good then. Brand said nothing, but stood irresolute.
“Well, if you wait a minute you’ll see with your own eyes; and he’ll tell you with his own words. That’s what I’ve got you here for — to see for yourselves what’s come over him. Then you’ll talk different,” she added, twisting her head abruptly toward Sylvester Brand.
The Deacon raised a lean hand of interrogation.
“Does your husband know we’ve been sent for on this business, Mrs. Rutledge?” Mrs. Rutledge signed assent.
“It was with his consent, then —?”
She looked coldly at her questioner. “I guess it had to be,” she said. Again Bosworth felt the chill down his spine. He tried to dissipate the sensation by speaking with an affectation of energy.
“Can you tell us, Mrs. Rutledge, how this trouble you speak of shows itself . . . what makes you think . . .?”
She looked at him for a moment; then she leaned forward across the rickety bead-work table. A thin smile of disdain narrowed her colourless lips. “I don’t think — I know.”
“Well — but how?”
She leaned closer, both elbows on the table, her voice dropping. “I seen ’em.”
In the ashen light from the veiling of snow beyond the windows the Deacon’s little screwed-up eyes seemed to give out red sparks. “Him and the dead?”
“Him and the dead.”
“Saul Rutledge and — and Ora Brand?”
Sylvester Brand’s chair fell backward with a crash. He was on his feet again, crimson and cursing. “It’s a God-damned fiend-begotten lie . . . ”
“Friend Brand . . . friend Brand . . . ” the Deacon protested.
“Here, let me get out of this. I want to see Saul Rutledge himself, and tell him — ”
“Well, here he is,” said Mrs. Rutledge.
The outer door had opened; they heard the familiar stamping and shaking of a man who rids his garments of their last snowflakes before penetrating to the sacred precincts of the best parlour. Then Saul Rutledge entered.
As he came in he faced the light from the north window, and Bosworth’s first thought was that he looked like a drowned man fished out from under the ice — “self-drowned,” he added. But the snow-light plays cruel tricks with a man’s colour, and even with the shape of his features; it must have been partly that, Bosworth reflected, which transformed Saul Rutledge from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them.
The Deacon sought for a word to ease the horror. “Well, now, Saul — you look’s if you’d ought to set right up to the stove. Had a touch of ague, maybe?”
The feeble attempt was unavailing. Rutledge neither moved nor answered. He stood among them silent, incommunicable, like one risen from the dead.
Brand grasped him roughly by the shoulder. “See here, Saul Rutledge, what’s this dirty lie your wife tells us you’ve been putting about?”
Still Rutledge did not move. “It’s no lie,” he said.
Brand’s hand dropped from his shoulder. In spite of the man’s rough bullying power he seemed to be undefinably awed by Rut-ledge’s look and tone.
“No lie? You’ve gone plumb crazy, then, have you?”
Mrs. Rutledge spoke. “My husband’s not lying, nor he ain’t gone crazy. Don’t I tell you I seen ’em?”
Brand laughed again. “Him and the dead?”
“Down by the Lamer pond, you say?”
“And when was that, if I might ask?”
“Day before yesterday.”
A silence fell on the strangely assembled group. The Deacon at length broke it to say to Mr. Brand: “Brand, in my opinion we’ve got to see this thing through.”
Brand stood for a moment in speechless contemplation: there was something animal and primitive about him, Bosworth thought, as he hung thus, lowering and dumb, a little foam beading the corners of that heavy purplish underlip. He let himself slowly down into his chair. “I’ll see it through.”
The two other men and Mrs. Rutledge had remained seated. Saul Rutledge stood before them, like a prisoner at the bar, or rather like a sick man before the physicians who were to heal him. As Bosworth scrutinized that hollow face, so wan under the dark sunburn, so sucked inward and consumed by some hidden fever, there stole over the sound healthy man the thought that perhaps, after all, husband and wife spoke the truth, and that they were all at that moment really standing on the edge of some forbidden mystery. Things that the rational mind would reject without a thought seemed no longer so easy to dispose of as one looked at the actual Saul Rutledge and remembered the man he had been a year before. Yes; as the Deacon said, they would have to see it through . . .
“Sit down then, Saul; draw up to us, won’t you?” the Deacon suggested, trying again for a natural tone.
Mrs. Rutledge pushed a chair forward, and her husband sat down on it. He stretched out his arms and grasped his knees in his brown bony fingers; in that attitude he remained, turning neither his head nor his eyes.
“Well, Saul,” the Deacon continued, “your wife says you thought mebbe we could do something to help you through this trouble, whatever it is.”
Rutledge’s gray eyes widened a little. “No; I didn’t think that. It was her idea to try what could be done.”
“I presume, though, since you’ve agreed to our coming, that you don’t object to our putting a few questions?”
Rutledge was silent for a moment; then he said with a visible effort: “No; I don’t object.”
“Well — you’ve heard what your wife says?”
Rutledge made a slight motion of assent. “And — what have you got to answer? How do you explain . . .?”
Mrs. Rutledge intervened. “How can he explain? I seen ’em.”
There was a silence; then Bosworth, trying to speak in an easy reassuring tone, queried: “That so, Saul?”
Brand lifted up his brooding head. “You mean to say you . . . you sit here before us all and say . . . ”
The Deacon’s hand again checked him. “Hold on, friend Brand. We’re all of us trying for the facts, ain’t we?” He turned to Rutledge. “We’ve heard what Mrs. Rutledge says. What’s your answer?”
“I don’t know as there’s any answer. She found us.”
“And you mean to tell me the person with you was . . . was what you took to be . . . ” the Deacon’s thin voice grew thinner: “Ora Brand?”
Saul Rutledge nodded.
“You knew . . . or thought you knew . . . you were meeting with the dead?”
Rutledge bent his head again. The snow continued to fall in a steady unwavering sheet against the window, and Bosworth felt as if a winding-sheet were descending from the sky to envelop them all in a common grave.
“Think what you’re saying! It’s against our religion! Ora . . . poor child! . . . died over a year ago. I saw you at her funeral, Saul. How can you make such a statement?”
“What else can he do?” thrust in Mrs. Rutledge.
There was another pause. Bosworth’s resources had failed him, and Brand once more sat plunged in dark meditation. The Deacon laid his quivering finger-tips together, and moistened his lips.
“Was the day before yesterday the first time?” he asked.
The movement of Rutledge’s head was negative.
“Not the first? Then when . . . ”
“Nigh on a year ago, I reckon.”
“God! And you mean to tell us that ever since —?”
“Well . . . look at him,” said his wife. The three men lowered their eyes.
After a moment Bosworth, trying to collect himself, glanced at the Deacon. “Why not ask Saul to make his own statement, if that’s what we’re here for?”
“That’s so,” the Deacon assented. He turned to Rutledge. “Will you try and give us your idea . . . of . . . of how it began?”
There was another silence. Then Rutledge tightened his grasp on his gaunt knees, and still looking straight ahead, with his curiously clear unseeing gaze: “Well,” he said, “I guess it begun away back, afore even I was married to Mrs. Rutledge . . . ” He spoke in a low automatic tone, as if some invisible agent were dictating his words, or even uttering them for him. “You know,” he added, “Ora and me was to have been married.”
Sylvester Brand lifted his, head. “Straighten that statement out first, please,” he interjected.
“What I mean is, we kept company. But Ora she was very young. Mr. Brand here he sent her away. She was gone nigh to three years, I guess. When she come back I was married.”
“That’s right,” Brand said, relapsing once more into his sunken attitude.
“And after she came back did you meet her again?” the Deacon continued.
“Alive?” Rutledge questioned.
A perceptible shudder ran through the room.
“Well — of course,” said the Deacon nervously.
Rutledge seemed to consider. “Once I did — only once. There was a lot of other people round. At Cold Corners fair it was.” “Did you talk with her then?”
“Only a minute.”
“What did she say?”
His voice dropped. “She said she was sick and knew she was going to die, and when she was dead she’d come back to me.”
“And what did you answer?”
“Did you think anything of it at the time?”
“Well, no. Not till I heard she was dead I didn’t. After that I thought of it — and I guess she drew me.” He moistened his lips.
“Drew you down to that abandoned house by the pond?”
Rutledge made a faint motion of assent, and the Deacon added: “How did you know it was there she wanted you to come?”
“She . . . just drew me . . . ”
There was a long pause. Bosworth felt, on himself and the other two men, the oppressive weight of the next question to be asked. Mrs. Rutledge opened and closed her narrow lips once or twice, like some beached shell-fish gasping for the tide. Rutledge waited.
“Well, now, Saul, won’t you go on with what you was telling us?” the Deacon at length suggested.
“That’s all. There’s nothing else.”
The Deacon lowered his voice. “She just draws you?”
“That’s as it happens . . . ”
“But if it’s always there she draws you, man, haven’t you the strength to keep away from the place?”
For the first time, Rutledge wearily turned his head toward his questioner. A spectral smile narrowed his colourless lips. “Ain’t any use. She follers after me . . . ”
There was another silence. What more could they ask, then and there? Mrs. Rut-ledge’s presence checked the next question. The Deacon seemed hopelessly to revolve the matter. At length he spoke in a more authoritative tone. “These are forbidden things. You know that, Saul. Have you tried prayer?”
Rutledge shook his head.
“Will you pray with us now?”
Rutledge cast a glance of freezing indifference on his spiritual adviser. “If you folks want to pray, I’m agreeable,” he said. But Mrs. Rutledge intervened.
“Prayer ain’t any good. In this kind of thing it ain’t no manner of use; you know it ain’t. I called you here, Deacon, because you remember the last case in this parish. Thirty years ago it was, I guess; but you remember. Lefferts Nash — did praying help him? I was a little girl then, but I used to hear my folks talk of it winter nights. Lefferts Nash and Hannah Cory. They drove a stake through her breast. That’s what cured him.”
“Oh — ” Orrin Bosworth exclaimed.
Sylvester Brand raised his head. “You’re speaking of that old story as if this was the same sort of thing?”
“Ain’t it? Ain’t my husband pining away the same as Lefferts Nash did? The Deacon here knows — ”
The Deacon stirred anxiously in his chair. “These are forbidden things,” he repeated. “Supposing your husband is quite sincere in thinking himself haunted, as you might say. Well, even then, what proof have we that the . . . the dead woman . . . is the spectre of that poor girl?”
“Proof? Don’t he say so? Didn’t she tell him? Ain’t I seen ’em?” Mrs. Rutledge almost screamed.
The three men sat silent, and suddenly the wife burst out: “A stake through the breast That’s the old way; and it’s the only way. The Deacon knows it!”
“It’s against our religion to disturb the dead.”
“Ain’t it against your religion to let the living perish as my husband is perishing?” She sprang up with one of her abrupt movements and took the family Bible from the what-not in a corner of die parlour. Putting the book on the table, and moistening a livid finger-tip, she turned the pages rapidly, till she came to one on which she laid her hand like a stony paper-weight. “See here,” she said, and read out in her level chanting voice:
“‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’
“That’s in Exodus, that’s where it is,” she added, leaving the book open as if to confirm the statement.
Bosworth continued to glance anxiously from one to the other of the four people about the table. He was younger than any of them, and had had more contact with the modern world; down in Starkfield, in the bar of the Fielding House, he could hear himself laughing with the rest of the men at such old wives’ tales. But it was not for nothing that he had been born under the icy shadow of Lonetop, and had shivered and hungered as a lad through the bitter Hemlock County winters. After his parents died, and he had taken hold of the farm himself, he had got more out of it by using improved methods, and by supplying the increasing throng of summer-boarders over Stotesbury way with milk and vegetables. He had been made a selectman of North Ashmore; for so young a man he had a standing in the county. But the roots of the old life were still in him. He could remember, as a little boy, going twice a year with his mother to that bleak hill-farm out beyond Sylvester Brand’s, where Mrs. Bosworth’s aunt, Cressidora Cheney, had been shut up for years in a cold clean room with iron bars in the windows. When little Orrin first saw Aunt Cressidora she was a small white old woman, whom her sisters used to “make decent” for visitors the day that Orrin and his mother were expected. The child wondered why there were bars to the window. “Like a canary-bird,” he said to his mother. The phrase made Mrs. Bosworth reflect. “I do believe they keep Aunt Cressidora too lonesome,” she said; and the next time she went up the mountain with the little boy he carried to his great-aunt a canary in a little wooden cage. It was a great excitement; he knew it would make her happy.
The old woman’s motionless face lit up when she saw the bird, and her eyes began to glitter. “It belongs to me,” she said instantly, stretching her soft bony hand over the cage.
“Of course it does, Aunt Cressy,” said Mrs. Bosworth, her eyes filling.
But the bird, startled by the shadow of the old woman’s hand, began to flutter and beat its wings distractedly. At the sight, Aunt Cressidora’s calm face suddenly became a coil of twitching features. “You she-devil, you!” she cried in a high squealing voice; and thrusting her hand into the cage she dragged out the terrified bird and wrung its neck. She was plucking the hot body, and squealing “she-devil, she-devil!” as they drew little Orrin from the room. On the way down the mountain his mother wept a great deal, and said: “You must never tell anybody that poor Auntie’s crazy, or the men would come and take her down to the asylum at Starkfield, and the shame of it would kill us all. Now promise.” The child promised.
He remembered the scene now, with its deep fringe of mystery, secrecy and rumour. It seemed related to a great many other things below the surface of his thoughts, things which stole up anew, making him feel that all the old people he had known, and who “believed in these things,” might after all be right. Hadn’t a witch been burned at North Ashmore? Didn’t the summer folk still drive over in jolly buckboard loads to see the meeting-house where the trial had been held, the pond where they had ducked her and she had floated? . . . Deacon Hibben believed; Bosworth was sure of it. If he didn’t, why did people from all over the place come to him when their animals had queer sicknesses, or when there was a child in the family that had to be kept shut up because it fell down flat and foamed? Yes, in spite of his religion, Deacon Hibben knew . . .
And Brand? Well, it came to Bosworth in a flash: that North Ashmore woman who was burned had the name of Brand. The same stock, no doubt; there had been Brands in Hemlock County ever since the white men had come there. And Orrin, when he was a child, remembered hearing his parents say that Sylvester Brand hadn’t ever oughter married his own cousin, because of the blood. Yet the couple had had two healthy girls, and when Mrs. Brand pined away and died nobody suggested that anything had been wrong with her mind. And Vanessa and Ora were the handsomest girls anywhere round. Brand knew it, and scrimped and saved all he could to send Ora, the eldest, down to Starkfield to learn book-keeping. “When she’s married I’ll send you,” he used to say to little Venny, who was his favourite. But Ora never married. She was away three years, during which Venny ran wild on the slopes of Lonetop; and when Ora came back she sickened and died — poor girl! Since then Brand had grown more savage and morose. He was a hard-working farmer, but there wasn’t much to be got out of those barren Bearcliff acres. He was said to have taken to drink since his wife’s death; now and then men ran across him in the “dives” of Stotesbury. But not often. And between times he laboured hard on his stony acres and did his best for his daughters. In the neglected grave-yard of Cold Corners there was a slanting head-stone marked with his wife’s name; near it, a year since, he had laid his eldest daughter. And sometimes, at dusk, in the autumn, the village people saw him walk slowly by, turn in between the graves, and stand looking down on the two stones. But he never brought a flower there, or planted a bush; nor Venny either. She was too wild and ignorant . . .
Mrs. Rutledge repeated: “That’s in Exodus.”
The three visitors remained silent, turning about their hats in reluctant hands. Rutledge faced them, still with that empty pellucid gaze which frightened Bosworth. What was he seeing?
“Ain’t any of you folks got the grit —?” his wife burst out again, half hysterically.
Deacon Hibben held up his hand. “That’s no way, Mrs. Rutledge. This ain’t a question of having grit. What we want first of all is . . . proof . . . ”
“That’s so,” said Bosworth, with an explosion of relief, as if the words had lifted something black and crouching from his breast. Involuntarily the eyes of both men had turned to Brand. He stood there smiling grimly, but did not speak.
“Ain’t it so, Brand?” the Deacon prompted him.
“Proof that spooks walk?” the other sneered.
“Well — I presume you want this business settled too?”
The old farmer squared his shoulders. “Yes — I do. But I ain’t a sperritualist. How the hell are you going to settle it?”
Deacon Hibben hesitated; then he said, in a low incisive tone: “I don’t see but one way — Mrs. Rutledge’s.”
There was a silence.
“What?” Brand sneered again. “Spying?”
The Deacon’s voice sank lower. “If the poor girl does walk . . . her that’s your child . . . wouldn’t you be the first to want her laid quiet? We all know there’ve been such cases . . . mysterious visitations . . . Can any one of us here deny it?”
“I seen ’em,” Mrs. Rutledge interjected.
There was another heavy pause. Suddenly Brand fixed his gaze on Rutledge. “See here, Saul Rutledge, you’ve got to clear up this damned calumny, or I’ll know why. You say my dead girl comes to you.” He laboured with his breath, and then jerked out: “When? You tell me that, and I’ll be there.”
Rutledge’s head drooped a little, and his eyes wandered to the window. “Round about sunset, mostly.”
“You know beforehand?”
Rutledge made a sign of assent.
“Well, then — tomorrow, will it be?” Rutledge made the same sign.
Brand turned to the door. “I’ll be there.” That was all he said. He strode out between them without another glance or word. Deacon Hibben looked at Mrs. Rutledge. “We’ll be there too,” he said, as if she had asked him; but she had not spoken, and Bosworth saw that her thin body was trembling all over. He was glad when he and Hibben were out again in the snow.
They thought that Brand wanted to be left to himself, and to give him time to unhitch his horse they made a pretense of hanging about in the doorway while Bosworth searched his pockets for a pipe he had no mind to light.
But Brand turned back to them as they lingered. “You’ll meet me down by Lamer’s pond tomorrow?” he suggested. “I want witnesses. Round about sunset.”
They nodded their acquiescence, and he got into his sleigh, gave the horse a cut across the flanks, and drove off under the snow-smothered hemlocks. The other two men went to the shed.
“What do you make of this business, Deacon?” Bosworth asked, to break the silence.
The Deacon shook his head. “The man’s a sick man — that’s sure. Something’s sucking the life clean out of him.”
But already, in the biting outer air, Bosworth was getting himself under better control. “Looks to me like a bad case of the ague, as you said.”
“Well — ague of the mind, then. It’s his brain that’s sick.”
Bosworth shrugged. “He ain’t the first in Hemlock County.”
“That’s so,” the Deacon agreed. “It’s a worm in the brain, solitude is.”
“Well, we’ll know this time tomorrow, maybe,” said Bosworth. He scrambled into his sleigh, and was driving off in his turn when he heard his companion calling after him. The Deacon explained that his horse had cast a shoe; would Bosworth drive him down to the forge near North Ashmore, if it wasn’t too much out of his way? He didn’t want the mare slipping about on the freezing snow, and he could probably get the blacksmith to drive him back and shoe her in Rutledge’s shed. Bosworth made room for him under the bearskin, and the two men drove off, pursued by a puzzled whinny from the Deacon’s old mare.
The road they took was not the one that Bosworth would have followed to reach his own home. But he did not mind that. The shortest way to the forge passed close by Lamer’s pond, and Bosworth, since he was in for the business, was not sorry to look the ground over. They drove on in silence.
The snow had ceased, and a green sunset was spreading upward into the crystal sky. A stinging wind barbed with ice-flakes caught them in the face on the open ridges, but when they dropped down into the hollow by Lamer’s pond the air was as soundless and empty as an unswung bell. They jogged along slowly, each thinking his own thoughts.
“That’s the house . . . that tumble-down shack over there, I suppose?” the Deacon said, as the road drew near the edge of the frozen pond.
“Yes: that’s the house. A queer hermit-fellow built it years ago, my father used to tell me. Since then I don’t believe it’s ever been used but by the gipsies.”
Bosworth had reined in his horse, and sat looking through pine-trunks purpled by the sunset at the crumbling structure. Twilight already lay under the trees, though day lingered in the open. Between two sharply-patterned pine-boughs he saw the evening star, like a white boat in a sea of green.
His gaze dropped from that fathomless sky and followed the blue-white undulations of the snow. It gave him a curious agitated feeling to think that here, in this icy solitude, in the tumble-down house he had so often passed without heeding it, a dark mystery, too deep for thought, was being enacted. Down that very slope, coming from the grave-yard at Cold Corners, the being they called “Ora” must pass toward the pond. His heart began to beat stiflingly. Suddenly he gave an exclamation: “Look!”
He had jumped out of the cutter and was stumbling up the bank toward the slope of snow. On it, turned in the direction of the house by the pond, he had detected a woman’s foot-prints; two; then three; then more. The Deacon scrambled out after him, and they stood and stared.
“God — barefoot!” Hibben gasped. “Then it is . . . the dead . . . ”
Bosworth said nothing. But he knew that no live woman would travel with naked feet across that freezing wilderness. Here, then, was the proof the Deacon had asked for — they held it. What should they do with it?
“Supposing we was to drive up nearer — round the turn of the pond, till we get close to the house,” the Deacon proposed in a colourless voice. “Mebbe then . . . ”
Postponement was a relief. They got into the sleigh and drove on. Two or three hundred yards farther the road, a mere lane under steep bushy banks, turned sharply to the right, following the bend of the pond. As they rounded the turn they saw Brand’s cutter ahead of them. It was empty, the horse tied to a tree-trunk. The two men looked at each other again. This was not Brand’s nearest way home.
Evidently he had been actuated by the same impulse which had made them rein in their horse by the pond-side, and then hasten on to the deserted hovel. Had he too discovered those spectral foot-prints? Perhaps it was for that very reason that he had left his cutter and vanished in the direction of the house. Bosworth found himself shivering all over under his bearskin. “I wish to God the dark wasn’t coming on,” he muttered. He tethered his own horse near Brand’s, and without a word he and the Deacon ploughed through the snow, in the track of Brand’s huge feet. They had only a few yards to walk to overtake him. He did not hear them following him, and when Bosworth spoke his name, and he stopped short and turned, his heavy face was dim and confused, like a darker blot on the dusk. He looked at them dully, but without surprise.
“I wanted to see the place,” he merely said.
The Deacon cleared his throat. “Just take a look . . . yes . . . We thought so . . . But I guess there won’t be anything to see . . . ” He attempted a chuckle.
The other did not seem to hear him, but laboured on ahead through the pines. The three men came out together in the cleared space before the house. As they emerged from beneath the trees they seemed to have left night behind. The evening star shed a lustre on the speckless snow, and Brand, in that lucid circle, stopped with a jerk, and pointed to the same light foot-prints turned toward the house — the track of a woman in the snow. He stood still, his face working. “Bare feet . . . ” he said.
The Deacon piped up in a quavering voice: “The feet of the dead.”
Brand remained motionless. “The feet of the dead,” he echoed.
Deacon Hibben laid a frightened hand on his arm. “Come away now, Brand; for the love of God come away.”
The father hung there, gazing down at those light tracks on the snow — light as fox or squirrel trails they seemed, on the white immensity. Bosworth thought to himself “The living couldn’t walk so light — not even Ora Brand couldn’t have, when she lived . . . ” The cold seemed to have entered into his very marrow. His teeth were chattering.
Brand swung about on them abruptly. “Now!” he said, moving on as if to an assault, his head bowed forward on his bull neck.
“Now — now? Not in there?” gasped the Deacon. “What’s the use? It was tomorrow he said — .” He shook like a leaf.
“It’s now,” said Brand. He went up to the door of the crazy house, pushed it inward, and meeting with an unexpected resistance, thrust his heavy shoulder against the panel. The door collapsed like a playing-card, and Brand stumbled after it into the darkness of the hut. The others, after a moment’s hesitation, followed.
Bosworth was never quite sure in what order the events that succeeded took place. Coming in out of the snow-dazzle, he seemed to be plunging into total blackness. He groped his way across the threshold, caught a sharp splinter of the fallen door in his palm, seemed to see something white and wraithlike surge up out of the darkest corner of the hut, and then heard a revolver shot at his elbow, and a cry —
Brand had turned back, and was staggering past him out into the lingering daylight. The sunset, suddenly flushing through the trees, crimsoned his face like blood. He held a revolver in his hand and looked about him in his stupid way.
“They do walk, then,” he said and began to laugh. He bent his head to examine his weapon. “Better here than in the churchyard. They shan’t dig her up now,” he shouted out. The two men caught him by the arms, and Bosworth got the revolver away from him.
The next day Bosworth’s sister Loretta, who kept house for him, asked him, when he came in for his midday dinner, if he had heard the news.
Bosworth had been sawing wood all the morning, and in spite of the cold and the driving snow, which had begun again in the night, he was covered with an icy sweat, like a man getting over a fever.
“Venny Brand’s down sick with pneumonia. The Deacon’s been there. I guess she’s dying.”
Bosworth looked at her with listless eyes. She seemed far off from him, miles away. “Venny Brand?” he echoed.
“You never liked her, Orrin.”
“She’s a child. I never knew much about her.”
“Well,” repeated his sister, with the guileless relish of the unimaginative for bad news, “I guess she’s dying.” After a pause she added: “It’ll kill Sylvester Brand, all alone up there.”
Bosworth got up and said: “I’ve got to see to poulticing the gray’s fetlock.” He walked out into the steadily falling snow.
Venny Brand was buried three days later. The Deacon read the service; Bosworth was one of the pall-bearers. The whole countryside turned out, for the snow had stopped falling, and at any season a funeral offered an opportunity for an outing that was not to be missed. Besides, Venny Brand was young and handsome — at least some people thought her handsome, though she was so swarthy — and her dying like that, so suddenly, had the fascination of tragedy.
“They say her lungs filled right up . . . Seems she’d had bronchial troubles before . . . I always said both them girls was frail . . . Look at Ora, how she took and wasted away I And it’s colder’n all outdoors up there to Brand’s . . . Their mother, too, she pined away just the same. They don’t ever make old bones on the mother’s side of the family . . . There’s that young Bedlow over there; they say Venny was engaged to him . . . Oh, Mrs. Rutledge, excuse me . . . Step right into the pew; there’s a seat for you alongside of grandma . . . ”
Mrs. Rutledge was advancing with deliberate step down the narrow aisle of the bleak wooden church. She had on her best bonnet, a monumental structure which no one had seen out of her trunk since old Mrs. Silsee’s funeral, three years before. All the women remembered it. Under its perpendicular pile her narrow face, swaying on the long thin neck, seemed whiter than ever; but her air of fretfulness had been composed into a suitable expression of mournful immobility.
“Looks as if the stone-mason had carved her to put atop of Venny’s grave,” Bosworth thought as she glided past him; and then shivered at his own sepulchral fancy. When she bent over her hymn book her lowered lids reminded him again of marble eye-balls; the bony hands clasping the book were bloodless. Bosworth had never seen such hands since he had seen old Aunt Cressidora Cheney strangle the canary-bird because it fluttered.
The service was over, the coffin of Venny Brand had been lowered into her sister’s grave, and the neighbours were slowly dispersing. Bosworth, as pall-bearer, felt obliged to linger and say a word to the stricken father. He waited till Brand had turned from the grave with the Deacon at his side. The three men stood together for a moment; but not one of them spoke. Brand’s face was the closed door of a vault, barred with wrinkles like bands of iron.
Finally the Deacon took his hand and said: “The Lord gave — ”
Brand nodded and turned away toward the shed where the horses were hitched. Bosworth followed him. “Let me drive along home with you,” he suggested.
Brand did not so much as turn his head. “Home? What home?” he said; and the other fell back.
Loretta Bosworth was talking with the other women while the men unblanketed their horses and backed the cutters out into the heavy snow. As Bosworth waited for her, a few feet off, he saw Mrs. Rutledge’s tall bonnet lording it above the group. Andy Pond, the Rutledge farm-hand, was backing out the sleigh.
“Saul ain’t here today, Mrs. Rutledge, is he?” one of the village elders piped, turning a benevolent old tortoise-head about on a loose neck, and blinking up into Mrs. Rut-ledge’s marble face.
Bosworth heard her measure out her answer in slow incisive words. “No. Mr. Rutledge he ain’t here. He would ‘a’ come for certain, but his aunt Minorca Cummins is being buried down to Stotesbury this very day and he had to go down there. Don’t it sometimes seem zif we was all walking right in the Shadow of Death?”
As she walked toward the cutter, in which Andy Pond was already seated, the Deacon went up to her with visible hesitation. Involuntarily Bosworth also moved nearer. He heard the Deacon say: “I’m glad to hear that Saul is able to be up and around.”
She turned her small head on her rigid neck, and lifted the lids of marble.
“Yes, I guess he’ll sleep quieter now. — And her too, maybe, now she don’t lay there alone any longer,” she added in a low voice, with a sudden twist of her chin toward the fresh black stain in the grave-yard snow. She got into the cutter, and said in a clear tone to Andy Pond: “‘S long as we’re down here I don’t know but what I’ll just call round and get a box of soap at Hiram Pringle’s.”
The vengeance of a tree
Eleanor F. Lewis
Through the windows of Jim Daly’s saloon, in the little town of C——, the setting sun streamed in yellow patches, lighting up the glasses scattered on the tables and the faces of several men who were gathered near the bar. Farmers mostly they were, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers, while prominent among them was the village editor, and all were discussing a startling piece of news that had spread through the town and its surroundings. The tidings that Walter Stedman, a laborer on Albert Kelsey’s ranch, had assaulted and murdered his employer’s daughter, had reached them, and had spread universal horror among the people.
A farmer declared that he had seen the deed committed as he walked through a neighboring lane, and, having always been noted for his cowardice, instead of running to the girl’s aid, had hailed a party of miners who were returning from their mid-day meal through a field near by. When they reached the spot, however, where Stedman (as they supposed) had done his black deed, only the girl lay there, in the stillness of death. Her murderer had taken the opportunity to fly. The party had searched the woods of the Kelsey estate, and just as they were nearing the house itself the appearance of Walter Stedman, walking in a strangely unsteady manner toward it, made them quicken their pace.
He was soon in custody, although he had protested his innocence of the crime. He said that he had just seen the body himself on his way to the station, and that when they had found him he was going to the house for help. But they had laughed at his story and had flung him into the tiny, stifling calaboose of the town.
What were their proofs? Walter Stedman, a young fellow of about twenty-six, had come from the city to their quiet town, just when times were at their hardest, in search of work. The most of the men living in the town were honest fellows, doing their work faithfully, when they could get it, and when they had socially asked Stedman to have a drink with them, he had refused in rather a scornful manner. “That infernal city chap,” he was called, and their hate and envy increased in strength when Albert Kelsey had employed him in preference to any of themselves. As time went on, the story of Stedman’s admiration for Margaret Kelsey had gone afloat, with the added information that his employer’s daughter had repulsed him, saying that she would not marry a common laborer. So Stedman, when this news reached his employer’s ears, was discharged, and this, then, was his revenge! For them, these proofs were sufficient to pronounce him guilty.
Yet that afternoon, as Stedman, crouched on the floor of the calaboose, grew hopeless in the knowledge that no one would believe his story, and that his undeserved punishment would be swift and sure, a tramp, boarding a freight car several miles from the town, sped away from the spot where his crime had been committed, and knew that forever its shadow would follow him.
From the tiny window of his prison Walter Stedman could see the red glow of the heavens that betokened the setting of the sun. So the red sun of his life was soon to set, a life that had been innocent of all crime, and that now was to be ended for a deed that he had never committed. Most prominent of all the visions that swept through his mind was that of Margaret Kelsey, lying as he had first found her, fresh from the hands of her murderer. But there was another of a more tender nature. How long he and Margaret had tried to keep their secret, until Walter could be promoted to a higher position, so that he could ask for her hand with no fear of the father’s antagonism! Then came the remembrance of an afternoon meeting between the two in the woods of the Kelsey estate—how, just as they were parting, Walter had heard footsteps near them, and, glancing sharply around, saw an evil, scowling, murderous face peering through the brush. He had started toward it, but the owner of the countenance had taken himself hurriedly off.
The gossiping townspeople had misconstrued this romance, and when Albert Kelsey had heard of this clandestine meeting from the man who was later on to appear as a leader of the mob, and that he had discharged Stedman, they had believed that the young man had formally proposed and had been rejected. But justice had gone wrong, as it had done innumerable times before, and will again. An innocent man was to be hanged, even without the comfort of a trial, while the man who was guilty was free to wander where he would.
That autumn night the darkness came quickly, and only the stars did their best to light the scene. A body of men, all masked, and having as a leader one who had ever since Stedman’s arrival in town, cherished a secret hatred of the young man, dragged Stedman from the calaboose and tramped through the town, defying all, defying even God himself. Along the highway, and into Farmer Brown’s “cross cut,” they went, vigilantly guarding their prisoner, who, with the lanterns lighting up his haggard face, walked among them with the lagging step of utter hopelessness.
“That’s a good tree,” their leader said, presently, stopping and pointing out a spreading oak; when the slipknot was adjusted and Stedman had stepped on the box, he added: “If you’ve got anything to say, you’d better say it now.”
“I am innocent, I swear before God,” the doomed man answered; “I never took the life of Margaret Kelsey.”
“Give us your proof,” jeered the leader, and when Stedman kept a despairing silence, he laughed shortly.
“Ready, men!” he gave the order. The box was kicked aside, and then—only a writhing body swung to and fro in the gloom.
In front of the men stood their leader, watching the contortions of the body with silent glee. “I’ll tell you a secret, boys,” he said suddenly. “I was after that poor murdered girl myself. A d—— little chance I had; but, by ——, he had just as little!”
A pause—then: “He’s shunted this earth. Cut him down, you fellows!”
* * * * *
“It’s no use, son. I’ll give up the blasted thing as a bad job. There’s something queer about that there tree. Do you see how its branches balance it? We have cut the trunk nearly in two, but it won’t come down. There’s plenty of others around; we’ll take one of them. If I’d a long rope with me I’d get that tree down, and yet the way the thing stands it would be risking a fellow’s life to climb it. It’s got the devil in it, sure.”
So old Farmer Brown shouldered his axe and made for another tree, his son following. They had sawed and chopped and chopped and sawed, and yet the tall white oak, with its branches jutting out almost as regularly as if done by the work of a machine, stood straight and firm.
Farmer Brown, well known for his weak, cowardly spirit, who in beholding the murder of Albert Kelsey’s daughter, had in his fright mistaken the criminal, now in his superstition let the oak stand, because its well-balanced position saved it from falling, when other trees would have been down. And so this tree, the same one to which an innocent man had been hanged, was left—for other work.
It was a bleak, rainy night—such a night as can be found only in central California. The wind howled like a thousand demons, and lashed the trees together in wild embraces. Now and then the weird “hoot, hoot!” of an owl came softly from the distance in the lulls of the storm, while the barking of coyotes woke the echoes of the hills into sounds like fiendish laughter.
In the wind and rain a man fought his path through the bush and into Farmer Brown’s “cross cut,” as the shortest way home. Suddenly he stopped, trembling, as if held by some unseen impulse. Before him rose the white oak, wavering and swaying in the storm.
“Good God! it’s the tree I swung Stedman from!” he cried, and a strange fear thrilled him.
His eyes were fixed on it, held by some undefinable fascination. Yes, there on one of the longest branches a small piece of rope still dangled. And then, to the murderer’s excited vision, this rope seemed to lengthen, to form at the end into a slipknot, a knot that encircled a purple neck, while below it writhed and swayed the body of a man!
“Damn him!” he muttered, starting toward the hanging form, as if about to help the rope in its work of strangulation; “will he forever follow me? And yet he deserved it, the black-hearted villain! He took her life——”
He never finished the sentence. The white oak, towering above him in its strength, seemed to grow like a frenzied, living creature. There was a sudden splitting sound, then came a crash, and under the fallen tree lay Stedman’s murderer, crushed and mangled.
From between the broken trunk and the stump that was left, a gray, dim shape sprang out, and sped past the man’s still form, away into the wild blackness of the night.
Uma árvore vingativa
Eleanor F. Lewis
Pelas vidraças do bar de Jim Daly, na pequena cidade de C...., o sol poente lançava manchas amarelas nos copos espalhados pelas mesas e nos rostos reunidos no balcão. Quase todos fazendeiros, poucos comerciantes e o editor do jornal da cidade, o mais proeminente dentre eles. Debatiam uma notícia assombrosa que corria pela região. A notícia que vinha espalhando pavor em todo mundo era que Walter Stedman, um lavrador da fazenda de Albert Kelsey, havia atacado e assassinado a filha de seu patrão.
Um fazendeiro, famoso por sua covardia, afirmou ter visto o crime enquanto caminhava na vizinhança e, ao invés de socorrer a moça, comunicou alguns mineiros que voltavam do almoço num campo ali perto. No entanto, quando chegaram ao local onde supostamente Stedman cometia seu ato perverso, encontraram apenas a jovem em seu silêncio mortal. O algoz aproveitara a oportunidade para fugir. O grupo vasculhou os bosques da propriedade de Kelsey e correu quando se aproximava da casa sede e avistou Walter Stedman indo para lá à passos estranhamente vacilantes.
Ele foi detido, mesmo afirmando ser inocente. Disse que acabara de encontrar o corpo quando ia ao trabalho e voltava para a sede em busca de ajuda quando o pegaram. Mas riram de sua história e o jogaram na sufocante e apertada cadeia da cidade.
Onde estavam as provas? Walter Stedman, um jovem de 26 anos, veio da cidade grande para a cidadezinha pacata deles em busca de trabalho justamente naqueles tempos tão difíceis. A maioria dos habitantes era de trabalhadores honestos e esforçados, quando conseguiam algum trabalho. Convidaram Stedman para beber, mas ele recusou de maneira bastante desdenhosa. “Aquele metido a besta da cidade,” o chamavam, e o ódio e a inveja dobraram quando Albert Kensey o contratou no lugar de qualquer outro. Com o passar do tempo, a história da admiração de Stedman por Margaret Kelsey se espalhou, com o toque adicional de que a filha do patrão o rejeitara dizendo que jamais se casaria com um trabalhador ordinário. Stedman foi demitido quando essa história chegou aos ouvidos do patrão. Era esta, então, a sua vingança! Para eles, essas foram provas suficientes para condená-lo.
Naquela mesma tarde, enquanto Stedman se encolhia no chão da cela, desolado ao constatar que ninguém acreditaria na sua inocência e que certeira e rápida viria sua punição, um mendigo embarcava num vagão de carga há quilômetros dali, fugindo da própria sombra mas sabendo que seria seguido por ela para sempre.
Da estreita janela de sua prisão, Walter Stedman podia ver a vermelhidão incandescente do céu anunciando que o sol logo desapareceria. Também o sol de sua vida em breve iria se pôr, uma vida inocente que seria encerrada por um ato que ele não cometeu. A lembrança mais fresca a assombrar seus pensamentos era a visão de Margaret Kelsey, caída como ele a encontrara, recém marcada pelas mãos de seu assassino. Mas havia outra, confortante. O tempo em que Margaret e ele mantiveram seu segredo até Walter ser promovido a uma posição melhor antes que pudesse pedir a mão dela sem medo da recusa do pai! Lembrou-se dos dois juntos numa tarde na floresta, e de como, após se despedirem, ele ouvira passos na proximidade e, virando-se abruptamente, dera de cara com um rosto mau, carrancudo e homicida espreitando nos arbustos. Walter ensaiou uma perseguição, mas o dono da carranca retirou-se apressado.
Os fofoqueiros da cidadezinha interpretaram erroneamente esse romance. Quando Albert Kensey soube dos encontros secretos - pela boca do mesmo homem que depois viria a ser o líder dos acusadores -, despediu Stedman. Todos acreditaram que o jovem havia feito a proposta formalmente e fora rejeitado. Mas, como já aconteceu e acontecerá outra vez, a justiça cometeu um erro. Um inocente seria enforcado sem ter sequer o consolo de um julgamento, enquanto o culpado permaneceria livre para viver como quisesse.
Naquela noite de outono, as trevas chegaram cedo e apenas as estrelas iluminaram aquela cena. Desafiando Deus e a todos, um bando de homens mascarados, liderado por aquele que nutria um ódio secreto por Stedman desde que este chegara à cidade, arrastou o prisioneiro para fora de sua cela e o forçou a andar por toda a cidade. Eles tomaram o rumo da estrada e passaram pela serralheria do sr. Brown, diligentemente vigiando seu prisioneiro, que caminhava descompassadamente entre eles e cuja face abatida e desolada era iluminada por suas lanternas.
“Essa é uma boa árvore”, disse o líder deles, parando e apontando um carvalho frondoso. Quando ajustaram o nó corrediço e Stedman se apoiou na caixa, ele acrescentou: "Se você tem algo a dizer, é melhor dizer agora".
“Sou inocente, juro perante Deus,” disse o condenado; "Eu nao matei Margaret Kelsey."
"Prove", zombou o líder, e quando Stedman se calou em desespero, riu.
“Atenção, homens!” ele deu a ordem. A caixa foi chutada. Um corpo se contorceu e balançou na escuridão.
Na frente dos homens estava seu líder, observando com satisfação silenciosa os estertores do moribundo. "Vou lhes contar um segredo, rapazes", disse ele de repente. "Eu mesmo tinha pretensões com a pobre moça. Eu tinha pouquíssimas chances, é verdade, mas, por Deus, ele também!"
Fez uma pausa e então disse: “Ele maculou esse chão. Cortem a corda, companheiros!”
"Não é possível, filho. Vou desistir dessa coisa maldita, não é um bom trabalho. Tem algo errado nessa árvore. Vê como os galhos se equilibram? Quase cortamos o tronco em dois e ela não cai. Há outras por aí, pegaremos outra. Se eu tivesse uma corda longa, a derrubaria. Mesmo assim, do jeito que está é muito arriscado subir nela. Sem dúvida está sob a sombra do diabo.”
Seguido pelo filho, o velho sr. Brown pendurou o machado no ombro e foi em busca de outra árvore. Eles haviam cortado e serrado, de novo e de novo e, no entanto, o gigantesco carvalho branco, com seus braços grossos e salientes como esculpidos por uma máquina, permanecia firme e forte.
O velho e supersticioso sr. Brown, famoso por ser um covarde, que havia testemunhado o assassinato da filha de Albert Kelsey e ficara apavorado demais para identificar apropriadamente o criminoso, desta vez deixava em pé um grande carvalho simplesmente porque a árvore se equilibrou nos galhos e não caiu, como costuma acontecer com as outras. Foi assim que esta árvore, a mesma que um dia serviu para enforcar um homem inocente, foi poupada - para outro trabalho.
Era uma noite gélida e chuvosa daquelas que só se vê no interior da Califórnia. O vento urrava como mil demônios e fazia com que as árvores se abraçassem desesperadamente. De tempos em tempos, o discreto piado de uma coruja vinha de longe em meio as calmarias da tempestade, enquanto o uivo dos coiotes se multiplicava em gargalhadas diabólicas ao ecoar nas montanhas.
Lutando contra água e ar, um homem forçou passagem pela mata e pegou um atalho pela serralheria do sr. Brown para poder chegar logo em casa. Ele estacou abruptamente, tremendo, como se tivesse sido contido por uma força invisível. O carvalho branco erguia-se a sua frente, balançando e oscilando na tempestade.
"Meu Deus! É a árvore em que pendurei Stedman!", exclamou, e um medo indefinido o envolveu.
Encarava a árvore, enfeitiçado. Um pedaço de corda ainda pendia num dos galhos mais longos. E então, diante dos seus olhos vidrados, a corda pareceu alongar-se e formar um nó corrediço, um nó que circundava um pescoço arroxeado, e em baixo um corpo que balançava e se contorcia!
"Maldito seja!" murmurou, indo em direção à forma enforcada, como se pretendesse ajudar a corda em seu trabalho; “Ele vai me seguir para sempre? Ele mereceu, aquele vilão desalmado! Ele a mat——”
Ele não terminou a frase. O carvalho branco elevou-se enorme e poderoso sobre ele, frenético como um animal raivoso. Houve um barulho ensurdecedor de madeira rachando, e com um estrondo pesado no chão, o algoz de Stedman foi esmagado e mutilado pela queda da árvore enorme.
Uma sombra cinzenta e etérea brotou do tronco partido e, passando pelo que restou do homem, flutuou e desapareceu na escuridão selvagem da noite.
The old nurse's story
YOU know, my dears, that your mother was an orphan, and an only child; and I dare say you have heard that your grandfather was a clergyman up in Westmoreland, where I come from. I was just a girl in the village school, when, one day, your grandmother came in to ask the mistress if there was any scholar there who would do for a nurse-maid; and mighty proud I was, I can tell ye, when the mistress called me up, and spoke to my being a good girl at my needle, and a steady, honest girl, and one whose parents were very respectable, though they might be poor. I thought I should like nothing better than to serve the pretty young lady, who was blushing as deep as I was, as she spoke of the coming baby, and what I should have to do with it. However, I see you don't care so much for this part of my story, as for what you think is to come, so I'll tell you at once. I was engaged and settled at the parsonage before Miss Rosamond (that was the baby, who is now your mother) was born. To be sure, I had little enough to do with her when she came, for she was never out of her mother's arms, and slept by her all night long; and proud enough was I sometimes when missis trusted her to me. There never was such a baby before or since, though you've all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for sweet, winning ways, you've none of you come up to your mother. She took after her mother, who was a real lady born; a Miss Furnivall, a grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall's, in Northumberland. I believe she had neither brother nor sister, and had been brought up in my lord's family till she had married your grandfather, who was just a curate, son to a shopkeeper in Carlisle--but a clever, fine gentleman as ever was--and one who was a right-down hard worker in his parish, which was very wide, and scattered all abroad over the Westmoreland Fells. When your mother, little Miss Rosamond, was about four or five years old, both her parents died in a fortnight--one after the other. Ah! that was a sad time. My pretty young mistress and me was looking for another baby, when my master came home from one of his long rides, wet and tired, and took the fever he died of; and then she never held up her head again, but just lived to see her dead baby, and have it laid on her breast, before she sighed away her life. My mistress had asked me, on her death-bed, never to leave Miss Rosamond; but if she had never spoken a word, I would have gone with the little child to the end of the world.
The next thing, and before we had well stilled our sobs, the executors and guardians came to settle the affairs. They were my poor young mistress's own cousin, Lord Furnivall, and Mr. Esthwaite, my master's brother, a shopkeeper in Manchester; not so well-to-do then as he was afterwards, and with a large family rising about him. Well! I don't know if it were their settling, or because of a letter my mistress wrote on her death-bed to her cousin, my lord; but somehow it was settled that Miss Rosamond and me were to go to Furnivall Manor House, in Northumberland; and my lord spoke as if it had been her mother's wish that she should live with his family, and as if he had no objections, for that one or two more or less could make no difference in so grand a household. So, though that was not the way in which I should have wished the coming of my bright and pretty pet to have been looked at--who was like a sunbeam in any family, be it never so grand--I was well pleased that all the folks in the Dale should stare and admire, when they heard I was going to be young lady's maid at my Lord Furnivall's at Furnivall Manor.
But I made a mistake in thinking we were to go and live where my lord did. It turned out that the family had left Furnivall Manor House fifty years or more. I could not hear that my poor young mistress had ever been there, though she had been brought up in the family; and I was sorry for that, for I should have liked Miss Rosamond's youth to have passed where her mother's had been.
My lord's gentleman, from whom I asked as many questions as I durst, said that the Manor House was at the foot of the Cumberland Fells, and a very grand place; that an old Miss Furnivall, a great-aunt of my lord's, lived there, with only a few servants; but that it was a very healthy place, and my lord had thought that it would suit Miss Rosamond very well for a few years, and that her being there might perhaps amuse his old aunt.
I was bidden by my lord to have Miss Rosamond's things ready by a certain day. He was a stern, proud man, as they say all the Lords Furnivall were; and he never spoke a word more than was necessary. Folk did say he had loved my young mistress; but that, because she knew that his father would object, she would never listen to him, and married Mr. Esthwaite; but I don't know. He never married, at any rate. But he never took much notice of Miss Rosamond; which I thought he might have done if he had cared for her dead mother. He sent his gentleman with us to the Manor House, telling him to join him at Newcastle that same evening; so there was no great length of time for him to make us known to all the strangers before he, too, shook us off; and we were left, two lonely young things (I was not eighteen) in the great old Manor House. It seems like yesterday that we drove there. We had left our own dear parsonage very early, and we had both cried as if our hearts would break, though we were travelling in my lord's carriage, which I thought so much of once. And now it was long past noon on a September day, and we stopped to change horses for the last time at a little smoky town, all full of colliers and miners. Miss Rosamond had fallen asleep, but Mr. Henry told me to waken her, that she might see the park and the Manor House as we drove up. I thought it rather a pity; but I did what he bade me, for fear he should complain of me to my lord. We had left all signs of a town, or even a village, and were then inside the gates of a large wild park--not like the parks here in the south, but with rocks, and the noise of running water, and gnarled thorn-trees, and old oaks, all white and peeled with age.
The road went up about two miles, and then we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew, and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place;--to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing projected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, although it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected. Behind it rose the Fells, which seemed unenclosed and bare enough; and on the left hand of the house, as you stood facing it, was a little, old-fashioned flower-garden, as I found out afterwards. A door opened out upon it from the west front; it had been scooped out of the thick, dark wood for some old Lady Furnivall; but the branches of the great forest-trees had grown and overshadowed it again, and there were very few flowers that would live there at that time.
When we drove up to the great front entrance, and went into the hall, I thought we should be lost--it was so large, and vast, and grand. There was a chandelier all of bronze, hung down from the middle of the ceiling; and I had never seen one before, and looked at it all in amaze. Then, at one end of the hall, was a great fireplace, as large as the sides of the houses in my country, with massy andirons and dogs to hold the wood; and by it were heavy, old-fashioned sofas. At the opposite end of the hall, to the left as you went in--on the western side--was an organ built into the wall, and so large that it filled up the best part of that end. Beyond it, on the same side, was a door; and opposite, on each side of the fireplace, were also doors leading to the east front; but those I never went through as long as I stayed in the house, so I can't tell you what lay beyond.
The afternoon was closing in, and the hall, which had no fire lighted in it, looked dark and gloomy; but we did not stay there a moment. The old servant, who had opened the door for us, bowed to Mr. Henry, and took us in through the door at the further side of the great organ, and led us through several smaller halls and passages into the west drawing-room, where he said that Miss Furnivall was sitting. Poor little Miss Rosamond held very tight to me, as if she were scared and lost in that great place; and as for myself, I was not much better. The west drawing-room was very cheerful-looking, with a warm fire in it, and plenty of good, comfortable furniture about. Miss Furnivall was an old lady not far from eighty, I should think, but I do not know. She was thin and tall, and had a face as full of fine wrinkles as if they had been drawn all over it with a needle's point. Her eyes were very watchful, to make up, I suppose, for her being so deaf as to be obliged to use a trumpet. Sitting with her, working at the same great piece of tapestry, was Mrs. Stark, her maid and companion, and almost as old as she was. She had lived with Miss Furnivall ever since they both were young, and now she seemed more like a friend than a servant; she looked so cold, and grey, and stony, as if she had never loved or cared for any one; and I don't suppose she did care for any one, except her mistress; and, owing to the great deafness of the latter, Mrs. Stark treated her very much as if she were a child. Mr. Henry gave some message from my lord, and then he bowed good-bye to us all--taking no notice of my sweet little Miss Rosamond's outstretched hand--and left us standing there, being looked at by the two old ladies through their spectacles.
I was right glad when they rung for the old footman who had shown us in at first, and told him to take us to our rooms. So we went out of that great drawing-room, and into another sitting-room, and out of that, and then up a great flight of stairs, and along a broad gallery--which was something like a library, having books all down one side, and windows and writing-tables all down the other--till we came to our rooms, which I was not sorry to hear were just over the kitchens; for I began to think I should be lost in that wilderness of a house. There was an old nursery, that had been used for all the little lords and ladies long ago, with a pleasant fire burning in the grate, and the kettle boiling on the hob, and tea-things spread out on the table; and out of that room was the night-nursery, with a little crib for Miss Rosamond close to my bed. And old James called up Dorothy, his wife, to bid us welcome; and both he and she were so hospitable and kind, that by-and-by Miss Rosamond and me felt quite at home; and by the time tea was over, she was sitting on Dorothy's knee, and chattering away as fast as her little tongue could go. I soon found out that Dorothy was from Westmoreland, and that bound her and me together, as it were; and I would never wish to meet with kinder people than were old James and his wife. James had lived pretty nearly all his life in my lord's family, and thought there was no one so grand as they. He even looked down a little on his wife; because, till he had married her, she had never lived in any but a farmer's household. But he was very fond of her, as well he might be. They had one servant under them, to do all the rough work. Agnes they called her; and she and me, and James and Dorothy, with Miss Furnivall and Mrs. Stark, made up the family; always remembering my sweet little Miss Rosamond! I used to wonder what they had done before she came, they thought so much of her now. Kitchen and drawing-room, it was all the same. The hard, sad Miss Furnivall, and the cold Mrs. Stark, looked pleased when she came fluttering in like a bird, playing and pranking hither and thither, with a continual murmur, and pretty prattle of gladness. I am sure, they were sorry many a time when she flitted away into the kitchen, though they were too proud to ask her to stay with them, and were a little surprised at her taste; though to be sure, as Mrs. Stark said, it was not to be wondered at, remembering what stock her father had come of. The great, old rambling house was a famous place for little Miss Rosamond. She made expeditions all over it, with me at her heels: all, except the east wing, which was never opened, and whither we never thought of going. But in the western and northern part was many a pleasant room; full of things that were curiosities to us, though they might not have been to people who had seen more. The windows were darkened by the sweeping boughs of the trees, and the ivy which had overgrown them; but, in the green gloom, we could manage to see old china jars and carved ivory boxes, and great heavy books, and, above all, the old pictures!
Once, I remember, my darling would have Dorothy go with us to tell us who they all were; for they were all portraits of some of my lord's family, though Dorothy could not tell us the names of every one. We had gone through most of the rooms, when we came to the old state drawing-room over the hall, and there was a picture of Miss Furnivall; or, as she was called in those days, Miss Grace, for she was the younger sister. Such a beauty she must have been! but with such a set, proud look, and such scorn looking out of her handsome eyes, with her eyebrows just a little raised, as if she wondered how any one could have the impertinence to look at her, and her lip curled at us, as we stood there gazing. She had a dress on, the like of which I had never seen before, but it was all the fashion when she was young: a hat of some soft white stuff like beaver, pulled a little over her brows, and a beautiful plume of feathers sweeping round it on one side; and her gown of blue satin was open in front to a quilted white stomacher.
"Well, to be sure!" said I, when I had gazed my fill. "Flesh is grass, they do say; but who would have thought that Miss Furnivall had been such an out-and-out beauty, to see her now?"
"Yes," said Dorothy. "Folks change sadly. But if what my master's father used to say was true, Miss Furnivall, the elder sister, was handsomer than Miss Grace. Her picture is here somewhere; but, if I show it you, you must never let on, even to James, that you have seen it Can the little lady hold her tongue, think you?" asked she.
I was not so sure, for she was such a little sweet, bold, open-spoken child, so I set her to hide herself; and then I helped Dorothy to turn a great picture, that leaned with its face towards the wall, and was not hung up as the others were. To be sure, it beat Miss Grace for beauty; and I think, for scornful pride, too, though in that matter it might be hard to choose. I could have looked at it an hour but Dorothy seemed half frightened at having shown it to me, and hurried it back again, and bade me run and find Miss Rosamond, for that there were some ugly places about the house, where she should like ill for the child to go. I was a brave, high-spirited girl, and thought little of what the old woman said, for I liked hide-and-seek as well as any child in the parish; so off I ran to find my little one.
As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if some one was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white. I saw they did not like my question, so I held my peace till I was with Dorothy alone, when I knew I could get a good deal out of her. So, the next day, I watched my time, and I coaxed and asked her who it was that played the organ; for I knew that it was the organ and not the wind well enough, for all I had kept silence before James. But Dorothy had had her lesson, I'll warrant, and never a word could I get from her. So then I tried Bessy, though I had always held my head rather above her, as I was evened to James and Dorothy, and she was little better than their servant So she said I must never, never tell; and if ever told, I was never to say she had told me; but it was a very strange noise, and she had heard it many a time, but most of all on winter nights, and before storms; and folks did say it was the old lord playing on the great organ in the hall, just as he used to do when he was alive; but who the old lord was, or why he played, and why he played on stormy winter evenings in particular, she either could not or would not tell me. Well! I told you I had a brave heart; and I thought it was rather pleasant to have that grand music rolling about the house, let who would be the player; for now it rose above the great gusts of wind, and wailed and triumphed just like a living creature, and then it fell to a softness most complete, only it was always music, and tunes, so it was nonsense to call it the wind. I thought at first, that it might be Miss Furnivall who played, unknown to Bessy; but one day, when I was in the hall by myself, I opened the organ and peeped all about it and around it, as I had done to the organ in Crosthwaite Church once before, and I saw it was all broken and destroyed inside, though it looked so brave and fine; and then, though it was noon-day, my flesh began to creep a little, and I shut it up, and run away pretty quickly to my own bright nursery; and I did not like hearing the music for some time after that, any more than James and Dorothy did. All this time Miss Rosamond was making herself more and more beloved. The old ladies liked her to dine with them at their early dinner James stood behind Miss Furnivall's chair, and I behind Miss Rosamond's all in state; and, after dinner, she would play about in a corner of the great drawing-room as still as any mouse, while Miss Furnivall slept, and I had my dinner in the kitchen. But she was glad enough to come to me in the nursery afterwards; for, as she said Miss Furnivall was so sad, and Mrs. Stark so dull; but she and were merry enough; and, by-and-by, I got not to care for that weird rolling music, which did one no harm, if we did not know where it came from.
That winter was very cold. In the middle of October the frosts began, and lasted many, many weeks. I remember one day, at dinner, Miss Furnivall lifted up her sad, heavy eyes, and said to Mrs. Stark, "I am afraid we shall have a terrible winter," in a strange kind of meaning way But Mrs. Stark pretended not to hear, and talked very loud of something else. My little lady and I did not care for the frost; not we! As long as it was dry, we climbed up the steep brows behind the house, and went up on the Fells which were bleak and bare enough, and there we ran races in the fresh, sharp air; and once we came down by a new path, that took us past the two old gnarled holly-trees, which grew about half-way down by the east side of the house. But the days grew shorter and shorter, and the old lord, if it was he, played away, more and more stormily and sadly, on the great organ. One Sunday afternoon--it must have been towards the end of November--I asked Dorothy to take charge of little missy when she came out of the drawing-room, after Miss Furnivall had had her nap; for it was too cold to take her with me to church, and yet I wanted to go, And Dorothy was glad enough to promise and was so fond of the child, that all seemed well; and Bessy and I set off very briskly, though the sky hung heavy and black over the white earth, as if the night had never fully gone away, and the air, though still, was very biting.
"We shall have a fall of snow," said Bessy to me. And sure enough, even while we were in church, it came down thick, in great large flakes--so thick, it almost darkened the windows. It had stopped snowing before we came out, but it lay soft, thick, and deep beneath our feet, as we tramped home. Before we got to the hall, the moon rose, and I think it was lighter then--what with the moon, and what with the white dazzling snow--than it had been when we went to church, between two and three o'clock. I have not told you that Miss Furnivall and Mrs. Stark never went to church; they used to read the prayers together, in their quiet, gloomy way; they seemed to feel the Sunday very long without their tapestry-work to be busy at. So when I went to Dorothy in the kitchen, to fetch Miss Rosamond and take her upstairs with me, I did not much wonder when the old woman told me that the ladies had kept the child with them, and that she had never come to the kitchen, as I had bidden her, when she was tired of behaving pretty in the drawing-room. So I took off my things and went to find her, and bring her to her supper in the nursery. But when I went into the best drawing-room, there sat the two old ladies, very still and quiet, dropping out a word now and then, but looking as if nothing so bright and merry as Miss Rosamond had ever been near them. Still I thought she might be hiding from me; it was one of her pretty ways,--and that she had persuaded them to look as if they knew nothing about her; so I went softly peeping under this sofa and behind that chair, making believe I was sadly frightened at not finding her.
"What's the matter, Hester?" said Mrs. Stark sharply. I don't know if Miss Furnivall had seen me for, as I told you, she was very deaf, and she sat quite still, idly staring into the fire, with her hopeless face. "I'm only looking for my little Rosy Posy," replied I, still thinking that the child was there, and near me, though I could not see her.
"Miss Rosamond is not here," said Mrs. Stark. "She went away, more than an hour ago, to find Dorothy." And she, too, turned and went on looking into the fire.
My heart sank at this, and I began to wish I had never left my darling. I went back to Dorothy and told her. James was gone out for the day, but she, and me, and Bessy took lights, and went up into the nursery first; and then we roamed over the great, large house, calling and entreating Miss Rosamond to come out of her hiding-place, and not frighten us to death in that way. But there was no answer; no sound.
"Oh!" said I, at last, "can she have got into the east wing and hidden there?"
But Dorothy said it was not possible, for that she herself had never been in there; that the doors were always locked, and my lord's steward had the keys, she believed; at any rate, neither she nor James had ever seen them: so I said I would go back, and see if, after all, she was not hidden in the drawing-room, unknown to the old ladies; and if I found her there, I said, I would whip her well for the fright she had given me; but I never meant to do it. Well, I went back to the west drawing-room, and I told Mrs. Stark we could not find her anywhere, and asked for leave to look all about the furniture there, for I thought now that she might have fallen asleep in some warm, hidden corner; but no! we looked--Miss Furnivall got up and looked, trembling all over--and she was nowhere there; then we set off again, every one in the house, and looked in all the places we had searched before, but we could not find her. Miss Furnivall shivered and shook so much, that Mrs. Stark took her back into the warm drawing-room; but not before they had made me promise to bring her to them when she was found. Well-a-day! I began to think she never would be found, when I bethought me to look into the great front court, all covered with snow. I was upstairs when I looked out; but, it was such clear moonlight, I could see, quite plain, two little footprints, which might be traced from the hall-door and round the corner of the east wing. I don't know how I got down, but I tugged open the great stiff hall-door, and, throwing the skirt of my gown over my head for a cloak, I ran out. I turned the east corner, and there a black shadow fell on the snow but when I came again into the moonlight, there were the little footmarks going up--up to the Fells. It was bitter cold; so cold, that the air almost took the skin off my face as I ran; but I ran on, crying to think how my poor little darling must be perished and frightened. I was within sight of the holly-trees, when I saw a shepherd coming down the hill, bearing something in his arms wrapped in his maud. He shouted to me, and asked me if I had lost a bairn; and, when I could not speak for crying, he bore towards me, and I saw my wee bairnie, lying still, and white, and stiff in his arms, as if she had been dead. He told me he had been up the Fells to gather in his sheep, before the deep cold of night came on, and that under the holly-trees (black marks on the hill-side, where no other bush was for miles around) he had found my little lady--my lamb--my queen--my darling--stiff and cold in the terrible sleep which is frost-begotten. Oh! the joy and the tears of having her in my arms once again I for I would not let him carry her; but took her, maud and all, into my own arms, and held her near my own warm neck and heart, and felt the life stealing slowly back again into her little gentle limbs. But she was still insensible when we reached the hall, and I had no breath for speech. We went in by the kitchen-door.
"Bring the warming-pan," said I; and I carried her upstairs, and began undressing her by the nursery fire, which Bessy had kept up. I called my little lammie all the sweet and playful names I could think of,--even while my eyes were blinded by my tears; and at last, oh! at length she opened her large blue eyes. Then I put her into her warm bed, and sent Dorothy down to tell Miss Furnivall that all was well; and I made up my mind to sit by my darling's bedside the live-long night. She fell away into a soft sleep as soon as her pretty head had touched the pillow, and I watched by her till morning light; when she wakened up bright and clear--or so I thought at first--and, my dears, so I think now.
She said, that she had fancied that she should like to go to Dorothy, for that both the old ladies were asleep, and it was very dull in the drawing-room; and that, as she was going through the west lobby, she saw the snow through the high window falling--falling--soft and steady; but she wanted to see it lying pretty and white on the ground; so she made her way into the great hall: and then, going to the window, she saw it bright and soft upon the drive; but while she stood there, she saw a little girl, not so old as she was, "but so pretty," said my darling; "and this little girl beckoned to me to come out; and oh, she was so pretty and so sweet, I could not choose but go." And then this other little girl had taken her by the hand, and side by side the two had gone round the east corner.
"Now you are a naughty little girl, and telling stories," said I. "What would your good mamma, that is in heaven, and never told a story in her life, say to her little Rosamond, if she heard her--and I dare say she does--telling stories!"
"Indeed, Hester," sobbed out my child, "I'm telling you true. Indeed I am."
"Don't tell me!" said I, very stern. "I tracked you by your foot-marks through the snow; there were only yours to be seen: and if you had had a little girl to go hand-in-hand with you up the hill, don't you think the footprints would have gone along with yours?"
"I can't help it, dear, dear Hester," said she, crying, "if they did not; I never looked at her feet, but she held my hand fast and tight in her little one, and it was very, very cold. She took me up the Fell-path, up to the holly-trees; and there I saw a lady weeping and crying; but when she saw me, she hushed her weeping, and smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull me to sleep, and that's all, Hester--but that is true; and my dear mamma knows it is," said she, crying. So I thought the child was in a fever, and pretended to believe her, as she went over her story--over and over again, and always the same. At last Dorothy knocked at the door with Miss Rosamond's breakfast; and she told me the old ladies were down in the eating parlour, and that they wanted to speak to me. They had both been into the night-nursery the evening before, but it was after Miss Rosamond was asleep; so they had only looked at her--not asked me any questions.
"I shall catch it," thought I to myself, as I went along the north gallery. "And yet," I thought, taking courage, "it was in their charge I left her; and it's they that's to blame for letting her steal away unknown and unwatched." So I went in boldly, and told my story. I told it all to Miss Furnivall, shouting it close to her ear; but when I came to the mention of the other little girl out in the snow, coaxing and tempting her out, and wiling her up to the grand and beautiful lady by the holly-tree, she threw her arms up--her old and withered arms--and cried aloud, "Oh! Heaven forgive! Have mercy!"
Mrs. Stark took hold of her; roughly enough, I thought; but she was past Mrs. Stark's management, and spoke to me, in a kind of wild warning and authority.
"Hester! keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child." Then, Mrs. Stark hurried me out of the room; where, indeed, I was glad enough to go; but Miss Furnivall kept shrieking out, "Oh, have mercy! Wilt Thou never forgive! It is many a long year ago"--
I was very uneasy in my mind after that. I durst never leave Miss Rosamond, night or day, for fear lest she might slip off again, after some fancy or other; and all the more, because I thought I could make out that Miss Furnivall was crazy, from their odd ways about her; and I was afraid lest something of the same kind (which might be in the family, you know) hung over my darling. And the great frost never ceased all this time; and, whenever it was a more stormy night than usual, between the gusts, and through the wind we heard the old lord playing on the great organ. But, old lord, or not, wherever Miss Rosamond went, there I followed; for my love for her, pretty, helpless orphan, was stronger than my fear for the grand and terrible sound. Besides, it rested with me to keep her cheerful and merry, as beseemed her age. So we played together, and wandered together, here and there, and everywhere; for I never dared to lose sight of her again in that large and rambling house. And so it happened, that one afternoon, not long before Christmas-day, we were playing together on the billiard-table in the great hall (not that we knew the right way of playing, but she liked to roll the smooth ivory balls with her pretty hands, and I liked to do whatever she did); and, by-and-by, without our noticing it, it grew dusk indoors, though it was still light in the open air, and I was thinking of taking her back into the nursery, when, all of a sudden, she cried out--
"Look, Hester! look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow!"
I turned towards the long narrow windows, and there, sure enough, I saw a little girl, less than my Miss Rosamond--dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night--crying, and beating against the window panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail, till Miss Rosamond could bear it no longer, and was flying to the door to open it, when, all of a sudden, and close upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering, it fairly made me tremble; and all the more, when I remembered me that, even in the stillness of that dead-cold weather, I had heard no sound of little battering hands upon the window-glass, although the phantom child had seemed to put forth all its force; and, although I had seen it wail and cry, no faintest touch of sound had fallen upon my ears. Whether I remembered all this at the very moment, I do not know; the great organ sound had so stunned me into terror; but this I know, I caught up Miss Rosamond before she got the hall-door opened, and clutched her, and carried her away, kicking and screaming, into the large, bright kitchen, where Dorothy and Agnes were busy with their mince-pies.
"What is the matter with my sweet one?" cried Dorothy, as I bore in Miss Rosamond, who was sobbing as if her heart would break.
"She won't let me open the door for my little girl to come in; and she'll die if she is out on the Fells all night. Cruel, naughty Hester," she said, slapping me; but she might have struck harder, for I had seen a look of ghastly terror on Dorothy's face, which made my very blood run cold.
"Shut the back-kitchen door fast, and bolt it well," said she to Agues. She said no more; she gave me raisins and almonds to quiet Miss Rosamond; but she sobbed about the little girl in the snow, and would not touch any of the good things. I was thankful when she cried herself to sleep in bed. Then I stole down to the kitchen, and told Dorothy I had made up my mind. I would carry my darling back to my father's house in Applethwaite; where, if we lived humbly, we lived at peace. I said I had been frightened enough with the old lord's organ-playing; but now that I had seen for myself this little moaning child, all decked out as no child in the neighbourhood could be, beating and battering to get in, yet always without any sound or noise--with the dark wound on its right shoulder; and that Miss Rosamond had known it again for the phantom that had nearly lured her to death (which Dorothy knew was true); I would stand it no longer.
I saw Dorothy change colour once or twice. When I had done, she told me she did not think I could take Miss Rosamond with me, for that she was my lord's ward, and I had no right over her; and she asked me would I leave the child that I was so fond of just for sounds and sights that could do me no harm; and that they had all had to get used to in their turns? I was all in a hot, trembling passion; and I said it was very well for her to talk, that knew what these sights and noises betokened, and that had, perhaps, had something to do with the spectre child while it was alive. And I taunted her so, that she told me all she knew at last; and then I wished I had never been told, for it only made me more afraid than ever.
She said she had heard the tale from old neighbours that were alive when she was first married; when folks used to come to the hall sometimes, before it had got such a bad name on the country side: it might not be true, or it might, what she had been told.
The old lord was Miss Furnivall's father--Miss Grace, as Dorothy called her, for Miss Maude was the elder, and Miss Furnivall by lights. The old lord was eaten up with pride. Such a proud man was never seen or heard of; and his daughters were like him. No one was good enough to wed them, although they had choice enough; for they were the great beauties of their day, as I had seen by their portraits, where they hung in the state drawing-room. But, as the old saying is, "Pride will have a fall;" and these two haughty beauties fell in love with the same man, and he no better than a foreign musician, whom their father had down from London to play music with him at the Manor House. For, above all things, next to his pride, the old lord loved music. He could play`on nearly every instrument that ever was heard of; and it was a strange thing it did not soften him; but he was a fierce, dour old man, and had broken his poor wife's heart with his cruelty, they said. He was mad after music, and would pay any money for it. So he got this foreigner to come; who made such beautiful music, that they said the very birds on the trees stopped their singing to listen. And, by degrees, this foreign gentleman got such a hold over the old lord, that nothing would serve him but that he must come every year; and it was he that had the great organ brought from Holland, and built up in the hall, where it stood now. He taught the old lord to play on it; but many and many a time, when Lord Furnivall was thinking of nothing but his fine organ, and his finer music, the dark foreigner was walking abroad in the woods, with one of the young ladies: now Miss Maude, and then Miss Grace.
Miss Maude won the day and carried off the prize, such as it was; and he and she were married, all unknown to any one; and, before he made his next yearly visit, she had been confined of a little girl at a farm-house on the Moors, while her father and Miss Grace thought she was away at Doncaster Races. But though she was a wife and a mother, she was not a bit softened, but as haughty and as passionate as ever; and perhaps more so, for she was jealous of Miss Grace, to whom her foreign husband paid a deal of court--by way of blinding her--as he told his wife. But Miss Grace triumphed over Miss Maude, and Miss Maude grew fiercer and fiercer, both with her husband and with her sister; and the former--who could easily shake off what was disagreeable, and hide himself in foreign countries--went away a month before his usual time that summer, and half-threatened that he would never come back again. Meanwhile, the little girl was left at the farm-house, and her mother used to have her horse saddled and gallop wildly over the hills to see her once every week, at the very least; for where she loved she loved, and where she hated she hated. And the old lord went on playing--playing on his organ; and the servants thought the sweet music he made had soothed down his awful temper, of which (Dorothy said) some terrible tales could be told. He grew infirm too, and had to walk with a crutch; and his son--that was the present Lord Furnivall's father--was with the army in America, and the other son at sea; so Miss Maude had it pretty much her own way, and she and Miss Grace grew colder and bitterer to each other every day; till at last they hardly ever spoke, except when the old lord was by. The foreign musician came again the next summer, but it was for the last time; for they led him such a life with their jealousy and their passions, that he grew weary, and went away, and never was heard of again. And Miss Maude, who had always meant to have her marriage acknowledged when her father should be dead, was left now a deserted wife, whom nobody knew to have been married, with a child that she dared not own, although she loved it to distraction; living with a father whom she feared, and a sister whom she hated. When the next summer passed over, and the dark foreigner never came, both Miss Maude and Miss Grace grew gloomy and sad; they had a haggard look about them, though they looked handsome as ever. But, by-and-by, Miss Maude brightened; for her father grew more and more infirm, and more than ever carried away by his music, and she and Miss Grace lived almost entirely apart, having separate rooms, the one on the west side, Miss Maude on the east--those very rooms which were now shut up. So she thought she might have her little girl with her, and no one need ever know except those who dared not speak about it, and were bound to believe that it was, as she said, a cottager's child she had taken a fancy to. All this, Dorothy said, was pretty well known; but what came afterwards no one knew, except Miss Grace and Mrs. Stark, who was even then her maid, and much more of a friend to her than ever her sister had been. But the servants supposed, from words that were dropped, that Miss Maude had triumphed over Miss Grace, and told her that all the time the dark foreigner had been mocking her with pretended love--he was her own husband. The colour left Miss Grace's cheek and lips that very day for ever, and she was heard to say many a time that sooner or later she would have her revenge; and Mrs. Stark was for ever spying about the east rooms.
One fearful night, just after the New Year had come in, when the snow was lying thick and deep; and the flakes were still falling--fast enough to blind any one who might be out and abroad--there was a great and violent noise heard, and the old lord's voice above all, cursing and swearing awfully, and the cries of a little child, and the proud defiance of a fierce woman, and the sound of a blow, and a dead stillness, and moans and wailings, dying away on the hill-side! Then the old lord summoned all his servants, and told them, with terrible oaths, and words more terrible, that his daughter had disgraced herself, and that he had turned her out of doors--her, and her child--and that if ever they gave her help, or food, or shelter, he prayed that they might never enter heaven. And, all the while, Miss Grace stood by him, white and still as any stone; and, when he had ended, she heaved a great sigh, as much as to say her work was done, and her end was accomplished. But the old lord never touched his organ again, and died within the year; and no wonder I for, on the morrow of that wild and fearful night, the shepherds, coming down the Fell side, found Miss Maude sitting, all crazy and smiling, under the holly-trees, nursing a dead child, with a terrible mark on its right shoulder. "But that was not what killed it," said Dorothy: "it was the frost and the cold. Every wild creature was in its hole, and every beast in its fold, while the child and its mother were turned out to wander on the Fells! And now you know all! and I wonder if you are less frightened now?"
I was more frightened than ever; but I said I was not. I wished Miss Rosamond and myself well out of that dreadful house for ever; but I would not leave her, and I dared not take her away. But oh, how I watched her, and guarded her! We bolted the doors, and shut the window-shutters fast, an hour or more before dark, rather than leave them open five minutes too late. But my little lady still heard the weird child crying and mourning; and not all we could do or say could keep her from wanting to go to her, and let her in from the cruel wind and snow. All this time I kept away from Miss Furnivall and Mrs. Stark, as much as ever I could; for I feared them--I knew no good could be about them, with their grey, hard faces, and their dreamy eyes, looking back into the ghastly years that were gone. But, even in my fear, I had a kind of pity for Miss Furnivall, at least. Those gone down to the pit can hardly have a more hopeless look than that which was ever on her face. At last I even got so sorry for her--who never said a word but what was quite forced from her--that I prayed for her; and I taught Miss Rosamond to pray for one who had done a deadly sin; but often, when she came to those words, she would listen, and start up from her knees, and say, "I hear my little girl plaining and crying, very sad,--oh, let her in, or she will die!"
One night--just after New Year's Day had come at last, and the long winter had taken a turn, as I hoped--I heard the west drawing-room bell ring three times, which was the signal for me. I would not leave Miss Rosamond alone, for all she was asleep--for the old lord had been playing wilder than ever--and I feared lest my darling should waken to hear the spectre child; see her I knew she could not. I had fastened the windows too well for that. So I took her out of her bed, and wrapped her up in such outer clothes as were most handy, and carried her down to the drawing-room, where the old ladies sat at their tapestry-work as usual. They looked up when I came in, and Mrs. Stark asked, quite astounded, "Why did I bring Miss Rosamond there, out of her warm bed?" I had begun to whisper, "Because I was afraid of her being tempted out while I was away, by the wild child in the snow," when she stopped me short (with a glance at Miss Furnivall), and said Miss Furnivall wanted me to undo some work she had done wrong, and which neither of them could see to unpick. So I laid my pretty dear on the sofa, and sat down on a stool by them, and hardened my heart against them, as I heard the wind rising and howling.
Miss Rosamond slept on sound, for all the wind blew so; and Miss Furnivall said never a word, nor looked round when the gusts shook the windows. All at once she started up to her full height, and put up one hand, as if to bid us listen.
"I hear voices!" said she. "I hear terrible screams--I hear my father's voice!"
Just at that moment my darling wakened with a sudden start: "My little girl is crying, oh, how she is crying!" and she tried to get up and go to her, but she got her feet entangled in the blanket, and I caught her up; for my flesh had begun to creep at these noises, which they heard while we could catch no sound. In a minute or two the noises came, and gathered fast, and filled our ears; we, too, heard voices and screams, and no longer heard the winter's wind that raged abroad. Mrs. Stark looked at me, and I at her, but we dared not speak. Suddenly Miss Furnivall, went towards the door, out into the ante-room, through the west lobby, and opened the door into the great hall. Mrs. Stark followed, and I durst not be left, though my heart almost stopped beating for fear. I wrapped my darling tight in my arms, and went out with them. In the hall the screams were louder than ever; they seemed to come from the east wing--nearer and nearer--close on the other side of the locked-up doors--close behind them. Then I noticed that the great bronze chandelier seemed all alight, though the hall was dim, and that a fire was blazing in the vast hearth-place, though it gave no heat; and I shuddered up with terror, and folded my darling closer to me. But as I did so the east door shook, and she, suddenly struggling to get free from me, cried, "Hester! I must go. My little girl is there I hear her; she is coming! Hester, I must go!"
I held her tight with all my strength; with a set will, I held her. If I had died, my hands would have grasped her still, I was so resolved in my mind. Miss Furnivall stood listening, and paid no regard to my darling, who had got down to the ground, and whom I, upon my knees now, was holding with both my arms clasped round her neck; she still striving and crying to get free.
All at once, the east door gave way with a thundering crash, as if torn open in a violent passion, and there came into that broad and mysterious light, the figure of a tall old man, with grey hair and gleaming eyes. He drove before him, with many a relentless gesture of abhorrence, a stern and beautiful woman, with a little child clinging to her dress.
"O Hester! Hester!" cried Miss Rosamond; "it's the lady! the lady below the holly-trees; and my little girl is with her. Hester! Hester! let me go to her; they are drawing me to them. I feel them--I feel them. I must go!"
Again she was almost convulsed by her efforts to get away; but I held her tighter and tighter, till I feared I should do her a hurt; but rather that than let her go towards those terrible phantoms. They passed along towards the great hall-door, where the winds howled and ravened for their prey; but before they reached that, the lady turned; and I could see that she defied the old man with a fierce and proud defiance; but then she quailed--and then she threw up her arms wildly and piteously to save her child--her little child--from a blow from his uplifted crutch.
And Miss Rosamond was torn as by a power stronger than mine, and writhed in my arms, and sobbed (for by this time the poor darling was growing faint).
"They want me to go with them on to the Fells--they are drawing me to them. Oh, my little girl! I would come, but cruel, wicked Hester holds me very tight." But when she saw the uplifted crutch, she swooned away, and I thanked God for it. Just at this moment--when the tall old man, his hair streaming as in the blast of a furnace, was going to strike the little shrinking child--Miss Furnivall, the old woman by my side, cried out, "O father! father! spare the little innocent child!" But just then I saw--we all saw--another phantom shape itself, and grow clear out of the blue and misty light that filled the hall; we had not seen her till now, for it was another lady who stood by the old man, with a look of relentless hate and triumphant scorn. That figure was very beautiful to look upon, with a soft, white hat drawn down over the proud brows, and a red and curling lip. It was dressed in an open robe of blue satin. I had seen that figure before. It was the likeness of Miss Furnivall in her youth; and the terrible phantoms moved on, regardless of old Miss Furnivall's wild entreaty,--and the uplifted crutch fell on the right shoulder of the little child, and the younger sister looked on, stony, and deadly serene. But at that moment, the dim lights, and the fire that gave no heat, went out of themselves, and Miss Furnivall lay at our feet stricken down by the palsy--death-stricken.
Yes! she was carried to her bed that night never to rise again. She lay with her face to the wall, muttering low, but muttering always: "Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!"
A curious experience
What I am about to tell of took place during the last year of John Whitney’s life, now many years ago. We could never account for it, or understand it: but it occurred (at least, so far as our experience of it went) just as I relate it.
It was not the custom for schools to give a long holiday at Easter then: one week at most. Dr. Frost allowed us from the Thursday in Passion week, to the following Thursday; and many of the boys spent it at school.
Easter was late that year, and the weather lovely. On the Wednesday in Easter week, the Squire and Mrs. Todhetley drove over to spend the day at Whitney Hall, Tod and I being with them. Sir John and Lady Whitney were beginning to be anxious about John’s health—their eldest son. He had been ailing since the previous Christmas, and he seemed to grow thinner and weaker. It was so perceptible when he got home from school this Easter, that Sir John put himself into a flurry (he was just like the Squire in that and in many another way), and sent an express to Worcester for Henry Carden, asking him to bring Dr. Hastings with him. They came. John wanted care, they said, and they could not discover any specific disease at present. As to his returning to school, they both thought that question might be left with the boy himself. John told them he should prefer to go back, and laughed a little at this fuss being made over him: he should soon be all right, he said; people were apt to lose strength more or less in the spring. He was sixteen then, a slender, upright boy, with a delicate, thoughtful face, dreamy, grey-blue eyes and brown hair, and he was ever gentle, sweet-tempered, and considerate. Sir John related to the Squire what the doctors had said, avowing that he could not “make much out of it.”
In the afternoon, when we were out-of-doors on the lawn in the hot sunshine, listening to the birds singing and the cuckoo calling, Featherston came in, the local doctor, who saw John nearly every day. He was a tall, grey, hard-worked man, with a face of care. After talking a few moments with John and his mother, he turned to the rest of us on the grass. The Squire and Sir John were sitting on a garden bench, some wine and lemonade on a little table between them. Featherston shook hands.
“Will you take some?” asked Sir John.
“I don’t mind a glass of lemonade with a dash of sherry in it,” answered Featherston, lifting his hat to rub his brow. “I have been walking beyond Goose Brook and back, and upon my word it is as hot as midsummer.”
“Ay, it is,” assented Sir John. “Help yourself, doctor.”
He filled a tumbler with what he wanted, brought it over to the opposite bench, and sat down by Mrs. Todhetley. John and his mother were at the other end of it; I sat on the arm. The rest of them, with Helen and Anna, had gone strolling away; to the North Pole, for all we knew.
“John still says he shall go back to school,” began Lady Whitney, to Featherston.
“Ay; tomorrow’s the day, isn’t it, John? Black Thursday, some of you boys call it.”
“I like school,” said John.
“Almost a pity, though,” continued Featherston, looking up and about him. “To be out at will all day in this soft air, under the blue skies and the sunbeams, might be of more benefit to you, Master John, than being cooped up in a close school-room.”
“You hear, John!” cried Lady Whitney. “I wish you would persuade him to take a longer rest at home, Mr. Featherston!”
Mr. Featherston stooped for his tumbler, which he had lodged on the smooth grass, and took another drink before replying. “If you and John would follow my advice, Lady Whitney, I’d give it.”
“Yes?” cried she, all eagerness.
“Take John somewhere for a fortnight, and let him go back to school at the end,” said the surgeon. “That would do him good.”
“Why, of course it would,” called out Sir John, who had been listening. “And I say it shall be done. John, my boy, you and your mother shall go to the seaside—to Aberystwith.”
“Well, I don’t think I should quite say that, Sir John,” said Featherston again. “The seaside would be all very well in this warm weather; but it may not last, it may change to cold and frost. I should suggest one of the inland watering-places, as they are called: where there’s a Spa, and a Pump Room, and a Parade, and lots of gay company. It would be lively for him, and a thorough change.”
“What a nice idea!” cried Lady Whitney, who was the most unsophisticated woman in the world. “Such as Pumpwater.”
“Such as Pumpwater: the very place,” agreed Featherston. “Well, were I you, my lady, I would try it for a couple of weeks. Let John take a companion with him; one of his schoolfellows. Here’s Johnny Ludlow: he might do.”
“I’d rather have Johnny Ludlow than any one,” said John.
Remarking that his time was up, for a patient waited for him, and that he must leave us to settle the question, Featherston took his departure. But it appeared to be settled already.
“Johnny can go,” spoke up the Squire. “The loss of a fortnight’s lessons is not much, compared with doing a little service to a friend. Charming spots are those inland watering-places, and Pumpwater is about the best of them all.”
“We must take lodgings,” said Lady Whitney presently, when they had done expatiating upon the gauds and glories of Pumpwater. “To stay at an hotel would be so noisy; and expensive besides.”
“I know of some,” cried Mrs. Todhetley, in sudden thought. “If you could get into Miss Gay’s rooms, you would be well off. Do you remember them?”—turning to the Squire. “We stayed at her house on our way from——”
“Why, bless me, to be sure I do,” he interrupted. “Somebody had given us Miss Gay’s address, and we drove straight to it to see if she had rooms at liberty; she had, and took us in at once. We were so comfortable there that we stayed at Pumpwater three days instead of two.”
It was hastily decided that Mrs. Todhetley should write to Miss Gay, and she went indoors to do so. All being well, Lady Whitney meant to start on Saturday.
Miss Gay’s answer came punctually, reaching Whitney Hall on Friday morning. It was addressed to Mrs. Todhetley, but Lady Whitney, as had been arranged, opened it. Miss Gay wrote that she should be much pleased to receive Lady Whitney. Her house, as it chanced, was then quite empty; a family, who had been with her six weeks, had just left: so Lady Whitney might take her choice of the rooms, which she would keep vacant until Saturday. In conclusion, she begged Mrs. Todhetley to notice that her address was changed. The old house was too small to accommodate the many kind friends who patronized her, and she had moved into a larger house, superior to the other and in the best position.
Thus all things seemed to move smoothly for our expedition; and we departed by train on the Saturday morning for Pumpwater.
It was a handsome house, standing in the high-road, between the parade and the principal street, and rather different from the houses on each side of it, inasmuch as that it was detached and had a narrow slip of gravelled ground in front. In fact, it looked too large and handsome for a lodging-house; and Lady Whitney, regarding it from the fly which had brought us from the station, wondered whether the driver had made a mistake. It was built of red-brick, with white stone facings; the door, set in a pillared portico, stood in the middle, and three rooms, each with a bay-window, lay one above another on both sides.
But in a moment we saw it was all right. A slight, fair woman, in a slate silk gown, came out and announced herself as Miss Gay. She had a mild, pleasant voice, and a mild, pleasant face, with light falling curls, the fashion then for every one, and she wore a lace cap, trimmed with pink. I took to her and to her face at once.
“I am glad to be here,” said Lady Whitney, cordially, in answer to Miss Gay’s welcome. “Is there any one who can help with the luggage? We have not brought either man or maid-servant.”
“Oh dear, yes, my lady. Please let me show you indoors, and then leave all to me. Susannah! Oh, here you are, Susannah! Where’s Charity?—my cousin and chief help-mate, my lady.”
A tall, dark person, about Miss Gay’s own age, which might be forty, wearing brown ribbon in her hair and a purple bow at her throat, dropped a curtsy to Lady Whitney. This was Susannah. She looked strong-minded and capable. Charity, who came running up the kitchen-stairs, was a smiling young woman-servant, with a coarse apron tied round her, and red arms bared to the elbow.
There were four sitting-rooms on the ground-floor: two in front, with their large bay-windows; two at the back, looking out upon some bright, semi-public gardens.
“A delightful house!” exclaimed Lady Whitney to Miss Gay, after she had looked about a little. “I will take one of these front-rooms for our sitting-room,” she added, entering, haphazard, the one on the right of the entrance-hall, and putting down her bag and parasol. “This one, I think, Miss Gay.”
“Very good, my lady. And will you now be pleased to walk upstairs and fix upon the bedrooms.”
Lady Whitney seemed to fancy the front of the house. “This room shall be my son’s; and I should like to have the opposite one for myself,” she said, rather hesitatingly, knowing they must be the two best chambers of all. “Can I?”
Miss Gay seemed quite willing. We were in the room over our sitting-room on the right of the house looking to the front. The objection, if it could be called one, came from Susannah.
“You can have the other room, certainly, my lady; but I think the young gentleman would find this one noisy, with all the carriages and carts that pass by, night and morning. The back-rooms are much more quiet.”
“But I like noise,” put in John; “it seems like company to me. If I could do as I would, I’d never sleep in the country.”
“One of the back-rooms is very lively, sir; it has a view of the turning to the Pump Room,” persisted Susannah, a sort of suppressed eagerness in her tone; and it struck me that she did not want John to have this front-chamber. “I think you would like it best.”
“No,” said John, turning round from the window, out of which he had been looking, “I will have this. I shall like to watch the shops down that turning opposite, and the people who go into them.”
No more was said. John took this chamber, which was over our sitting-room, Lady Whitney had the other front-chamber, and I had a very good one at the back of John’s. And thus we settled down.
Pumpwater is a nice place, as you would know if I gave its proper name, bright and gay, and our house was in the best of situations. The principal street, with its handsome shops, lay to our right; the Parade, leading to the Spa and Pump Room, to our left, and company and carriages were continually passing by. We visited some of the shops and took a look at the Pump Room.
In the evening, when tea was over, Miss Gay came in to speak of the breakfast. Lady Whitney asked her to sit down for a little chat. She wanted to ask about the churches.
“What a very nice house this is!” again observed Lady Whitney presently: for the more she saw of it, the better she found it. “You must pay a high rent for it, Miss Gay.”
“Not so high as your ladyship might think,” was the answer; “not high at all for what it is. I paid sixty pounds for the little house I used to be in, and I pay only seventy for this.”
“Only seventy!” echoed Lady Whitney, in surprise. “How is it you get it so cheaply?”
A waggonette, full of people, was passing just then; Miss Gay seemed to want to watch it by before she answered. We were sitting in the dusk with the blinds up.
“For one thing, it had been standing empty for some time, and I suppose Mr. Bone, the agent, was glad to have my offer,” replied Miss Gay, who seemed to be as fond of talking as any one else is, once set on. “It had belonged to a good old family, my lady, but they got embarrassed and put it up for sale some six or seven years ago. A Mr. Calson bought it. He had come to Pumpwater about that time from foreign lands; and he and his wife settled down in the house. A puny, weakly little woman she was, who seemed to get weaklier instead of stronger, and in a year or two she died. After her death her husband grew ill; he went away for change of air, and died in London; and the house was left to a little nephew living over in Australia.”
“And has the house been vacant ever since?” asked John.
“No, sir. At first it was let furnished, then unfurnished. But it had been vacant some little time when I applied to Mr. Bone. I concluded he thought it better to let it at a low rent than for it to stand empty.”
“It must cost you incessant care and trouble, Miss Gay, to conduct a house like this—when you are full,” remarked Lady Whitney.
“It does,” she answered. “One’s work seems never done—and I cannot, at that, give satisfaction to all. Ah, my lady, what a difference there is in people!—you would never think it. Some are so kind and considerate to me, so anxious not to give trouble unduly, and so satisfied with all I do that it is a pleasure to serve them: while others make gratuitous work and trouble from morning till night, and treat me as if I were just a dog under their feet. Of course when we are full I have another servant in, two sometimes.”
“Even that must leave a great deal for yourself to do and see to.”
“The back is always fitted to the burden,” sighed Miss Gay. “My father was a farmer in this county, as his ancestors had been before him, farming his three hundred acres of land, and looked upon as a man of substance. My mother made the butter, saw to the poultry, and superintended her household generally: and we children helped her. Farmers’ daughters then did not spend their days in playing the piano and doing fancy work, or expect to be waited upon like ladies born.”
“They do now, though,” said Lady Whitney.
“So I was ready to turn my hand to anything when hard times came—not that I had thought I should have to do it,” continued Miss Gay. “But my father’s means dwindled down. Prosperity gave way to adversity. Crops failed; the stock died off; two of my brothers fell into trouble and it cost a mint of money to extricate them. Altogether, when father died, but little of his savings remained to us. Mother took a house in the town here, to let lodgings, and I came with her. She is dead, my lady, and I am left.”
The silent tears were running down poor Miss Gay’s cheeks.
“It is a life of struggle, I am sure,” spoke Lady Whitney, gently. “And not deserved, Miss Gay.”
“But there’s another life to come,” spoke John, in a half-whisper, turning to Miss Gay from the large bay-window. “None of us will be overworked there.”
Miss Gay stealthily wiped her cheeks. “I do not repine,” she said, humbly. “I have been enabled to rub on and keep my head above water, and to provide little comforts for mother in her need; and I gratefully thank God for it.”
The bells of the churches, ringing out at eight o’clock, called us up in the morning. Lady Whitney was downstairs, first. I next. Susannah, who waited upon us, had brought up the breakfast. John followed me in.
“I hope you have slept well, my boy,” said Lady Whitney, kissing him. “I have.”
“So have I,” I put in.
“Then you and the mother make up for me, Johnny,” he said; “for I have not slept at all.”
“Oh, John!” exclaimed his mother.
“Not a wink all night long,” added John. “I can’t think what was the matter with me.”
Susannah, then stooping to take the sugar-basin out of the side-board, rose, turned sharply round and fixed her eyes on John. So curious an expression was on her face that I could but notice it.
“Do you not think it was the noise, sir?” she said to him. “I knew that room would be too noisy for you.”
“Why, the room was as quiet as possible,” he answered. “A few carriages rolled by last night—and I liked to hear them; but that was all over before midnight; and I have heard none this morning.”
“Well, sir, I’m sure you would be more comfortable in a backroom,” contended Susannah.
“It was a strange bed,” said John. “I shall sleep all the sounder to-night.”
Breakfast was half over when John found he had left his watch upstairs, on the drawers. I went to fetch it.
The door was open, and I stepped to the drawers, which stood just inside. Miss Gay and Susannah were making the bed and talking, too busy to see or hear me. A lot of things lay on the white cloth, and at first I could not see the watch.
“He declares he has not slept at all; not at all,” Susannah was saying with emphasis. “If you had only seconded me yesterday, Harriet, they need not have had this room. But you never made a word of objection; you gave in at once.”
“Well, I saw no reason to make it,” said Miss Gay, mildly. “If I were to give in to your fancies, Susannah, I might as well shut up the room. Visitors must get used to it.”
The watch had been partly hidden under one of John’s neckties. I caught it up and decamped.
We went to church after breakfast. The first hymn sung was that one beginning, “Brief life.”
“Brief life is here our portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care.
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life, is there.”
As the verses went on, John touched my elbow: “Miss Gay,” he whispered; his eyelashes moist with the melody of the music. I have often thought since that we might have seen by these very moods of John—his thoughts bent upon heaven more than upon earth—that his life was swiftly passing.
There’s not much to tell of that Sunday. We dined in the middle of the day; John fell asleep after dinner; and in the evening we attended church again. And I think every one was ready for bed when bedtime came. I know I was.
Therefore it was all the more surprising when, the next morning, John said he had again not slept.
“What, not at all!” exclaimed his mother.
“No, not at all. As I went to bed, so I got up—sleepless.”
“I never heard of such a thing!” cried Lady Whitney. “Perhaps, John, you were too tired to sleep?”
“Something of that sort,” he answered. “I felt both tired and sleepy when I got into bed; particularly so. But I had no sleep: not a wink. I could not lie still, either; I was frightfully restless all night; just as I was the night before. I suppose it can’t be the bed?”
“Is the bed not comfortable?” asked his mother.
“It seems as comfortable a bed as can be when I first lie down in it. And then I grow restless and uneasy.”
“It must be the restlessness of extreme fatigue,” said Lady Whitney. “I fear the journey was rather too much for you my dear.”
“Oh, I shall be all right as soon as I can sleep, mamma.”
We had a surprise that morning. John and I were standing before a tart-shop, our eyes glued to the window, when a voice behind us called out, “Don’t they look nice, boys!” Turning round, there stood Henry Carden of Worcester, arm-inarm with a little white-haired gentleman. Lady Whitney, in at the fishmonger’s next door, came out while he was shaking hands with us.
“Dear me!—is it you?” she cried to Mr. Carden.
“Ay,” said he in his pleasant manner, “here am I at Pumpwater! Come all this way to spend a couple of days with my old friend: Dr. Tambourine,” added the surgeon, introducing him to Lady Whitney. Any way, that was the name she understood him to say. John thought he said Tamarind, and I Carrafin. The street was noisy.
The doctor seemed to be chatty and courteous, a gentleman of the old school. He said his wife should do herself the honour of calling upon Lady Whitney if agreeable; Lady Whitney replied that it would be. He and Mr. Carden, who would be starting for Worcester by train that afternoon, walked with us up the Parade to the Pump Room. How a chance meeting like this in a strange place makes one feel at home in it!
The name turned out to be Parafin. Mrs. Parafin called early in the afternoon, on her way to some entertainment at the Pump Room: a chatty, pleasant woman, younger than her husband. He had retired from practice, and they lived in a white villa outside the town.
And what with looking at the shops, and parading up and down the public walks, and the entertainment at the Pump Room, to which we went with Mrs. Parafin, and all the rest of it, we felt uncommonly sleepy when night came, and were beginning to regard Pumpwater as a sort of Eden.
“Johnny, have you slept?”
I was brushing my hair at the glass, under the morning sun, when John Whitney, half-dressed, and pale and languid, opened my door and thus accosted me.
“Yes; like a top. Why? Is anything the matter, John?”
“See here,” said he, sinking into the easy-chair by the fireplace, “it is an odd thing, but I have again not slept. I can’t sleep.”
I put my back against the dressing-table and stood looking down at him, brush in hand. Not slept again! It was an odd thing.
“But what can be the reason, John?”
“I am beginning to think it must be the room.”
“How can it be the room?”
“I don’t know. There’s nothing the matter with the room that I can see; it seems well-ventilated; the chimney’s not stopped up. Yet this is the third night that I cannot get to sleep in it.”
“But why can you not get to sleep?” I persisted.
“I say I don’t know why. Each night I have been as sleepy as possible; last night I could hardly undress I was so sleepy; but no sooner am I in bed than sleep goes right away from me. Not only that: I grow terribly restless.”
Weighing the problem this way and that, an idea struck me.
“John, do you think it is nervousness?”
“How can it be? I never was nervous in my life.”
“I mean this: not sleeping the first night, you may have got nervous about it the second and third.”
He shook his head. “I have been nothing of the kind, Johnny. But look here: I hardly see what I am to do. I cannot go on like this without sleep; yet, if I tell the mother again, she’ll say the air of the place does not suit me and run away from it——”
“Suppose we change rooms to-night, John?” I interrupted. “I can’t think but you would sleep here. If you do not, why, it must be the air of Pumpwater, and the sooner you are out of it the better.”
“You wouldn’t mind changing rooms for one night?” he said, wistfully.
“Mind! Why, I shall be the gainer. Yours is the better room of the two.”
At that it was settled; nothing to be said to any one about the bargain. We did not want to be kidnapped out of Pumpwater—and Lady Whitney had promised us a night at the theatre.
Two or three more acquaintances were made, or found out, that day. Old Lady Scott heard of us, and came to call on Lady Whitney; they used to be intimate. She introduced some people at the Pump Room. Altogether, it seemed that we should not lack society.
Night came; and John and I went upstairs together. He undressed in his own room, and I in mine; and then we made the exchange. I saw him into my bed and wished him a good-night.
“Good-night, Johnny,” he answered. “I hope you will sleep.”
“Little doubt of that, John. I always sleep when I have nothing to trouble me. A very good-night to you.”
I had nothing to trouble me, and I was as sleepy as could be; and yet, I did not and could not sleep. I lay quiet as usual after getting into bed, yielding to the expected sleep, and I shut my eyes and never thought but it was coming.
Instead of that, came restlessness. A strange restlessness quite foreign to me, persistent and unaccountable. I tossed and turned from side to side, and I had not had a wink of sleep at day dawn, nor any symptom of it. Was I growing nervous? Had I let the feeling creep over me that I had suggested to John? No; not that I was aware of. What could it be?
Unrefreshed and weary, I got up at the usual hour, and stole silently into the other room. John was in a deep sleep, his calm face lying still upon the pillow. Though I made no noise, my presence awoke him.
“Oh, Johnny!” he exclaimed, “I have had such a night.”
“No; good. I went to sleep at once and never woke till now. It has done me a world of good. And you?”
“I? Oh well, I don’t think I slept quite as well as I did here; it was a strange bed,” I answered, carelessly.
The next night the same plan was carried out, he taking my bed; I his. And again John slept through it, while I did not sleep at all. I said nothing about it: John Whitney’s comfort was of more importance than mine.
The third night came. This night we had been to the theatre, and had laughed ourselves hoarse, and been altogether delighted. No sooner was I in bed, and feeling dead asleep, than the door slowly opened and in came Lady Whitney, a candle in one hand, a wineglass in the other.
“John, my dear,” she began, “your tonic was forgotten this evening. I think you had better take it now. Featherston said, you know—— Good gracious!” she broke off. “Why, it is Johnny!”
I could hardly speak for laughing, her face presented such a picture of astonishment. Sitting up in bed, I told her all; there was no help for it: that we had exchanged beds, John not having been able to sleep in this one.
“And do you sleep well in it?” she asked.
“No, not yet. But I feel very sleepy to-night, dear Lady Whitney.”
“Well, you are a good lad, Johnny, to do this for him; and to say nothing about it,” she concluded, as she went away with the candle and the tonic.
Dead sleepy though I was, I could not get to sleep. It would be simply useless to try to describe my sensations. Each succeeding night they had been more marked. A strange, discomforting restlessness pervaded me; a feeling of uneasiness, I could not tell why or wherefore. I saw nothing uncanny, I heard nothing; nevertheless, I felt just as though some uncanny presence was in the room, imparting a sense of semi-terror. Once or twice, when I nearly dozed off from sheer weariness, I started up in real terror, wide awake again, my hair and face damp with a nameless fear.
I told this at breakfast, in answer to Lady Whitney’s questions: John confessed that precisely the same sensations had attacked him the three nights he lay in the bed. Lady Whitney declared she never heard the like; and she kept looking at us alternately, as if doubting what could be the matter with us, or whether we had taken scarlet-fever.
On this morning, Friday, a letter came from Sir John, saying that Featherston was coming to Pumpwater. Anxious on the score of his son, he was sending Featherston to see him, and take back a report. “I think he would stay a couple of days if you made it convenient to entertain him, and it would be a little holiday for the poor hard-worked man,” wrote Sir John, who was just as kind-hearted as his wife.
“To be sure I will,” said Lady Whitney. “He shall have that room; I dare say he won’t say he cannot sleep in it: it will be more comfortable for him than getting a bed at an hotel. Susannah shall put a small bed into the back-room for Johnny. And when Featherston is gone, I will take the room myself. I am not like you two silly boys—afraid of lying awake.”
Mr. Featherston arrived late that evening, with his grey face of care and his thin frame. He said he could hardly recall the time when he had had as much as two days’ holiday, and thanked Lady Whitney for receiving him. That night John and I occupied the back-room, having conducted Featherston in state to the front, with two candles; and both of us slept excellently well.
At breakfast Featherston began talking about the air. He had always believed Pumpwater to have a rather soporific air, but supposed he must be mistaken. Any way, it had kept him awake; and it was not a little that did that for him.
“Did you not sleep well?” asked Lady Whitney.
“I did not sleep at all; did not get a wink of it all night long. Never mind,” he added with a good-natured laugh, “I shall sleep all the sounder to-night.”
But he did not. The next morning (Sunday) he looked grave and tired, and ate his breakfast almost in silence. When we had finished, he said he should like, with Lady Whitney’s permission, to speak to the landlady. Miss Gay came in at once: in a light fresh print gown and black silk apron.
“Ma’am,” began Featherston, politely, “something is wrong with that bedroom overhead. What is it?”
“Something wrong, sir?” repeated Miss Gay, her meek face flushing. “Wrong in what way, sir?”
“I don’t know,” answered Featherston; “I thought perhaps you could tell me: any way, it ought to be seen to. It is something that scares away sleep. I give you my word, ma’am, I never had two such restless nights in succession in all my life. Two such strange nights. It was not only that sleep would not come near me; that’s nothing uncommon you may say; but I lay in a state of uneasy, indescribable restlessness. I have examined the room again this morning, and I can see nothing to induce it, yet a cause there must undoubtedly be. The paper is not made of arsenic, I suppose?”
“The paper is pale pink, sir,” observed Miss Gay. “I fancy it is the green papers that have arsenic in them.”
“Ay; well. I think there must be poison behind the paper; in the paste, say,” went on Featherston. “Or perhaps another paper underneath has arsenic in it?”
Miss Gay shook her head, as she stood with her hand on the back of a chair. Lady Whitney had asked her to sit down, but she declined. “When I came into the house six months ago, that room was repapered, and I saw that the walls were thoroughly scraped. If you think there’s anything—anything in the room that prevents people sleeping, and—and could point out what it is, I’m sure, sir, I should be glad to remedy it,” said Miss Gay, with uncomfortable hesitation.
But this was just what Featherston, for all he was a doctor, could not point out. That something was amiss with the room, he felt convinced, but he had not discovered what it was, or how it could be remedied.
“After lying in torment half the night, I got up and lighted my candle,” said he. “I examined the room and opened the window to let the cool breeze blow in. I could find nothing likely to keep me awake, no stuffed-up chimney, no accumulation of dust, and I shut the window and got into bed again. I was pretty cool by that time and reckoned I should sleep. Not a bit of it, ma’am. I lay more restless than ever, with the same unaccountable feeling of discomfort and depression upon me. Just as I had felt the night before.”
“I am very sorry, sir,” sighed Miss Gay, taking her hand from the chair to depart. “If the room is close, or anything of that——”
“But it is not close, ma’am. I don’t know what it is. And I’m sure I hope you will be able to find it out, and get it remedied,” concluded Featherston as she withdrew.
We then told him of our experience, John’s and mine. It amazed him. “What an extraordinary thing!” he exclaimed. “One would think the room was haunted.”
“Do you believe in haunted rooms, sir?” asked John.
“Well, I suppose such things are,” he answered. “Folks say so. If haunted houses exist, why not haunted rooms?”
“It must lie in the Pumpwater air,” said Lady Whitney, who was too practical to give in to haunted regions, “and I am very sorry you should have had your two nights’ rest spoilt by it, Mr. Featherston. I will take the room myself: nothing keeps me awake.”
“Did you ever see a ghost, sir?” asked John.
“No, never. But I know those who have seen them; and I cannot disbelieve what they say. One such story in particular is often in my mind; it was a very strange one.”
“Won’t you tell it us, Mr. Featherston?”
The doctor only laughed in answer. But after we came out of church, when he was sitting with me and John on the Parade, he told it. And I only wish I had space to relate it here.
He left Pumpwater in the afternoon, and Lady Whitney had the room prepared for her use at once, John moving into hers. So that I had mine to myself again, and the little bed was taken out of it.
The next day was Monday. When Lady Whitney came down in the morning the first thing she told us was, that she had not slept. All the curious symptoms of restless disturbance, of inward agitation, which we had experienced, had visited her.
“I will not give in, my dears,” she said, bravely. “It may be, you know, that what I had heard against the room took all sleep out of me, though I was not conscious of it; so I shall keep to it. I must say it is a most comfortable bed.”
She “kept” to the room until the Wednesday; three nights in all; getting no sleep. Then she gave in. Occasionally during the third night, when she was dropping asleep from exhaustion, she was startled up from it in sudden terror: terror of she knew not what. Just as it had been with me and with John. On the Wednesday morning she told Susannah that they must give her the back-room opposite mine, and we would abandon that front-room altogether.
“It is just as though there were a ghost in the room,” she said to Susannah.
“Perhaps there is, my lady,” was Susannah’s cool reply.
On the Friday evening Dr. and Mrs. Parafin came in to tea. Our visit would end on the morrow. The old doctor held John before him in the lamplight, and decided that he looked better—that the stay had done him good.
“I am sure it has,” assented Lady Whitney. “Just at first I feared he was going backward: but that must have been owing to the sleepless nights.”
“Sleepless nights!” echoed the doctor, in a curious tone.
“For the first three nights of our stay here, he never slept; never slept at all. After that——”
“Which room did he occupy?” interrupted the doctor, breathlessly. “Not the one over this?”
“Yes, it was. Why? Do you know anything against it?” questioned Lady Whitney, for she saw Dr. and Mrs. Parafin exchange glances.
“Only this: that I have heard of other people who were unable to sleep in that room,” he answered.
“But what can be amiss with the room, Dr. Parafin?”
“Ah,” said he, “there you go beyond me. It is, I believe, a fact, a singular fact, that there is something or other in the room which prevents people from sleeping. Friends of ours who lived in the house before Miss Gay took it, ended by shutting the room up.”
“Is it haunted, sir?” I asked. “Mr. Featherston thought it might be.”
He looked at me and smiled, shaking his head. Mrs. Parafin nodded hers, as much as to say It is.
“No one has been able to get any sleep in that room since the Calsons lived here,” said Mrs. Parafin, dropping her voice.
“How very strange!” cried Lady Whitney. “One might think murder had been done in it.”
Mrs. Parafin coughed significantly. “The wife died in it,” she said. “Some people thought her husband had—had—had at least hastened her death——”
“Hush, Matty!” interposed the doctor, warningly. “It was all rumour, all talk. Nothing was proved—or attempted to be.”
“Perhaps there existed no proof,” returned Mrs. Parafin. “And if there had—who was there to take it up? She was in her grave, poor woman, and he was left flourishing, master of himself and every one about him. Any way, Thomas, be that as it may, you cannot deny that the room has been like a haunted room since.”
Dr. Parafin laughed lightly, objecting to be serious; men are more cautious than women. “I cannot deny that people find themselves unable to sleep in the room; I never heard that it was ‘haunted’ in any other way,” he added, to Lady Whitney. “But there—let us change the subject; we can neither alter the fact nor understand it.”
After they left us, Lady Whitney said she should like to ask Miss Gay what her experience of the room had been. But Miss Gay had stepped out to a neighbour’s, and Susannah stayed to talk in her place. She could tell us more about it, she said, than Miss Gay.
“I warned my cousin she would do well not to take this house,” began Susannah, accepting the chair to which Lady Whitney pointed. “But it is a beautiful house for letting, as you see, my lady, and that and the low rent tempted her. Besides, she did not believe the rumour about the room; she does not believe it fully yet, though it is beginning to worry her: she thinks the inability to sleep must lie in the people themselves.”
“It has been an uncanny room since old Calson’s wife died in it, has it not, Susannah?” said John, as if in jest. “I suppose he did not murder her?”
“I think he did,” whispered Susannah.
The answer sounded so ghostly that it struck us all into silence.
Susannah resumed. “Nobody knew: but one or two suspected. The wife was a poor, timid, gentle creature, worshipping the very ground her husband trod on, yet always in awe of him. She lay in the room, sick, for many many months before she died. Old Sarah——”
“What was her illness?” interrupted Lady Whitney.
“My lady, that is more than I can tell you, more, I fancy, than any one could have told. Old Sarah would often say to me that she did not believe there was any great sickness, only he made it out there was, and persuaded his wife so. He could just wind her round his little finger. The person who attended on her was one Astrea, quite a heathenish name I used to think, and a heathenish woman too; she was copper-coloured, and came with them from abroad. Sarah was in the kitchen, and there was only a man besides. I lived housekeeper at that time with an old lady on the Parade, and I looked in here from time to time to ask after the mistress. Once I was invited by Mr. Calson upstairs to see her, she lay in the room over this; the one that nobody can now sleep in. She looked so pitiful!—her poor, pale, patient face down deep in the pillow. Was she better, I asked; and what was it that ailed her. She thought it was not much beside weakness, she answered, and that she felt a constant nausea; and she was waiting for the warm weather: her dear husband assured her she would be better when that came.”
“Was he kind to her, Susannah?”
“He seemed to be, Master Johnny; very kind and attentive indeed. He would sit by the hour together in her room, and give her her medicine, and feed her when she grew too weak to feed herself, and sit up at night with her. A doctor came to see her occasionally; it was said he could not find much the matter with her but debility, and that she seemed to be wasting away. Well, she died, my lady; died quietly in that room; and Calson ordered a grand funeral.”
“So did Jonas Chuzzlewit,” breathed John.
“Whispers got afloat when she was under ground—not before—that there had been something wrong about her death, that she had not come by it fairly, or by the illness either,” continued Susannah. “But they were not spoken openly; under the rose, as may be said; and they died away. Mr. Calson continued to live in the house as before; but he became soon ill. Real sickness, his was, my lady, whatever his wife’s might have been. His illness was chiefly on the nerves; he grew frightfully thin; and the setting-in of some grave inward complaint was suspected: so if he did act in any ill manner to his wife it seemed he would not reap long benefit from it. All the medical men in Pumpwater were called to him in succession; but they could not cure him. He kept growing thinner and thinner till he was like a walking shadow. At last he shut up his house and went to London for advice; and there he died, fourteen months after the death of his wife.”
“How long was the house kept shut up?” asked Lady Whitney, as Susannah paused.
“About two years, my lady. All his property was willed away to the little son of his brother, who lived over in Australia. Tardy instructions came from thence to Mr. Jermy the lawyer to let the house furnished, and Mr. Jermy put it into the hands of Bone the house-agent. A family took it, but they did not stay: then another family took it, and they did not stay. Each party went to Bone and told him that something was the matter with one of the rooms and nobody could sleep in it. After that, the furniture was sold off, and some people took the house by the year. They did not remain in it six months. Some other people took it then, and they stayed the year, but it was known that they shut up that room. Then the house stayed empty. My cousin, wanting a better house than the one she was in, cast many a longing eye towards it; finding it did not let, she went to Bone and asked him what the rent would be. Seventy pounds to her, he said; and she took it. Of course she had heard about the room, but she did not believe it; she thought, as Mr. Featherston said the other morning, that something must be wrong with the paper, and she had the walls scraped and cleaned and a fresh paper put on.”
“And since then—have your lodgers found anything amiss with the room?” questioned Lady Whitney.
“I am bound to say they have, my lady. It has been the same story with them all—not able to get to sleep in it. One gentleman, an old post-captain, after trying it a few nights, went right away from Pumpwater, swearing at the air. But the most singular experience we have had was that of two little girls. They were kept in that room for two nights, and each night they cried and screamed all night long, calling out that they were frightened. Their mother could not account for it; they were not at all timid children, she said, and such a thing had never happened with them before. Altogether, taking one thing with another, I fear, my lady, that something is wrong with the room. Miss Gay sees it now: but she is not superstitious, and she asks what it can be.”
Well, that was Susannah’s tale: and we carried it away with us on the morrow.
Sir John Whitney found his son looking all the better for his visit to Pumpwater. Temporarily he was so. Temporarily only; not materially: for John died before the year was out.
Have I heard anything of the room since, you would like to ask. Yes, a little. Some eighteen months later, I was halting at Pumpwater for a few hours with the Squire, and ran to the house to see Miss Gay. But the house was empty. A black board stood in front with big white letters on it TO BE LET. Miss Gay had moved into another house facing the Parade.
“It was of no use my trying to stay in it,” she said to me, shaking her head. “I moved into the room myself, Master Johnny, after you and my Lady Whitney left, and I am free to confess that I could not sleep. I had Susannah in, and she could not sleep; and, in short, we had to go out of it again. So I shut the room up, sir, until the year had expired, and then I gave up the house. It has not been let since, and people say it is falling into decay.”
“Was anything ever seen in the room, Miss Gay?”
“Nothing,” she answered, “or heard either; nothing whatever. The room is as nice a room as could be wished for in all respects, light, large, cheerful, and airy; and yet nobody can get to sleep in it. I shall never understand it, sir.”
I’m sure I never shall. It remains one of those curious experiences that cannot be solved in this world. But it is none the less true.
The lost ghost
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mrs. John Emerson, sitting with her needlework beside the window, looked out and saw Mrs. Rhoda Meserve coming down the street, and knew at once by the trend of her steps and the cant of her head that she meditated turning in at her gate. She also knew by a certain something about her general carriage — a thrusting forward of the neck, a bustling hitch of the shoulders — that she had important news. Rhoda Meserve always had the news as soon as the news was in being, and generally Mrs. John Emerson was the first to whom she imparted it. The two women had been friends ever since Mrs. Meserve had married Simon Meserve and come to the village to live.
Mrs. Meserve was a pretty woman, moving with graceful flirts of ruffling skirts; her clear-cut, nervous face, as delicately tinted as a shell, looked brightly from the plumy brim of a black hat at Mrs. Emerson in the window. Mrs. Emerson was glad to see her coming. She returned the greeting with enthusiasm, then rose hurriedly, ran into the cold parlour and brought out one of the best rocking-chairs. She was just in time, after drawing it up beside the opposite window, to greet her friend at the door.
"Good-afternoon," said she. "I declare, I'm real glad to see you. I've been alone all day. John went to the city this morning. I thought of coming over to your house this afternoon, but I couldn't bring my sewing very well. I am putting the ruffles on my new black dress skirt."
"Well, I didn't have a thing on hand except my crochet work," responded Mrs. Meserve, "and I thought I'd just run over a few minutes."
"I'm real glad you did," repeated Mrs. Emerson. "Take your things right off. Here, I'll put them on my bed in the bedroom. Take the rocking-chair."
Mrs. Meserve settled herself in the parlour rocking-chair, while Mrs. Emerson carried her shawl and hat into the little adjoining bedroom. When she returned Mrs. Meserve was rocking peacefully and was already at work hooking blue wool in and out.
"That's real pretty," said Mrs. Emerson.
"Yes, I think it's pretty," replied Mrs. Meserve.
"I suppose it's for the church fair?"
"Yes. I don't suppose it'll bring enough to pay for the worsted, let alone the work, but I suppose I've got to make something."
"How much did that one you made for the fair last year bring?"
"It's wicked, ain't it?"
"I rather guess it is. It takes me a week every minute I can get to make one. I wish those that bought such things for twenty-five cents had to make them. Guess they'd sing another song. Well, I suppose I oughtn't to complain as long as it is for the Lord, but sometimes it does seem as if the Lord didn't get much out of it."
"Well, it's pretty work," said Mrs. Emerson, sitting down at the opposite window and taking up her dress skirt.
"Yes, it is real pretty work. I just LOVE to crochet."
The two women rocked and sewed and crocheted in silence for two or three minutes. They were both waiting. Mrs. Meserve waited for the other's curiosity to develop in order that her news might have, as it were, a befitting stage entrance. Mrs. Emerson waited for the news. Finally she could wait no longer.
"Well, what's the news?" said she.
"Well, I don't know as there's anything very particular," hedged the other woman, prolonging the situation.
"Yes, there is; you can't cheat me," replied Mrs. Emerson.
"Now, how do you know?"
"By the way you look."
Mrs. Meserve laughed consciously and rather vainly.
"Well, Simon says my face is so expressive I can't hide anything more than five minutes no matter how hard I try," said she. "Well, there is some news. Simon came home with it this noon. He heard it in South Dayton. He had some business over there this morning. The old Sargent place is let."
Mrs. Emerson dropped her sewing and stared.
"You don't say so!"
"Yes, it is."
"Why, some folks from Boston that moved to South Dayton last year. They haven't been satisfied with the house they had there — it wasn't large enough. The man has got considerable property and can afford to live pretty well. He's got a wife and his unmarried sister in the family. The sister's got money, too. He does business in Boston and it's just as easy to get to Boston from here as from South Dayton, and so they're coming here. You know the old Sargent house is a splendid place."
"Yes, it's the handsomest house in town, but —"
"Oh, Simon said they told him about that and he just laughed. Said he wasn't afraid and neither was his wife and sister. Said he'd risk ghosts rather than little tucked-up sleeping-rooms without any sun, like they've had in the Dayton house. Said he'd rather risk SEEING ghosts, than risk being ghosts themselves. Simon said they said he was a great hand to joke."
"Oh, well," said Mrs. Emerson, "it is a beautiful house, and maybe there isn't anything in those stories. It never seemed to me they came very straight anyway. I never took much stock in them. All I thought was — if his wife was nervous."
"Nothing in creation would hire me to go into a house that I'd ever heard a word against of that kind," declared Mrs. Meserve with emphasis. "I wouldn't go into that house if they would give me the rent. I've seen enough of haunted houses to last me as long as I live."
Mrs. Emerson's face acquired the expression of a hunting hound.
"Have you?" she asked in an intense whisper.
"Yes, I have. I don't want any more of it."
"Before you came here?"
"Yes; before I was married — when I was quite a girl."
Mrs. Meserve had not married young. Mrs. Emerson had mental calculations when she heard that.
"Did you really live in a house that was —" she whispered fearfully.
Mrs. Meserve nodded solemnly.
"Did you really ever — see — anything —"
Mrs. Meserve nodded.
"You didn't see anything that did you any harm?"
"No, I didn't see anything that did me harm looking at it in one way, but it don't do anybody in this world any good to see things that haven't any business to be seen in it. You never get over it."
There was a moment's silence. Mrs. Emerson's features seemed to sharpen.
"Well, of course I don't want to urge you," said she, "if you don't feel like talking about it; but maybe it might do you good to tell it out, if it's on your mind, worrying you."
"I try to put it out of my mind," said Mrs. Meserve.
"Well, it's just as you feel."
"I never told anybody but Simon," said Mrs. Meserve. "I never felt as if it was wise perhaps. I didn't know what folks might think. So many don't believe in anything they can't understand, that they might think my mind wasn't right. Simon advised me not to talk about it. He said he didn't believe it was anything supernatural, but he had to own up that he couldn't give any explanation for it to save his life. He had to own up that he didn't believe anybody could. Then he said he wouldn't talk about it. He said lots of folks would sooner tell folks my head wasn't right than to own up they couldn't see through it."
"I'm sure I wouldn't say so," returned Mrs. Emerson reproachfully. "You know better than that, I hope."
"Yes, I do," replied Mrs. Meserve. "I know you wouldn't say so."
"And I wouldn't tell it to a soul if you didn't want me to."
"Well, I'd rather you wouldn't."
"I won't speak of it even to Mr. Emerson."
"I'd rather you wouldn't even to him."
Mrs. Emerson took up her dress skirt again; Mrs. Meserve hooked up another loop of blue wool. Then she begun:
"Of course," said she, "I ain't going to say positively that I believe or disbelieve in ghosts, but all I tell you is what I saw. I can't explain it. I don't pretend I can, for I can't. If you can, well and good; I shall be glad, for it will stop tormenting me as it has done and always will otherwise. There hasn't been a day nor a night since it happened that I haven't thought of it, and always I have felt the shivers go down my back when I did."
"That's an awful feeling," Mrs. Emerson said.
"Ain't it? Well, it happened before I was married, when I was a girl and lived in East Wilmington. It was the first year I lived there. You know my family all died five years before that. I told you."
Mrs. Emerson nodded.
"Well, I went there to teach school, and I went to board with a Mrs. Amelia Dennison and her sister, Mrs. Bird. Abby, her name was — Abby Bird. She was a widow; she had never had any children. She had a little money — Mrs. Dennison didn't have any — and she had come to East Wilmington and bought the house they lived in. It was a real pretty house, though it was very old and run down. It had cost Mrs. Bird a good deal to put it in order. I guess that was the reason they took me to board. I guess they thought it would help along a little. I guess what I paid for my board about kept us all in victuals. Mrs. Bird had enough to live on if they were careful, but she had spent so much fixing up the old house that they must have been a little pinched for awhile.
"Anyhow, they took me to board, and I thought I was pretty lucky to get in there. I had a nice room, big and sunny and furnished pretty, the paper and paint all new, and everything as neat as wax. Mrs. Dennison was one of the best cooks I ever saw, and I had a little stove in my room, and there was always a nice fire there when I got home from school. I thought I hadn't been in such a nice place since I lost my own home, until I had been there about three weeks.
"I had been there about three weeks before I found it out, though I guess it had been going on ever since they had been in the house, and that was most four months. They hadn't said anything about it, and I didn't wonder, for there they had just bought the house and been to so much expense and trouble fixing it up.
"Well, I went there in September. I begun my school the first Monday. I remember it was a real cold fall, there was a frost the middle of September, and I had to put on my winter coat. I remember when I came home that night (let me see, I began school on a Monday, and that was two weeks from the next Thursday), I took off my coat downstairs and laid it on the table in the front entry. It was a real nice coat — heavy black broadcloth trimmed with fur; I had had it the winter before. Mrs. Bird called after me as I went upstairs that I ought not to leave it in the front entry for fear somebody might come in and take it, but I only laughed and called back to her that I wasn't afraid. I never was much afraid of burglars.
"Well, though it was hardly the middle of September, it was a real cold night. I remember my room faced west, and the sun was getting low, and the sky was a pale yellow and purple, just as you see it sometimes in the winter when there is going to be a cold snap. I rather think that was the night the frost came the first time. I know Mrs. Dennison covered up some flowers she had in the front yard, anyhow. I remember looking out and seeing an old green plaid shawl of hers over the verbena bed. There was a fire in my little wood-stove. Mrs. Bird made it, I know. She was a real motherly sort of woman; she always seemed to be the happiest when she was doing something to make other folks happy and comfortable. Mrs. Dennison told me she had always been so. She said she had coddled her husband within an inch of his life. ‘It's lucky Abby never had any children,' she said, ‘for she would have spoilt them.'
"Well, that night I sat down beside my nice little fire and ate an apple. There was a plate of nice apples on my table. Mrs. Bird put them there. I was always very fond of apples. Well, I sat down and ate an apple, and was having a beautiful time, and thinking how lucky I was to have got board in such a place with such nice folks, when I heard a queer little sound at my door. It was such a little hesitating sort of sound that it sounded more like a fumble than a knock, as if some one very timid, with very little hands, was feeling along the door, not quite daring to knock. For a minute I thought it was a mouse. But I waited and it came again, and then I made up my mind it was a knock, but a very little scared one, so I said, ‘Come in.'
"But nobody came in, and then presently I heard the knock again. Then I got up and opened the door, thinking it was very queer, and I had a frightened feeling without knowing why.
"Well, I opened the door, and the first thing I noticed was a draught of cold air, as if the front door downstairs was open, but there was a strange close smell about the cold draught. It smelled more like a cellar that had been shut up for years, than out-of-doors. Then I saw something. I saw my coat first. The thing that held it was so small that I couldn't see much of anything else. Then I saw a little white face with eyes so scared and wishful that they seemed as if they might eat a hole in anybody's heart. It was a dreadful little face, with something about it which made it different from any other face on earth, but it was so pitiful that somehow it did away a good deal with the dreadfulness. And there were two little hands spotted purple with the cold, holding up my winter coat, and a strange little far-away voice said: ‘I can't find my mother.'
"‘For Heaven's sake,' I said, ‘who are you?'
"Then the little voice said again: ‘I can't find my mother.'
"All the time I could smell the cold and I saw that it was about the child; that cold was clinging to her as if she had come out of some deadly cold place. Well, I took my coat, I did not know what else to do, and the cold was clinging to that. It was as cold as if it had come off ice. When I had the coat I could see the child more plainly. She was dressed in one little white garment made very simply. It was a nightgown, only very long, quite covering her feet, and I could see dimly through it her little thin body mottled purple with the cold. Her face did not look so cold; that was a clear waxen white. Her hair was dark, but it looked as if it might be dark only because it was so damp, almost wet, and might really be light hair. It clung very close to her forehead, which was round and white. She would have been very beautiful if she had not been so dreadful.
"‘Who are you?' says I again, looking at her.
"She looked at me with her terrible pleading eyes and did not say anything.
"‘What are you?' says I. Then she went away. She did not seem to run or walk like other children. She flitted, like one of those little filmy white butterflies, that don't seem like real ones they are so light, and move as if they had no weight. But she looked back from the head of the stairs. ‘I can't find my mother,' said she, and I never heard such a voice.
"‘Who is your mother?' says I, but she was gone.
"Well, I thought for a moment I should faint away. The room got dark and I heard a singing in my ears. Then I flung my coat onto the bed. My hands were as cold as ice from holding it, and I stood in my door, and called first Mrs. Bird and then Mrs. Dennison. I didn't dare go down over the stairs where that had gone. It seemed to me I should go mad if I didn't see somebody or something like other folks on the face of the earth. I thought I should never make anybody hear, but I could hear them stepping about downstairs, and I could smell biscuits baking for supper. Somehow the smell of those biscuits seemed the only natural thing left to keep me in my right mind. I didn't dare go over those stairs. I just stood there and called, and finally I heard the entry door open and Mrs. Bird called back:
"‘What is it? Did you call, Miss Arms?'
"‘Come up here; come up here as quick as you can, both of you,' I screamed out; ‘quick, quick, quick!'
"I heard Mrs. Bird tell Mrs. Dennison: ‘Come quick, Amelia, something is the matter in Miss Arms' room.' It struck me even then that she expressed herself rather queerly, and it struck me as very queer, indeed, when they both got upstairs and I saw that they knew what had happened, or that they knew of what nature the happening was.
"‘What is it, dear?' asked Mrs. Bird, and her pretty, loving voice had a strained sound. I saw her look at Mrs. Dennison and I saw Mrs. Dennison look back at her.
"‘For God's sake,' says I, and I never spoke so before —‘for God's sake, what was it brought my coat upstairs?'
"‘What was it like?' asked Mrs. Dennison in a sort of failing voice, and she looked at her sister again and her sister looked back at her.
"‘It was a child I have never seen here before. It looked like a child,' says I, ‘but I never saw a child so dreadful, and it had on a nightgown, and said she couldn't find her mother. Who was it? What was it?'
"I thought for a minute Mrs. Dennison was going to faint, but Mrs. Bird hung onto her and rubbed her hands, and whispered in her ear (she had the cooingest kind of voice), and I ran and got her a glass of cold water. I tell you it took considerable courage to go downstairs alone, but they had set a lamp on the entry table so I could see. I don't believe I could have spunked up enough to have gone downstairs in the dark, thinking every second that child might be close to me. The lamp and the smell of the biscuits baking seemed to sort of keep my courage up, but I tell you I didn't waste much time going down those stairs and out into the kitchen for a glass of water. I pumped as if the house was afire, and I grabbed the first thing I came across in the shape of a tumbler: it was a painted one that Mrs. Dennison's Sunday school class gave her, and it was meant for a flower vase.
"Well, I filled it and then ran upstairs. I felt every minute as if something would catch my feet, and I held the glass to Mrs. Dennison's lips, while Mrs. Bird held her head up, and she took a good long swallow, then she looked hard at the tumbler.
"‘Yes,' says I, ‘I know I got this one, but I took the first I came across, and it isn't hurt a mite.'
"‘Don't get the painted flowers wet,' says Mrs. Dennison very feebly, ‘they'll wash off if you do.'
"‘I'll be real careful,' says I. I knew she set a sight by that painted tumbler.
"The water seemed to do Mrs. Dennison good, for presently she pushed Mrs. Bird away and sat up. She had been laying down on my bed.
"‘I'm all over it now,' says she, but she was terribly white, and her eyes looked as if they saw something outside things. Mrs. Bird wasn't much better, but she always had a sort of settled sweet, good look that nothing could disturb to any great extent. I knew I looked dreadful, for I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass, and I would hardly have known who it was.
"Mrs. Dennison, she slid off the bed and walked sort of tottery to a chair. ‘I was silly to give way so,' says she.
"‘No, you wasn't silly, sister,' says Mrs. Bird. ‘I don't know what this means any more than you do, but whatever it is, no one ought to be called silly for being overcome by anything so different from other things which we have known all our lives.'
"Mrs. Dennison looked at her sister, then she looked at me, then back at her sister again, and Mrs. Bird spoke as if she had been asked a question.
"‘Yes,' says she, ‘I do think Miss Arms ought to be told — that is, I think she ought to be told all we know ourselves.'
"‘That isn't much,' said Mrs. Dennison with a dying-away sort of sigh. She looked as if she might faint away again any minute. She was a real delicate-looking woman, but it turned out she was a good deal stronger than poor Mrs. Bird.
"‘No, there isn't much we do know,' says Mrs. Bird, ‘but what little there is she ought to know. I felt as if she ought to when she first came here.'
"‘Well, I didn't feel quite right about it,' said Mrs. Dennison, ‘but I kept hoping it might stop, and any way, that it might never trouble her, and you had put so much in the house, and we needed the money, and I didn't know but she might be nervous and think she couldn't come, and I didn't want to take a man boarder.'
"‘And aside from the money, we were very anxious to have you come, my dear,' says Mrs. Bird.
"‘Yes,' says Mrs. Dennison, ‘we wanted the young company in the house; we were lonesome, and we both of us took a great liking to you the minute we set eyes on you.'
"And I guess they meant what they said, both of them. They were beautiful women, and nobody could be any kinder to me than they were, and I never blamed them for not telling me before, and, as they said, there wasn't really much to tell.
"They hadn't any sooner fairly bought the house, and moved into it, than they began to see and hear things. Mrs. Bird said they were sitting together in the sitting-room one evening when they heard it the first time. She said her sister was knitting lace (Mrs. Dennison made beautiful knitted lace) and she was reading the Missionary Herald (Mrs. Bird was very much interested in mission work), when all of a sudden they heard something. She heard it first and she laid down her Missionary Herald and listened, and then Mrs. Dennison she saw her listening and she drops her lace. ‘What is it you are listening to, Abby?' says she. Then it came again and they both heard, and the cold shivers went down their backs to hear it, though they didn't know why. ‘It's the cat, isn't it?' says Mrs. Bird.
"‘It isn't any cat,' says Mrs. Dennison.
"‘Oh, I guess it MUST be the cat; maybe she's got a mouse,' says Mrs. Bird, real cheerful, to calm down Mrs. Dennison, for she saw she was ‘most scared to death, and she was always afraid of her fainting away. Then she opens the door and calls, ‘Kitty, kitty, kitty!' They had brought their cat with them in a basket when they came to East Wilmington to live. It was a real handsome tiger cat, a tommy, and he knew a lot.
"Well, she called ‘Kitty, kitty, kitty!' and sure enough the kitty came, and when he came in the door he gave a big yawl that didn't sound unlike what they had heard.
"‘There, sister, here he is; you see it was the cat,' says Mrs. Bird. ‘Poor kitty!'
"But Mrs. Dennison she eyed the cat, and she give a great screech.
"‘What's that? What's that?' says she.
"‘What's what?' says Mrs. Bird, pretending to herself that she didn't see what her sister meant.
"‘Somethin's got hold of that cat's tail,' says Mrs. Dennison. ‘Somethin's got hold of his tail. It's pulled straight out, an' he can't get away. Just hear him yawl!'
"‘It isn't anything,' says Mrs. Bird, but even as she said that she could see a little hand holding fast to that cat's tail, and then the child seemed to sort of clear out of the dimness behind the hand, and the child was sort of laughing then, instead of looking sad, and she said that was a great deal worse. She said that laugh was the most awful and the saddest thing she ever heard.
"Well, she was so dumfounded that she didn't know what to do, and she couldn't sense at first that it was anything supernatural. She thought it must be one of the neighbour's children who had run away and was making free of their house, and was teasing their cat, and that they must be just nervous to feel so upset by it. So she speaks up sort of sharp.
"‘Don't you know that you mustn't pull the kitty's tail?' says she. ‘Don't you know you hurt the poor kitty, and she'll scratch you if you don't take care. Poor kitty, you mustn't hurt her.'
"And with that she said the child stopped pulling that cat's tail and went to stroking her just as soft and pitiful, and the cat put his back up and rubbed and purred as if he liked it. The cat never seemed a mite afraid, and that seemed queer, for I had always heard that animals were dreadfully afraid of ghosts; but then, that was a pretty harmless little sort of ghost.
"Well, Mrs. Bird said the child stroked that cat, while she and Mrs. Dennison stood watching it, and holding onto each other, for, no matter how hard they tried to think it was all right, it didn't look right. Finally Mrs. Dennison she spoke.
"‘What's your name, little girl?' says she.
"Then the child looks up and stops stroking the cat, and says she can't find her mother, just the way she said it to me. Then Mrs. Dennison she gave such a gasp that Mrs. Bird thought she was going to faint away, but she didn't. ‘Well, who is your mother?' says she. But the child just says again ‘I can't find my mother — I can't find my mother.'
"‘Where do you live, dear?' says Mrs. Bird.
"‘I can't find my mother,' says the child.
"Well, that was the way it was. Nothing happened. Those two women stood there hanging onto each other, and the child stood in front of them, and they asked her questions, and everything she would say was: ‘I can't find my mother.'
"Then Mrs. Bird tried to catch hold of the child, for she thought in spite of what she saw that perhaps she was nervous and it was a real child, only perhaps not quite right in its head, that had run away in her little nightgown after she had been put to bed.
"She tried to catch the child. She had an idea of putting a shawl around it and going out — she was such a little thing she could have carried her easy enough — and trying to find out to which of the neighbours she belonged. But the minute she moved toward the child there wasn't any child there; there was only that little voice seeming to come from nothing, saying ‘I can't find my mother,' and presently that died away.
"Well, that same thing kept happening, or something very much the same. Once in awhile Mrs. Bird would be washing dishes, and all at once the child would be standing beside her with the dish-towel, wiping them. Of course, that was terrible. Mrs. Bird would wash the dishes all over. Sometimes she didn't tell Mrs. Dennison, it made her so nervous. Sometimes when they were making cake they would find the raisins all picked over, and sometimes little sticks of kindling-wood would be found laying beside the kitchen stove. They never knew when they would come across that child, and always she kept saying over and over that she couldn't find her mother. They never tried talking to her, except once in awhile Mrs. Bird would get desperate and ask her something, but the child never seemed to hear it; she always kept right on saying that she couldn't find her mother.
"After they had told me all they had to tell about their experience with the child, they told me about the house and the people that had lived there before they did. It seemed something dreadful had happened in that house. And the land agent had never let on to them. I don't think they would have bought it if he had, no matter how cheap it was, for even if folks aren't really afraid of anything, they don't want to live in houses where such dreadful things have happened that you keep thinking about them. I know after they told me I should never have stayed there another night, if I hadn't thought so much of them, no matter how comfortable I was made; and I never was nervous, either. But I stayed. Of course, it didn't happen in my room. If it had I could not have stayed."
"What was it?" asked Mrs. Emerson in an awed voice.
"It was an awful thing. That child had lived in the house with her father and mother two years before. They had come — or the father had — from a real good family. He had a good situation: he was a drummer for a big leather house in the city, and they lived real pretty, with plenty to do with. But the mother was a real wicked woman. She was as handsome as a picture, and they said she came from good sort of people enough in Boston, but she was bad clean through, though she was real pretty spoken and most everybody liked her. She used to dress out and make a great show, and she never seemed to take much interest in the child, and folks began to say she wasn't treated right.
"The woman had a hard time keeping a girl. For some reason one wouldn't stay. They would leave and then talk about her awfully, telling all kinds of things. People didn't believe it at first; then they began to. They said that the woman made that little thing, though she wasn't much over five years old, and small and babyish for her age, do most of the work, what there was done; they said the house used to look like a pig-sty when she didn't have help. They said the little thing used to stand on a chair and wash dishes, and they'd seen her carrying in sticks of wood most as big as she was many a time, and they'd heard her mother scolding her. The woman was a fine singer, and had a voice like a screech-owl when she scolded.
"The father was away most of the time, and when that happened he had been away out West for some weeks. There had been a married man hanging about the mother for some time, and folks had talked some; but they weren't sure there was anything wrong, and he was a man very high up, with money, so they kept pretty still for fear he would hear of it and make trouble for them, and of course nobody was sure, though folks did say afterward that the father of the child had ought to have been told.
"But that was very easy to say; it wouldn't have been so easy to find anybody who would have been willing to tell him such a thing as that, especially when they weren't any too sure. He set his eyes by his wife, too. They said all he seemed to think of was to earn money to buy things to deck her out in. And he about worshiped the child, too. They said he was a real nice man. The men that are treated so bad mostly are real nice men. I've always noticed that.
"Well, one morning that man that there had been whispers about was missing. He had been gone quite a while, though, before they really knew that he was missing, because he had gone away and told his wife that he had to go to New York on business and might be gone a week, and not to worry if he didn't get home, and not to worry if he didn't write, because he should be thinking from day to day that he might take the next train home and there would be no use in writing. So the wife waited, and she tried not to worry until it was two days over the week, then she run into a neighbour's and fainted dead away on the floor; and then they made inquiries and found out that he had skipped — with some money that didn't belong to him, too.
"Then folks began to ask where was that woman, and they found out by comparing notes that nobody had seen her since the man went away; but three or four women remembered that she had told them that she thought of taking the child and going to Boston to visit her folks, so when they hadn't seen her around, and the house shut, they jumped to the conclusion that was where she was. They were the neighbours that lived right around her, but they didn't have much to do with her, and she'd gone out of her way to tell them about her Boston plan, and they didn't make much reply when she did.
"Well, there was this house shut up, and the man and woman missing and the child. Then all of a sudden one of the women that lived the nearest remembered something. She remembered that she had waked up three nights running, thinking she heard a child crying somewhere, and once she waked up her husband, but he said it must be the Bisbees' little girl, and she thought it must be. The child wasn't well and was always crying. It used to have colic spells, especially at night. So she didn't think any more about it until this came up, then all of a sudden she did think of it. She told what she had heard, and finally folks began to think they had better enter that house and see if there was anything wrong.
"Well, they did enter it, and they found that child dead, locked in one of the rooms. (Mrs. Dennison and Mrs. Bird never used that room; it was a back bedroom on the second floor.)
"Yes, they found that poor child there, starved to death, and frozen, though they weren't sure she had frozen to death, for she was in bed with clothes enough to keep her pretty warm when she was alive. But she had been there a week, and she was nothing but skin and bone. It looked as if the mother had locked her into the house when she went away, and told her not to make any noise for fear the neighbours would hear her and find out that she herself had gone.
"Mrs. Dennison said she couldn't really believe that the woman had meant to have her own child starved to death. Probably she thought the little thing would raise somebody, or folks would try to get in the house and find her. Well, whatever she thought, there the child was, dead.
"But that wasn't all. The father came home, right in the midst of it; the child was just buried, and he was beside himself. And — he went on the track of his wife, and he found her, and he shot her dead; it was in all the papers at the time; then he disappeared. Nothing had been seen of him since. Mrs. Dennison said that she thought he had either made way with himself or got out of the country, nobody knew, but they did know there was something wrong with the house.
"‘I knew folks acted queer when they asked me how I liked it when we first came here,' says Mrs. Dennison, ‘but I never dreamed why till we saw the child that night.'
"I never heard anything like it in my life," said Mrs. Emerson, staring at the other woman with awestruck eyes.
"I thought you'd say so," said Mrs. Meserve. "You don't wonder that I ain't disposed to speak light when I hear there is anything queer about a house, do you?"
"No, I don't, after that," Mrs. Emerson said.
"But that ain't all," said Mrs. Meserve.
"Did you see it again?" Mrs. Emerson asked.
"Yes, I saw it a number of times before the last time. It was lucky I wasn't nervous, or I never could have stayed there, much as I liked the place and much as I thought of those two women; they were beautiful women, and no mistake. I loved those women. I hope Mrs. Dennison will come and see me sometime.
"Well, I stayed, and I never knew when I'd see that child. I got so I was very careful to bring everything of mine upstairs, and not leave any little thing in my room that needed doing, for fear she would come lugging up my coat or hat or gloves or I'd find things done when there'd been no live being in the room to do them. I can't tell you how I dreaded seeing her; and worse than the seeing her was the hearing her say, ‘I can't find my mother.' It was enough to make your blood run cold. I never heard a living child cry for its mother that was anything so pitiful as that dead one. It was enough to break your heart.
"She used to come and say that to Mrs. Bird oftener than to any one else. Once I heard Mrs. Bird say she wondered if it was possible that the poor little thing couldn't really find her mother in the other world, she had been such a wicked woman.
"But Mrs. Dennison told her she didn't think she ought to speak so nor even think so, and Mrs. Bird said she shouldn't wonder if she was right. Mrs. Bird was always very easy to put in the wrong. She was a good woman, and one that couldn't do things enough for other folks. It seemed as if that was what she lived on. I don't think she was ever so scared by that poor little ghost, as much as she pitied it, and she was ‘most heartbroken because she couldn't do anything for it, as she could have done for a live child.
"‘It seems to me sometimes as if I should die if I can't get that awful little white robe off that child and get her in some clothes and feed her and stop her looking for her mother,' I heard her say once, and she was in earnest. She cried when she said it. That wasn't long before she died.
"Now I am coming to the strangest part of it all. Mrs. Bird died very sudden. One morning — it was Saturday, and there wasn't any school — I went downstairs to breakfast, and Mrs. Bird wasn't there; there was nobody but Mrs. Dennison. She was pouring out the coffee when I came in. ‘Why, where's Mrs. Bird?' says I.
"‘Abby ain't feeling very well this morning,' says she; ‘there isn't much the matter, I guess, but she didn't sleep very well, and her head aches, and she's sort of chilly, and I told her I thought she'd better stay in bed till the house gets warm.' It was a very cold morning.
"‘Maybe she's got cold,' says I.
"‘Yes, I guess she has,' says Mrs. Dennison. ‘I guess she's got cold. She'll be up before long. Abby ain't one to stay in bed a minute longer than she can help.'
"Well, we went on eating our breakfast, and all at once a shadow flickered across one wall of the room and over the ceiling the way a shadow will sometimes when somebody passes the window outside. Mrs. Dennison and I both looked up, then out of the window; then Mrs. Dennison she gives a scream.
"‘Why, Abby's crazy!' says she. ‘There she is out this bitter cold morning, and — and —' She didn't finish, but she meant the child. For we were both looking out, and we saw, as plain as we ever saw anything in our lives, Mrs. Abby Bird walking off over the white snow-path with that child holding fast to her hand, nestling close to her as if she had found her own mother.
"‘She's dead,' says Mrs. Dennison, clutching hold of me hard. ‘She's dead; my sister is dead!'
"She was. We hurried upstairs as fast as we could go, and she was dead in her bed, and smiling as if she was dreaming, and one arm and hand was stretched out as if something had hold of it; and it couldn't be straightened even at the last — it lay out over her casket at the funeral."
"Was the child ever seen again?" asked Mrs. Emerson in a shaking voice.
"No," replied Mrs. Meserve; "that child was never seen again after she went out of the yard with Mrs. Bird."
O fantasma perdido
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
A esposa do sr. John Emerson, sentada a janela com sua costura, olhou para fora e viu a sra. Rhoda Meserve descendo a rua. Soube imediatamente, pelos passos e meneio de cabeça, que esta pretendia bater no seu portão. Também soube pelos trejeitos — pescoço inclinado para a frente, ombros duros e irrequietos — que ela trazia notícias importantes. Rhoda Meserve sempre tomava conhecimento das notícias assim que elas nasciam e geralmente a sra. Emerson era a primeira as ouvir. Tornaram-se amigas quando a sra. Meserve casou-se com Simon Meserve e o casal veio morar no vilarejo.
A sra. Meserve era uma mulher bonita movendo-se graciosamente em sua saia plissada. Seu rosto liso e ansioso, delicadamente aquarelado como uma concha, oculto até então pela aba preta de um chapéu plumoso, voltou-se diretamente para a sra. Emerson na janela. A sra. Emerson ficou satisfeita em vê-la chegando. Ela devolveu a saudação com entusiasmo e levantou-se apressada, indo até a fria sala de estar para pegar uma cadeira de balanço das boas. Depois de arrastá-la até a janela, abriu a porta no momento exato em que a amiga chegava.
"Boa tarde", disse ela. "Devo dizer que estou muito contente em vê-la. Estive só o dia todo. John foi à cidade esta manhã. Pensei em passar na sua casa esta tarde, mas minha costura não rendeu muito. Estou colocando babados na minha nova saia preta."
"Bem, eu estou apenas trabalhando no meu crochê," respondeu a sra. Meserve, "e pensei que poderia passar por aqui."
"Fico muito contente por você ter feito isso," repetiu a sra. Emerson. "Dê-me seu xale e seu chapéu. Vou colocá-los sobre a minha cama. Sente-se na cadeira de balanço."
A sra. Meserve se acomodou enquanto a sra. Emerson levava seu xale e chapéu para o pequeno quarto de dormir adjacente. Quando voltou, a sra. Meserve já se embalava placidamente e fazia suas agulhas trazerem e levarem o fio de lã azul.
"É muito bonito", disse a sra. Emerson.
"Sim, também acho", respondeu a sra. Meserve.
"É para a quermesse?"
"Sim. Imagino que não dará o suficiente para pagar pela lã, sem falar do trabalho, mas suponho que devo ajudar de alguma forma."
"Quanto conseguiu por aquele do ano passado?"
"Vinte e cinco centavos."
"Muito. Toma-me uma semana fazer um. Eu gostaria que aqueles que compram essas coisas por vinte e cinco centavos tivessem que fazê-las. Com certeza pensariam diferente. Bem, suponho que não posso reclamar já que é para Deus, mas às vezes me parece que Ele não ganha muito com isso."
"Bem, é um trabalho bonito", disse a sra. Emerson, sentando-se com a barra do vestido no colo.
"Sim, realmente é. Eu adoro fazer crochê."
As duas mulheres balançaram e trabalharam com suas agulhas em silêncio durante dois ou três minutos. Ambas aguardavam alguma coisa. A sra. Meserve esperava que a curiosidade da outra crescesse para que suas notícias pudessem ter, por assim dizer, uma entrada triunfal no palco. A sra. Emerson esperava simplesmente pelas notícias. Ela não pôde se conter mais.
"Bem, quais as novidades?" disse ela.
"Bem, não sei se tenho alguma," dissimulou a outra, alongando a expectativa.
"Tem sim, você não me engana," respondeu a sra. Emerson.
"Ora essa, como você sabe?"
"Pelo seu jeito de olhar"
A sra. Meserve gargalhou, vaidosa.
"Bem, Simon diz que meu rosto é tão expressivo que não consigo esconder nada por mais de cinco minutos, por mais que eu tente," disse ela. "Há novidades, sim. Simon trouxe algumas na hora do almoço ao voltar de South Dayton. Fez negócios por lá esta manhã. A antiga propriedade dos Sargent foi comprada."
A sra. Emerson soltou a agulha e a encarou.
"Não me diga!"
"Algumas pessoas de Boston que se mudaram para South Dayton no ano passado. Não estavam satisfeitos com a casa que tinham — não era grande o suficiente. O homem tem posses e pode se dar ao luxo de viver muito bem. É casado e trouxe a irmã solteira. Ela também tem dinheiro. Ele faz negócios em Boston e é tão fácil chegar lá daqui quanto de South Dayton, por isso estão vindo para cá. A antiga casa dos Sargent é esplêndida, você sabe."
"Sei. É a melhor da cidade, mas —"
"Ah, Simon disse que contaram toda a história e ele apenas riu. Disse que não tinha medo, e nem a esposa e a irmã. Disse que preferia enfrentar fantasmas do que ter que dormir num quarto pequeno em que não bate sol, como o da casa em Dayton. Disse que preferia correr o risco de ver um fantasma do que de se tornar um. Simon disse que todos o consideraram bastante espirituoso."
"Oh, bem", disse a sra. Emerson, "é uma casa maravilhosa e talvez essas histórias nem sejam verdadeiras. De certa forma, nunca me pareceram muito honestas. Nunca acreditei nelas. Me pergunto é se a esposa não se preocupou."
"Nada no mundo me faria morar numa casa com rumores desse tipo," afirmou enfaticamente a sra. Meserve. "eu não viveria naquela casa nem se pagassem o aluguel por mim. Já vi casas mal-assombradas suficientes para a vida inteira."
Intrigada, a sra. Emerson esticou o nariz como um perdigueiro.
"Viu?" ela perguntou num sussurro intenso.
"Sim, eu mesma. Não quero saber mais disso."
"Antes de vir para cá?"
"Sim. Antes de casar-me — quando eu era bem moça"
A sra. Meserve não se casara muito jovem. A sra. Emerson calculou de cabeça quando teria sido.
"Você viveu mesmo numa casa que era —" ela sussurrou precavida.
A senhora Meserve assentiu solenemente.
"Você chegou a — ver — algo —"
Ela assentiu outra vez.
"Viu alguma coisa que lhe fez algum mal?"
"Não, não vi nada que me causasse mal diretamente, mas não faz bem a ninguém neste mundo ver coisas que não tem razão de serem vistas. Você nunca supera."
Houve um momento de silêncio. O rosto da sra. Emerson se descontraiu.
"Bem, é claro que não quero instigá-la a me contar," disse ela, "se você não se sente confortável, mas talvez seja bom colocar para fora se a estiver incomodando."
"Eu tento afastar isso da minha mente", disse a senhora Meserve.
"Bem, é como você disse."
"Eu nunca contei a ninguém além de Simon", disse a sra. Meserve. "Nunca achei prudente, talvez. Não sabia o que as pessoas poderiam pensar. Tanta gente desconfia do que não compreende que podem pensar que estou louca. Simon me aconselhou a não falar sobre isso. Disse que não conseguia acreditar que fosse algo sobrenatural, mas também admitiu que não poderia explicar nem que sua vida dependesse disso. Ele testificou que se nem ele podia acreditar, ninguém mais poderia. Então disse que se tivesse acontecido com ele não falaria sobre. Que seria mais fácil as pessoas dizerem que estou ruim da cabeça do que tentarem enxergar as coisas do meu modo."
"Garanto que eu não faria tal coisa", retrucou a sra. Emerson. "Espero que você saiba disso."
"Sim," respondeu a sra. Meserve. "sei que não."
"E eu não contaria a ninguém se você me pedisse."
"Bem, prefiro mesmo que não conte."
"Não contarei nem mesmo ao sr. Emerson."
A sra. Emerson pegou a barra da saia novamente e a senhora Meserve fez outro laço com a lã azul. Então começou:
"Obviamente", disse ela, "não vou afirmar que acredito ou não em fantasmas, falo apenas do que vi. Não consigo explicar. Não finjo que posso porque não posso. Se você puder, muito que bem; ficarei feliz porque isso não me atormentará mais como tem atormentado. Desde então, não houve um único dia ou noite em que não me arrepiei toda ao rememorar o que houve."
"Parece uma sensação horrível" disse a sra. Emerson.
"E não é? Bem, aconteceu quando eu era jovem e morava em East Wilmington. No primeiro ano em que vivi lá. Você sabe, eu havia perdido toda a minha família cinco anos antes. Eu te contei."
A sra. Emerson assentiu.
"Bem, fui para lecionar na escola e morei com a sra. Amelia Dennison e sua irmã, a sra. Bird. Abby, seu nome era Abby Bird. Era viúva e não teve filhos. Ela possuía algum dinheiro — a sra. Dennison não tinha nada — e havia comprado a casa onde moravam em East Wilmington. Era uma casa muito bonita, apesar de bastante velha e desgastada. Custou caro para a sra. Bird deixá-la em boas condições. Acho que esse foi o motivo de me convidarem para morar com elas. Acho que consideraram que isso ajudaria nas despesas. Acho que o que eu pagava pelo quarto manteve nossas barrigas cheias. A sra. Bird tinha o suficiente para viver se fossem cuidadosas, mas ela gastou tanto consertando a velha casa que passaram um aperto por algum tempo.
"Enfim, elas me acolheram e eu me considerei sortuda. Meu quarto era grande e iluminado, muito agradável e bem decorado com papel de parede e pintura novas, tudo muito limpo e encerado. A sra. Dennison era uma das melhores cozinheiras que conheci. Eu tinha um pequeno aquecedor a lenha no meu quarto e sempre estava aceso quando eu chegava da escola. Nunca havia vivido num lugar tão agradável desde que perdera meu lar. Isso durou três semanas.
"Eu estava lá há três semanas quando ocorreu. Acho que vinha ocorrendo desde que elas chegaram na casa, mais de quatro meses antes. Elas não falaram sobre isso e eu entendo, porque haviam acabado de comprar a casa e foi um sacrifício deixá-la em boas condições.
"Bem, fui para lá em setembro. Comecei na escola na primeira segunda-feira. Lembro que foi um outono muito frio, e na metade do mês estava geando, então tive que usar meu casaco de inverno. Lembro-me de quando cheguei em casa naquela noite (deixe-me pensar, comecei na escola numa segunda-feira, e aconteceu duas semanas depois da quinta-feira seguinte), tirei o casaco no térreo e pendurei na chapeleira da entrada. Era um ótimo casaco — tecido preto grosso, adornado com pele, bastante pesado; eu já o possuía no último inverno. Enquanto eu subia pela escada, a sra. Bird chamou minha atenção dizendo que eu não deveria deixá-lo na entrada pois alguém poderia roubá-lo, mas eu apenas ri e disse-lhe que não se preocupasse. Nunca fui de ter medo de ladrões.
"Enfim, embora mal passasse da metade de setembro, a noite estava muito fria. Lembro que meu quarto tinha janela para o oeste. O sol descia e o céu estava um roxo e amarelo desbotados, como se vê às vezes no inverno quando uma onda de frio está chegando. Acho que foi naquela noite que geou pela primeira vez. Sei que a sra. Dennison cobriu algumas flores que ela cultivava no jardim da frente. Lembro-me de ver um velho xale verde xadrez sobre o canteiro de verbenas. Meu pequeno aquecedor estava aceso. Sei que a sra. Bird o preparara. Ela era muito maternal, ficava satisfeita sempre que podia fazer algo para deixar outras pessoas felizes e confortáveis. A sra. Dennison me disse que ela sempre fora assim. Disse que ela mimara o marido até o último suspiro dele. ‘É uma sorte que Abby nunca tenha tido filhos’, ela disse, ‘porque os teria estragado’.
"Bem, naquela noite, sentei-me ao lado do meu pequeno aquecedor e comi uma maçã. Havia um prato maçãs deliciosas na minha mesa. A sra. Bird o colocara lá. Sempre gostei muito de maçãs. Bem, sentei-me e comi uma maçã e estava me sentindo muito bem e pensando em como era sortuda por viver com pessoas tão boas num lugar tão bom, quando ouvi um barulhinho esquisito na porta. Era um som hesitante que parecia mais um apalpar do que uma batida, como se alguém muito tímido, com mãos muito pequenas, estivesse alisando a porta, sem coragem de bater. Por um minuto pensei que fosse um camundongo. Fiquei atenta e ouvi novamente e então presumi que era uma batida muito contida, então eu disse: ‘Entre’.
"Mas ninguém entrou, e logo ouvi novamente a batida. Então me levantei para abrir a porta, achando aquilo muito estranho, e fiquei assustada sem saber o porquê.
"Bem, eu abri a porta e a primeira coisa que notei foi uma brisa gelada, como se a porta da frente estivesse aberta, mas havia um cheiro estranho na brisa. Não parecia ser o cheiro de ar livre, mas sim de um porão fechado há anos. Então eu vi uma coisa. Primeiro vi meu casaco. A coisa que o segurava era tão pequena que estava oculta atrás dele. Então vi um rostinho branco com olhos tão assustados e ansiosos que seriam capazes de abrir um buraco no coração de alguém. Era um rostinho horrível, diferente de qualquer outro na terra, mas que causava pena, por isso não me apavorou. Duas mãozinhas roxas de frio seguravam meu casaco e uma voz estranha e longe disse: ‘Não consigo encontrar minha mãe’.
"‘Pelo amor de Deus’", eu disse, 'quem é você?'
"Então a vozinha falou outra vez: 'Não consigo encontrar minha mãe.'
"Durante todo o tempo eu sentia o frio que emanava da criança. Aquela friagem estava agarrada a ela como se ela tivesse saído de algum lugar mortalmente gelado. Bem, peguei meu casaco, não sabia o que fazer, e ele estava congelado como se tivesse sido retirado do gelo. Sem o casaco na frente, pude ver melhor a criança. Ela estava vestida com uma peça de roupa branca muito simples. Uma camisola muito longa que cobria até os pés, fina o suficiente para revelar o pequeno corpo magro e arroxeado de frio. O rosto não parecia tão frio e estava branco como cera. Seu cabelo era escuro, mas parecia assim porque estava muito úmido, quase molhado, e talvez fosse claro. Cobria toda a testa redonda e branca. Ela seria bonita se não estivesse tão aterrorizante.
"'Quem é você?' perguntei novamente.
"Ela me encarou com seus terríveis olhos suplicantes e não disse nada.
"'O que você é?' eu disse. Então ela se afastou. Não correu ou andou como uma criança qualquer. Ela flutuou como uma daquelas pequenas borboletas brancas que não parecem reais e são tão leves que parecem não ter peso algum. Mas ela olhou para trás quando estava no topo da escada. ‘Não consigo encontrar minha mãe’, disse ela. Nunca ouvi uma voz como aquela.
"‘Quem é a sua mãe?’, perguntei, mas ela desapareceu.
"Bem, por um instante pensei que desmaiaria. O quarto escureceu e ouvi um assovio. Então joguei o casaco na cama. Minhas mãos estavam congelando por segurá-lo. Fiquei escorada na porta e chamei primeiro pela sra. Bird, depois pela sra. Dennison. Não me atrevi a descer as escadas para saber onde aquilo tinha ido. Senti que ficaria louca se não visse outras pessoas de verdade. Pensei em não contar a ninguém, mas então eu as ouvi andando lá embaixo e senti o cheiro de biscoitos sendo assados para a ceia. De alguma forma, o cheiro desses biscoitos foi a única coisa normal que manteve minha mente no lugar. Não me atrevi a pisar na escada. Eu só fiquei parada lá e chamei. Finalmente ouvi a porta da frente abrir e a sra. Bird responder:
"'O que há? Você chamou, senhorita Arms?
"‘Subam, subam aqui o mais rápido possível, as duas', gritei, 'rápido, rápido, rápido!'
"Ouvi a sra. Bird dizer à sra. Dennison: 'Venha rápido, Amelia, algo está acontecendo no quarto da senhorita Arms'. Ocorreu-me que ela se expressou de maneira peculiar. E de fato me pareceu muito estranho quando as duas subiram as escadas e vi que sabiam o que havia ocorrido ou o tipo de coisa que ocorrera.
"‘O que há, querida?' perguntou a sra. Bird, e sua voz carinhosa estava tensa. Vi ambas se entreolhando.
"’Pelo amor de Deus’, eu disse, e nunca havia falado assim antes — ‘pelo amor de Deus, o que era essa coisa que trouxe meu casaco para o andar de cima?’
"’Com o que se parecia?’, perguntou a sra. Dennison com a voz falhando. Ambas se entreolharam novamente.
"’Uma criança que eu nunca havia visto. Parecia uma criança’, eu disse, ‘mas nunca vi uma criança assim tão horrível. Usava uma camisola e disse que não conseguia encontrar sua mãe. Quem era? O que era?’
"Pensei que a sra. Dennison iria desmaiar, mas a sra. Bird segurou e esfregou suas mãos, e sussurrou em seu ouvido com sua voz suave de rolinha. Então corri para pegar um copo de água. Eu lhe digo, precisei de muita coragem para descer as escadas sozinha, felizmente elas haviam deixado uma lamparina na mesa da entrada, então eu podia ver onde pisava. Nada me faria descer as escadas no escuro imaginando que essa criança poderia estar ao meu lado. A lamparina e o cheiro dos biscoitos assando mantiveram minha coragem, mas digo-lhe que não desci as escadas com sem pressa. Eu saltei os degraus como se a casa estivesse em chamas e agarrei a primeira coisa que me deparei e tinha forma de copo. E era um, mas um que havia sido pintado, um presente que a sra. Dennison ganhara da sua turma dominical. Era para ser um vaso de flores.
"Bem, eu o enchi e depois subi depressa. Sentia que a qualquer instante alguma coisa agarraria meu pé. Segurei o copo nos lábios da sra. Dennison, enquanto a sra. Bird sustentava sua cabeça. Ela tomou um bom e longo gole, depois olhou fixamente para o copo.
"’Sim’, eu disse, ‘desculpe-me por pegar logo esse copo, era o que estava à mão, mas também acho que não tem problema usá-lo.’
"’Não molhe os desenhos’, disse a sra. Dennison com voz débil, ‘vai borrar.’
"’Terei cuidado’, eu disse. Eu sabia que ela gostava daquele copo pintado.
"A água pareceu lhe fazer bem porque ela se desvencilhou da sra. Bird e sentou-se. Esteve prostrada em minha cama até então.
"’Estou bem agora’, disse ela, mas estava terrivelmente pálida e com olhos vidrados. A sra. Bird não parecia muito melhor, mas sempre mantinha um ar doce e otimismo inabalável. Eu sabia que eu estava horrível porque vi meu reflexo irreconhecível no copo.
"A sra. Dennison ergueu-se da cama e cambaleou até a cadeira. "Fui tola ao ignorar o que acontece", disse ela.
"'Não, você não foi tola, irmã'", disse a sra. Bird. ‘Estou tão confusa quanto você, mas seja lá o que for isso, ninguém tem culpa por não conseguir lidar com algo tão estranho e além da nossa compreensão.’
"A sra. Dennison olhou para a irmã, depois para mim e novamente para a irmã. Então a sra. Bird falou como se estive respondendo uma pergunta.
"'Sim', disse ela, 'acho que a senhorita Arms deve ficar a par do que sabemos.'
"‘Não é muita coisa,' disse a sra. Dennison num suspiro profundo. Parecia que ia desmaiar novamente a qualquer momento. Era uma mulher delicada, mas acabou se mostrando muito mais forte que a pobre sra. Bird.
"‘De fato, não sabemos quase nada,' disse a sra. Bird, ‘mas ela merece saber esse pouco que sabemos. Desde sua chegada senti que era nosso dever lhe contar.'
"’Bem, eu não tinha certeza’, disse a Sra. Dennison, ‘e tinha esperanças de que isso cessasse ou nunca a incomodasse. Você se dedicou tanto com esta casa e precisávamos do dinheiro, então tive receio que ela ficasse nervosa e decidisse não vir, e eu não queria ter que aceitar um homem como inquilino.’
"‘Deixando de lado a questão do dinheiro, queríamos muito que você viesse, querida’, disse a sra. Bird.
"‘Sim’, disse a sra. Dennison, ‘queríamos uma jovem companheira; estávamos solitárias e imediatamente gostamos muito de você quando a conhecemos.’
"Eu acho que as duas estavam sendo sinceras. Elas eram mulheres maravilhosas e absolutamente gentis comigo. Nunca as culpei por não terem me contado antes e, como disseram, não havia muito o que contar.
"Elas haviam acabado de comprar a casa e se mudar quando começaram a ver e ouvir coisas. A sra. Bird disse que, numa certa noite, estavam sentadas na sala quando ouviram pela primeira vez. Disse que a irmã rendava (a sra. Dennison fazia lindas rendas de malha) enquanto ela lia o Missionary Herald (a sra. Bird estava muito interessada em trabalho missionário), quando de repente escutaram algo. Ela percebeu primeiro e largou o Missionary Herald para prestar atenção. Depois, a sra. Dennison viu a estranheza da irmã e ficou curiosa. ‘O que foi, Abby?’, disse ela. Então o ruído se repetiu e as duas ouviram e sentiram um arrepio na espinha, embora não soubessem o porquê. ‘Não é o gato?’, disse a sra. Bird.
"‘Não é gato nenhum’, disse a sra. Dennison.
"‘Ah, acho que deve ser o gato, talvez tenha pego um camundongo’, disse animada a sra. Bird, tentando tranquilizar a sra. Dennison, pois viu que ela estava apavorada e a ponto de desmaiar. Então ela abriu a porta e chamou: ‘Gatinho, gatinho, gatinho!’ Elas trouxeram seu gato quando foram morar em East Wilmington. Era um lindo gato macho tigrado, muito esperto.
"Bem, ela chamou ‘Gatinho, gatinho, gatinho!’ e logo o gatinho veio. Quando parou na porta deu um grande miado choroso que não soou diferente do som que elas tinham ouvido.
"‘Viu, irmã, aí está ele’, disse a sra. Bird. ‘Pobrezinho!’
"Mas a sra. Dennison olhou para o gato e gritou.
"‘O que é aquilo? O que é aquilo?’, disse ela.
"‘Aquilo o quê?’, disse a sra. Bird, se negando a ver o que sua irmã apontava.
"‘Algo está segurando o rabo dele’, disse a sra. Dennison. ‘Algo pegou seu rabo. Está puxando-o e ele não consegue escapar. Ouça como ele chora!’
"‘Não há nada’, disse a sra. Bird, ao mesmo tempo em que já podia ver uma mãozinha segurando a cauda do animal, e então a criança começou a surgir claramente na escuridão atrás da mão. E naquela ocasião ela ria, ao invés de parecer triste, e isso era muito pior. Ela disse que aquela risada foi a coisa mais terrível e triste que ela já ouviu.
"Bem, ela ficou tão aturdida que não soube o que fazer. Não percebeu a princípio que era algo sobrenatural. Pensou que a criança fosse um dos filhos do vizinho, que escapulira de casa e veio importunar-lhes o gato. E os pais deveriam estar preocupados. E então falou com ar de censura.
"‘Você não sabe que não se deve puxar a cauda de um gato?’, disse ela. ‘Não sabe que pode machucá-lo e ele pode arranhar se não tomar cuidado? Pobrezinho, não o machuque.’
"E ela disse que com isso a criança parou de puxar o rabo do animal e passou a acariciá-lo. O bichano se envergou todo e ronronou, parecendo gostar. Em nenhum momento o gato aparentou medo e isso é estranho, pois sempre ouvi falarem que os animais tinham medo de fantasmas. Quer dizer que aquele era um pequeno exemplar de fantasma bastante inofensivo.
"Bem, a sra. Bird disse que a criança acariciou aquele gato enquanto as duas abraçadas a observavam, pois, por mais que tentassem pensar que estava tudo bem, nada parecia certo. Por fim a sra. Dennison falou.
"‘Qual é o seu nome, mocinha?’, disse ela.
"Então a criança parou de afagar o gato, olhou para elas e disse que não conseguia encontrar a mãe, do mesmo jeito que falou comigo. Então a sra. Dennison se sobressaltou tanto que a sra. Bird pensou que ela desmaiaria. ‘E quem é a sua mãe?’, disse ela. Mas a criança apenas repetiu ‘Não consigo encontrar minha mãe — Não consigo encontrar minha mãe.’
"‘Onde você mora, querida?’, disse a sra. Bird.
"‘Não consigo encontrar minha mãe’, disse a menina.
"Bem, foi assim. Não saiu disso. Aquelas duas mulheres ficaram ali, abraçadas uma à outra e a criança na frente delas. Elas perguntaram muitas coisas e tudo o que a menina dizia era: ‘Não consigo encontrar minha mãe.’
"Então, a sra. Bird tentou segurar a criança, pois, apesar do que viu, talvez estivesse nervosa e fosse uma criança de verdade, talvez com problemas mentais, que fugira da cama depois de ter sido colocada para dormir.
"Ela tentou pegar a criança. Pretendia enrolar a menina num xale e sair — era uma coisinha tão pequena que a sra. Bird poderia tê-la carregado com bastante facilidade — para descobrir a qual dos vizinhos ela pertencia. Mas no minuto em que ela se moveu em direção à criança, não havia mais nenhuma criança lá; apenas aquela vozinha parecendo vir de lugar nenhum dizendo ‘Não consigo encontrar minha mãe’, e depois mais nada.
"Bem, variações da mesma coisa continuaram a se repetir. De vez em quando a sra. Bird estava lavando louça e de repente a criança estava a seu lado, secando-a com o pano de prato. Claro, isso foi terrível. A sra. Bird lavava tudo de novo. Às vezes, ela não contava para a sra. Dennison, pois isso a deixava muito apreensiva. Às vezes, quando elas faziam um bolo o encontram depois sem as uvas passas em cima, e em outras vezes encontravam gravetos queimados em volta do fogão. Elas nunca sabiam quando se deparariam com aquela criança, e ela sempre repetia que não conseguia encontrar a mãe. Não tentavam mais conversar com ela, mas às vezes a sra. Bird se desesperava e fazia-lhe perguntas, mas a menina não parecia ouvir e sempre dizia a mesma coisa.
"Depois que me contaram tudo sobre suas experiências com a criança, elas falaram sobre a casa e as pessoas que haviam vivido lá. Aparentemente algo terrível havia acontecido naquela casa e o vendedor omitira. Eu acho que elas não teriam comprado a propriedade se soubessem antes, por mais barata que fosse. Mesmo que não tenham medo de nada, as pessoas não querem morar em casas onde ocorreram essas coisas terríveis que ficam na sua cabeça. Sei que eu não deveria ter passado outra noite lá depois do que elas me contaram, mesmo estando tranquila e perfeitamente acomodada, além de gostar muito delas, mas não parti. Claro, esse evento não ocorreu no meu quarto. Se tivesse, eu não conseguiria ficar."
"O que houve?" perguntou a sra. Emerson, aterrorizada.
"Foi uma coisa horrível. Aquela criança havia vivido com seus pais ali dois anos antes. Eles vinham — ou o pai — de uma família abastada. Ele tinha um ótimo emprego como representante de uma grande fábrica de couro da cidade e a família vivia muito bem, sem nada que lhes faltasse. Mas a mãe era uma mulher má. Ela era linda como uma pintura e disseram que vinha de uma boa família de Boston, mas tinha má fama, apesar de ser educada e bem quista por quase todos. Se vestia bem e era uma grande artista, mas não era uma boa e cuidadosa mãe. As pessoas começaram a dizer que a criança não era bem tratada.
"A mulher tinha dificuldade de manter uma empregada. Por algum motivo, nenhuma ficava. Iam embora e depois fofocavam, contando todo tipo de coisa. As pessoas não acreditaram no começo. Disseram que a mulher pôs aquela pobrezinha, que não tinha mais de cinco anos e era pequena e pouco desenvolvida para a idade, a fazer a maior parte do trabalho doméstico. Disseram que a casa parecia um chiqueiro quando ela não tinha ajuda, e que a criança costumava subir numa cadeira para lavar a louça e foi vista muitas vezes carregando lenhas do mesmo tamanho que ela, enquanto a mãe a repreendia. A mulher cantava muito bem, mas era estridente como uma coruja quando xingava a filha.
"O pai estava ausente a maior parte do tempo. Quando esse fato ocorreu, estava há algumas semanas em viagem ao oeste. Havia um homem casado rodeando a mulher ultimamente, e as pessoas comentavam, mas não tinham certeza de que havia algo errado. O homem era rico e de posição, então ninguém disse nada por medo de represálias, e é claro que ninguém tinha certeza, mas depois falaram que o pai da criança deveria ter sido informado.
"Mas é fácil falar depois que tudo se passou. Antes não teria sido fácil encontrar quem se dispusesse a contar uma coisa dessas ao pai, especialmente sem haver provas. Ele adorava a mulher. Disseram que tudo o que ele fazia era ganhar dinheiro para comprar coisas para embelezá-la. E ele adorava a criança também. Disseram que ele era um bom homem. Homens que são tão maltratados geralmente são bons homens. Sempre notei isso.
"Bem, numa determinada manhã, o tal homem casado, que era alvo de rumores, desapareceu. Ele já estava ausente há tempos quando perceberam. Partiu dizendo à esposa que iria a Nova York à negócios e que poderia demorar uma semana ou mais, e que não se preocupasse caso ele não escrevesse porque acabaria pegando o próximo trem para casa a qualquer momento. Então a esposa esperou e tentou não se preocupar, nisso passaram-se dias. Finalmente a mulher foi a um vizinho e desmaiou desesperada. Investigaram e descobriram que ele havia feito empréstimos e fugido.
"Então começaram a se perguntar onde estava aquela mulher e descobriram que ninguém a tinha visto desde o sumiço do homem, mas três ou quatro mulheres se lembraram de que ela lhes dissera que pensava em levar a criança até Boston para visitar seus pais. Por isso quando viram a casa fechada concluíram que ela tinha ido para lá. Essas mulheres eram vizinhas, mas não eram próximas, e estranharam que ela fizesse questão de comunicar seus planos de ir a Boston.
"Bem, então havia esta casa fechada, a criança, o homem e a mulher desaparecidos. Então, de repente, uma das vizinhas se lembrou de uma coisa. Lembrou-se de ter acordado três noites seguidas com a impressão de ouvir uma criança chorar. Numa das vezes acordou o marido e ele disse que devia ser a menininha dos Bisbees e ela concordou. A criança não andava bem e vivia chorando. Costumava ter crises de cólica, especialmente à noite. Então ela havia esquecido disso até então. Contou o que ouvira e finalmente as pessoas resolveram que era melhor entrar na casa e ver se havia algo errado.
"Bem, eles entraram. Encontraram a criança morta, trancada num dos quartos. (A sra. Dennison e a sra. Bird nunca usaram aquele quarto, ficava no fundo do segundo andar.)
"Sim, eles encontraram aquela pobre criança ali, morta pela fome e pelo frio, embora não tivessem certeza de que ela havia morrido de frio, pois estava na cama com roupas suficientes para mantê-la aquecida. Mas ela esteve lá por uma semana e estava só pele e osso. Aparentemente a mãe a trancara antes de partir e lhe disse para não fazer barulho por medo de que os vizinhos a ouvissem e descobrissem que ela havia partido.
"A sra. Dennison disse que não acreditava que a mulher pretendesse matar a menina de fome. Provavelmente pensou que a pequena chamaria atenção e seria encontrada. Bem, seja lá o que ela tenha planejado, ali estava a criança, morta.
"Mas não terminou aí. Nesse interim o pai voltou de viagem. A criança acabara de ser enterrada e ele perdeu a cabeça. Seguiu o rastro da esposa. Quando a encontrou, matou-a a tiros. Saiu em todos os jornais da época. Depois ele desapareceu e nunca mais se soube dele. A sra. Dennison disse que achava que ele havia se suicidado ou fugido do país. Ninguém sabia ao certo. Só sabiam que havia algo errado com a casa.
"'Eu percebi o estranhamento das pessoas quando eu disse que gostei daqui quando viemos pela primeira vez', disse a sra. Dennison, 'mas só entendi depois de ver a criança naquela noite.'
"Nunca tinha ouvido nada parecido em toda a minha vida," disse a sra. Emerson, encarando a outra mulher com olhar aterrorizado.
"Eu imaginei que você diria isso", disse a sra. Meserve. "Minha indisposição em falar amenidades quando ouço que há algo estranho em alguma casa não vai mais lhe causar surpresa, não é?"
"Não, não depois de hoje," disse a sra. Emerson.
"Mas isso não é tudo", disse a sra. Meserve.
"Você viu aquilo de novo?" A sra. Emerson perguntou.
"Sim, várias vezes antes da última vez. Ter permanecido lá sem me desesperar e partir foi muita sorte, por mais que gostasse do lugar e dessas duas mulheres maravilhosas. Eu as amava. Espero que a sra. Dennison venha me visitar algum dia.
"Bem, eu fiquei e nunca sabia quando veria de novo aquela criança. Fui cuidadosa em trazer para o meu quarto tudo o que era meu e não deixar nenhuma tarefa inacabada. Tinha medo que ela aparecesse arrastando meu casaco, chapéu ou luvas ou encontrasse algum trabalho para realizar. Não consigo descrever meu medo de encontrá-la, e o que é pior, ouvi-la dizer "Não consigo encontrar minha mãe". Só de imaginar meu sangue congela. Nunca ouvi uma criança viva chorar pela mãe tão lamentavelmente como aquela criança morta. Era de partir o coração.
"A sra. Bird era quem mais a via e escutava seu lamento. Uma vez ouvi a sra. Bird dizer que se perguntava se o fato de a coitadinha não encontrar sua mãe no outro mundo era porque ela fora uma mulher muito má.
"Mas a sra. Dennison disse a ela que não falasse isso e nem sequer pensasse nisso, e a sra. Bird concordou. A sra. Bird sempre foi muito ingênua. Tinha um bom coração e se desdobrava toda para ajudar a todos. Vivia para isso. Não acho que aquele pobre fantasma a assustava. Ela se compadecia e ficava com o coração partido por não poder fazer nada, já que só seria possível se fosse uma criança viva.
"Certa vez eu a ouvi desabafar: 'Sinto que vou morrer se não puder tirar dela aquela horrível camisola branca, vesti-la, alimentá-la e fazer com que pare de procurar a mãe.' Disse isso chorando. Isso aconteceu um pouco antes dela morrer.
"Agora chegamos na parte mais estranha de tudo isso. A sra. Bird morreu inesperadamente. Numa manhã — era sábado e não havia escola — desci as escadas para tomar o café da manhã e a sra. Bird não estava na cozinha. Quando entrei, a sra. Dennison estava passando o café. ‘E a sra. Bird?' digo eu.
"‘Abby não se sente bem nesta manhã’, diz ela, ‘nada para se preocupar, penso eu, mas ela não dormiu muito bem e está friorenta e com dor de cabeça. Eu lhe disse que seria melhor ficar na cama até que a casa esquentasse.’ A manhã estava muito fria naquele dia.
"‘Talvez esteja resfriada’, digo eu.
"‘Sim, acho que está’, diz a sra. Dennison. ‘Deve ser isso mesmo. Logo estará em pé de novo. Abby não é do tipo que fica na cama um minuto a mais do que o necessário.’
"Bem, enquanto tomávamos nosso café da manhã, subitamente uma sombra passou pela parede e o teto da sala, como às vezes ocorria quando alguém passava lá fora na frente da janela. Ambas olhamos para cima e depois para a janela, então a sra. Dennison grita.
"‘Abby está louca! diz ela. ‘Ela está lá fora nesta manhã terrivelmente fria, e com a... com a...’ - Ela não terminou, mas se referia à criança. Vimos claramente a sra. Abby Bird caminhando na neve segurando firme a mão daquela menina, que estava tão aninhada a ela como se tivesse enfim encontrado sua mamãe.
"‘Ela está morta’, diz a sra. Dennison, apertando minhas mãos com força. ‘Ela está morta! Minha irmã está morta!’
"E estava. Subimos as escadas correndo. Ela estava deitada em sua cama, sorrindo como se sonhasse. Um braço estava estendido como se estivesse segurando algo. E não pôde ser endireitado, ficou estendido no caixão durante o funeral."
"A criança foi vista de novo?", perguntou a sra. Emerson com um tremor na voz.
"Não", respondeu a sra. Meserve, "aquela criança nunca mais foi vista depois de sair da casa com a sra. Bird."
At Chrighton Abbey
Mary Elizabeth Braddon
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 4 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, t 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 agree able 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. J 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 any one 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. Wit 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, wit 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.
A haunted house
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . . ” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
Uma casa assombrada
Qualquer que tenha sido a hora em que você acordou, uma porta era fechada. De cômodo em cômodo, de mãos dadas, erguendo aqui, abrindo ali, eles examinam. Um casal de espectros.
“Deixamos aqui”, ela disse. E ele acrescentou “Ah, mas aqui também!”. “Está lá em cima”, ela murmurou. “E no jardim”, ele sussurrou. “Shhh”, ambos falaram, “ou vamos acordá-los”.
Mas não foi assim que vocês nos despertaram. Ah, não. “Eles procuram algo; eles estão abrindo a cortina”, diria um e leria uma página ou duas. “Agora encontraram”, afirmaria outro, descansando o lápis na margem. E então, cansado da leitura, aquele poderia levantar-se e ver por si mesmo que a casa estava vazia, as portas permaneciam abertas; somente os pombos arrulhando satisfeitos e o zumbido da colheitadeira vindo da fazenda. “Para quê vim aqui? O que eu queria encontrar?” Minhas mãos estavam vazias. “Talvez esteja lá em cima, então?” As maçãs estão no sótão. E então para baixo de novo, o jardim do mesmo jeito, apenas o livro que escorregara para a grama.
Mas eles haviam encontrado na sala de visitas. Não que pudessem ser vistos. As vidraças da janela refletiam maçãs, refletiam rosas; todas as folhas estavam verdes na vidraça. Se eles se movessem pela sala, a maçã só mostraria seu lado amarelado. No entanto, se a porta fosse aberta no momento seguinte, espalhada pelo chão, pendurada nas paredes, pendendo do teto--o quê? Minhas mãos estavam vazias. A sombra de um sabiá passou pelo tapete; o pombo extraiu seu borbulhar das profundezas do silêncio. “Salvo, salvo, salvo,” o pulso da casa bate com suavidade. “O tesouro enterrado; a sala...” a batida se detém. Ah, era esse o tesouro enterrado?
A luz enfraqueceu após um instante. Lá fora, no jardim, então? Mas as árvores laçavam com a sombra um raio de sol perdido. Tão belo, tão raro, calmamente submergiu o raio que eu sempre desejei que queimasse do outro lado da vidraça. A morte era a vidraça; morte entre nós; primeiro para a mulher, centenas de anos atrás, saindo da casa, cerrando todas as janelas, os quartos escureceram. Ele partiu, perdeu-a, foi para o norte, foi para o leste, viu as estrelas invertidas do céu meridional; desejou a casa, encontrou-a caída ao pé dos Downs. [pode estar se referindo as duas faixas de colinas no sudeste da Inglaterra que percorrem 160 km a do norte e 105 km a do sul de oeste para leste] “Salvo, salvo, salvo,” o pulso da casa bate com satisfação. “A sua Preciosa.”
A ventania ruge pela rua. Árvores balançam e se curvam para lá e para cá. O luar se derrama e salpica na chuva. Mas a luz do castiçal cai diretamente através da janela. A vela queima inflexível e imóvel. Vagando pela casa, abrindo as janelas, sussurrando para não nos acordar, o casal fantasmagórico persegue sua alegria.
“Dormíamos aqui,” ela diz. E ele acrescenta, “Beijos sem fim.” “Despertando na manhã--” “O prateado entre as árvores--” “No andar superior--” “No jardim—” “Quando veio o verão--” “Nevando no inverno--” Ao longe, as portas vão se fechando, batendo suavemente como um coração.
Eles se aproximam; param na soleira. O vento abranda, a chuva prateada escorre pela vidraça. Nossos olhos nublam; não ouvimos passos ao nosso lado; não vemos nenhuma dama balançando seu manto fantasmagórico. Suas mãos protegem a lanterna. “Veja,” ele expira. Sono profundo. Ternura em seus lábios.”
Inclinando-se, seguram sua lanterna prateada sobre nós, observam com intensidade e por um longo tempo. Demoram imóveis. Uma rajada de vento; a chama inclina-se um pouco. Listras arredias de luar percorrem o assoalho e a parede, e, encontrando, maculam os rostos curvados; os rostos que ponderam; os rostos que sondam os que dormem e almejam sua felicidade oculta.
“Salvo, salvo, salvo,” o coração da casa bate com altivez. “Longos anos--” ele suspira. “Você me encontrou outra vez.” “Aqui,” ela murmura, “dormindo; lendo no jardim; rindo, empilhando maçãs no sótão. Deixamos o nosso tesouro aqui—” Inclinando-se, sua luz ergue minhas pálpebras. “Salvo! salvo! salvo!” o pulso da casa bate com violência. Acordando, choro “Ah, esse é o seu tesouro enterrado? A luz no coração.”