Bill heard no more words; but as he left the grounds the laughter of the young gentleman rang out into the road.
What did it all mean?
"The night was now pitmirk; the wind soughed amid the headstones and railings of the gentry (for we all must die), and the black corbies in the steeple-holes cackled and crawed in a fearsome manner."
Bill was early at the night-school. No other of his class had arrived, so he took the corner by the fire, sacred to first-comers, and watched the gradual gathering of the school. Presently Master Arthur appeared, and close behind him came his friend. Mr. Bartram Lindsay looked more attractive now than he had done in the garden. When standing, he was an elegant though plain-looking young man, neat in his dress, and with an admirable figure. He was apt to stand very still and silent for a length of time, and had a habit of holding his chin up in the air, which led some people to say that he "held himself very high." This was the opinion that Bill had formed, and he was rather alarmed by hearing Master Arthur pressing his friend to take his class instead of the more backward one, over which the gardener usually presided; and he was proportionably relieved when Mr. Bartram steadily declined.
"To say the truth, Bartram," said the young gentleman, "I am much obliged to you, for I am used to my own boys, and prefer them."
Then up came the schoolmaster.
"Mr. Lindsay going to take John's class? Thank you, sir. I've put out the books; if you want anything else, sir, p'raps you'll mention it. When they have done reading, perhaps, sir, you will kindly draft them off for writing, and take the upper classes in arithmetic, if you don't object, sir."
Mr. Lindsay did not object.
"If you have a picture or two," he said. "Thank you. Know their letters? All right. Different stages of progression. Very good. I've no doubt we shall get on together."
"Between ourselves, Bartram," whispered Master Arthur into his friend's ear, "the class is composed of boys who ought to have been to school, and haven't; or who have been, and are none the better for it. Some of them can what they call 'read in the Testament,' and all of them confound b and d when they meet with them. They are at one point of general information; namely, they all know what you have just told them, and will none of them know it by next time. I call it the rag-tag and bob-tail class. John says they are like forced tulips. They won't blossom simultaneously. He can't get them all to one standard of reading."
Mr. Lindsay laughed and said,—
"He had better read less, and try a little general oral instruction. Perhaps they don't remember because they can't understand;"—and the Rector coming in at that moment, the business of the evening commenced.
Having afterwards to cross the school for something, Bill passed the new teacher and his class, and came to the conclusion that they did "get on together," and very well too. The rag-tag and bob-tail shone that night, and afterwards were loud in praises of the lesson.
"It was so clear" and "He was so patient." Indeed, patience was one great secret of Mr. Lindsay's teaching; he waited so long for an answer that he generally got it. His pupils were obliged to exert themselves when there was no hope of being passed over, and everybody was waiting. Finally, Bill's share of the arithmetic lesson converted him to Master Arthur's friend. He was a clever young gentleman, and a kind one too.
The lesson had been so interesting—the clever young gentleman, standing (without his eye-glass) by the blackboard, had been so strict and yet so entertaining, was so obviously competent, and so pleasantly kind, that Bill, who liked arithmetic, and (like all intelligent children) appreciated good teaching, had had no time to think of the Yew-lane Ghost till the lesson was ended. It was not till the hymn began (they always ended the night-school with singing,) that he remembered it. Then, while he was shouting with all his might Bishop Ken's glorious old lines—
"Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,"
he caught Mr. Lindsay's eyes fixed on him, and back came the thoughts of his terrible fright, with a little shame too at his own timidity. Which of us trusts as we should do in the "defence of the Most High"?
Bill lingered as he had done the last time, and went out with the "grown-ups." It had been raining, and the ground was wet and sludgy, though it was fair overhead. The wind was cold too, and Mr. Lindsay began to cough so violently, that Bill felt rather ashamed of taking him so far out of his way, through the damp, chilly lane, and began to wonder whether he could not summon up courage to go alone. The result was, that with some effort he said—
"Please, Mr. Lindsay, sir, I think you won't like to come so far this cold night. I'll try and manage, if you like."
Mr. Lindsay laid one hand on Bill's shoulder, and said quietly—
"No, thank you, my boy, we'll come with you. Thank you, all the same."
"Nevertheless, Bartram," said Master Arthur, "I wish you could keep that cough of yours quiet—it will spoil everything. A boy was eating peppermints in the shade of his copybook this very night. I did box his ears; but I wish I had seized the goodies, they might have kept you quiet."
"Thank you," was the reply, "I abhor peppermint; but I have got some lozenges, if that will satisfy you. And when I smell ghosts, I can smother myself in my pocket-handkerchief."
Master Arthur laughed boisterously.
"We shall smell one if brimstone will do it. I hope he won't set himself on fire, or the scenic effect will be stronger than we bargained for."
This was the beginning of a desultory conversation carried on at intervals between the two young gentlemen, of which, though Bill heard every sentence, he couldn't understand one. He made one effort to discover what Master Arthur was alluding to, but with no satisfactory result as we shall see.
"Please, Master Arthur," he said desperately, "you don't think there'll be two ghosts, do you, sir?"
"I should say," said Master Arthur, so slowly and with such gravity that Bill felt sure he was making fun of him, "I should say, Bill, that if a place is haunted at all there is no limit to the number of ghosts—fifty quite as likely as one.—What do you you say, Bartram?"
"Quite so," said Bartram.
Bill made no further attempts to understand the mystery. He listened, but only grew more and more bewildered at the dark hints he heard, and never understood what it all meant until the end came; when (as is not uncommon) he wondered how he could have been so stupid, and why he had not seen it all from the very first.
They had now reached the turning point, and as they passed into the dark lane, where the wind was shuddering and shivering among the trees, Bill shuddered and shivered too, and felt very glad that the young gentlemen were with him, after all.
Mr. Lindsay pulled out his watch.
"Well?" said his friend.
"Ten minutes to nine."
Then they walked on in silence, Master Arthur with one arm through his friend's, and the one-legged donkey under the other; and Mr. Lindsay with his hand on Bill's shoulder.
"I should like a pipe," said Master Arthur presently; "it's so abominably damp."
"What a fellow you are!" said Mr. Lindsay. "Out of the question! With the wind setting down the lane too! you talk of my cough—which is better, by the bye."
"What a fellow you are!" retorted the other. "Bartram, you are the oddest creature I know. Whatever you take up, you do drive at so. Now I have hardly got a lark afloat before I'm sick of it. I wish you'd tell me two things,—first, why are you so grave to-night? and secondly, what made you take up our young friend's cause so warmly?"
"One answer will serve both questions," said Mr. Lindsay. "The truth is, old fellow, our young friend [and Bill felt certain that the "young friend" was himself] has a look of a little chap I was chum with at school—Regy Gordon. I don't talk about it often, for I can't very well; but he was killed—think of it, man!—killed by such a piece of bullying as this! When they found him, he was quite stiff and speechless; he lived a few hours, but he only said two words,—my name, and amen."
"Amen?" said Master Arthur, inquiringly.
"Well, you see when the surgeon said it was no go, they telegraphed for his friends; but they were a long way off, and he was sinking rapidly; and the old Doctor was in the room, half heart-broken, and he saw Gordon move his hands together, and he said, 'If any boy knows what prayers Gordon minor has been used to say, let him come and say them by him;' and I did. So I knelt by his bed and said them, the old Doctor kneeling too and sobbing like a child; and when I had done, Regy moved his lips and said 'Amen;' and then he said 'Lindsay!' and smiled, and then—"
Master Arthur squeezed his friend's arm tightly, but said nothing, and both the young men were silent; but Bill could not restrain his tears. It seemed the saddest story he had ever heard, and Mr. Lindsay's hand upon his shoulder shook so intolerably while he was speaking, that he had taken it away, which made Bill worse, and he fairly sobbed.
"What are you blubbering about, young 'un?" said Mr. Lindsay. "He is better off than any of us, and if you are a good boy you will see him some day;" and the young gentleman put his hand back again, which was steady now.
"What became of the other fellow?" said Master Arthur.
"He was taken away, of course. Sent abroad, I believe. It was hushed up.—And now you know," added Mr. Lindsay, "why my native indolence has roused itself to get this cad taught a lesson, which many a time I wished to God, when wishes were too late, that that other bully had been taught in time. But no one could thrash him; and no one durst complain. However, let's change the subject, old fellow! I've got over it long since; though sometimes I think the wish to see Regy again helps to keep me a decent sort of fellow. But when I saw the likeness this morning, it startled me; and then to hear the story, it seemed like a dream—the Gordon affair over again. I suppose rustic nerves are tougher; however, your village blackguard shan't have the chance of committing murder if we can cure him!"
"I believe you half wanted to undertake the cure yourself," said Master Arthur.
Mr. Lindsay laughed.
"I did for a minute. Fancy your father's feelings if I had come home with a black eye from an encounter with a pot-house bully! You know I put my foot into a tender secret of your man's, by offering to be the performer!"
Mr. Lindsay lowered his voice, but not so that Bill could not hear what he said, and recognize the imitation of John Gardener.
"He said, 'I'd rather do it, if you please, sir. The fact is, I'm partial to the young woman myself!' After that, I could but leave John to defend his young woman's belongings."
"Gently!" exclaimed Master Arthur. "There is the Yew Walk."
From this moment the conversation was carried on in whispers, to Bill's further mystification. The young gentlemen recovered their spirits, and kept exploding in smothered chuckles of laughter.
"Cold work for him, if he's been waiting long!" whispered one.
"Don't know. His head's under cover remember!" said the other: and they laughed.
"Bet you sixpence he's been smearing his hand with brimstone for the last half hour."
"Don't smell him yet, though."
"He'll be a patent aphis-destroyer in the rose-garden for months to come."
"Sharp work for the eyelids if it gets under the sheet."
They were now close by the Yews, out of which the wind came with a peculiar chill, as if it had been passing through a vault. Mr. Bartram Lindsay stooped down, and whispered in Bill's ear: "Listen, my lad. We can't go down the lane with you, for we want to see the ghost, but we don't want the ghost to see us. Don't be frightened, but go just as usual. And mind—when you see the white figure, point with your own arm towards the Church and scream as loud as you like. Can you do this?"
"Yes, sir," whispered Bill.
"Then off with you. We shall creep quietly on behind the trees; and you shan't be hurt, I promise you."
Bill summoned his courage, and plunged into the shadows. What could be the meaning of Mr. Lindsay's strange orders? Should he ever have courage to lift his arm towards the church in the face of that awful apparition of the murdered man? And if he did, would the unquiet spirit take the hint, and go back into the grave, which Bill knew was at that very corner to which he must point? Left alone, his terrors began to return; and he listened eagerly to see if, amid the ceaseless soughing of the wind among the long yew branches, he could hear the rustle of the young men's footsteps as they crept behind. But he could distinguish nothing. The hish-wishing of the thin leaves was so incessant, the wind was so dexterous and tormenting in the tricks it played and the sounds it produced, that the whole place seemed alive with phantom rustlings and footsteps; and Bill felt as if Master Arthur was right, and that there was "no limit" to the number of ghosts!
At last he could see the end of the avenue. There among the last few trees was the place where the ghost had appeared. There beyond lay the white road, the churchyard corner, and the tall gray tombstone glimmering in the moonlight. A few steps more, and slowly from among the yews came the ghost as before, and raised its long white arm. Bill determined that, if he died for it, he would do as he had been told; and lifting his own hand he pointed towards the tombstone, and gave a shout. As he pointed, the ghost turned round, and then—rising from behind the tombstone, and gliding slowly to the edge of the wall which separated the churchyard from the lower level of the road—there appeared a sight so awful that Bill's shout merged into a prolonged scream of terror.
Truly Master Arthur's anticipations of a "scenic effect" were amply realized. The walls and buttresses of the old Church stood out dark against the sky; the white clouds sailed slowly by the moon, which reflected itself on the damp grass, and shone upon the flat wet tombstones till they looked like pieces of water. It was not less bright upon the upright ones, upon quaint crosses, short headstones, and upon the huge, ungainly memorial of the murdered Ephraim Garnett. But the sight on which it shone that night was the figure now standing by Ephraim Garnett's grave, and looking over the wall. An awful figure, of gigantic height, with ghostly white garments clinging round its headless body, and carrying under its left arm the head that should have been upon its shoulders. On this there was neither flesh nor hair. It seemed to be a bare skull, with fire gleaming through the hollow eye-sockets and the grinning teeth. The right hand of the figure was outstretched as if in warning; and from the palm to the tips of the fingers was a mass of lambent flame. When Bill saw this fearful apparition he screamed with hearty good-will; but the noise he made was nothing to the yell of terror that came from beneath the shroud of the Yew-lane Ghost, who, on catching sight of the rival spectre, flew wildly up the lane, kicking the white sheet off as it went, and finally displaying, to Bill's amazement, the form and features of Bully Tom. But this was not all. No sooner had the first ghost started, than the second (not to be behind-hand) jumped nimbly over the wall and gave chase. But fear had put wings on to Bully Tom's feet; and the second ghost, being somewhat encumbered by his costume, judged it wisdom to stop; and then taking the fiery skull in its flaming hands, shied it with such dexterity that it hit Bully Tom in the middle of his back, and falling on to the wet ground, went out with a hiss. This blow was an unexpected shock to the Bully, who thought the ghost must have come up to him with supernatural rapidity, and falling on his knees in the mud, began to roar most lustily:—
"Lord, have mercy upon me! I'll never do it no more!"
Mr. Lindsay was not likely to alter his opinion on the subject of bullies. This one, like others, was a mortal coward. Like other men, who have no fear of God before their eyes, he made up for it by having a very hearty fear of sickness, death, departed souls, and one or two other things, which the most self-willed sinner knows well enough to be in the hands of a Power which he cannot see, and does not wish to believe in. Bully Tom had spoken the truth when he said that if he thought there was a ghost in Yew-lane he wouldn't go near it. If he had believed the stories with which he had alarmed poor Bill, the lad's evening walk would never have been disturbed, as far as he was concerned. Nothing but his spite against Bessy would have made him take so much trouble to vex the peace, and stop the schooling, of her pet brother; and as it was, the standing alone by the churchyard at night was a position so little to his taste, that he had drunk pretty heavily in the public-house for half an hour before-hand, to keep up his spirits. And now he had been paid back in his own coin, and lay grovelling in the mud, and calling profanely on the Lord, whose mercy such men always cry for in their trouble, if they never ask it for their sins. He was so confused and blinded by drink and fright, that he did not see the second ghost divest himself of his encumbrances, or know that it was John Gardener, till that rosy-cheeked worthy, his clenched hands still flaming with brimstone, danced round him, and shouted scornfully, and with that vehemence of aspiration in which he was apt to indulge when excited;—
"Get hup, yer great cowardly booby, will yer? So you thought you was coming hout to frighten a little lad, did ye? And you met with one of your hown size, did ye? Now will ye get hup and take it like a man, or shall I give it you as ye lie there?"
Bully Tom chose the least of two evils, and staggering to his feet with an oath, rushed upon John. But in his present condition he was no match for the active little gardener, inspired with just wrath and thoughts of Bessy; and he then and there received such a sound thrashing as he had not known since he first arrogated the character of village bully. He was roaring loudly for mercy, and John Gardener was giving him a harmless roll in the mud by way of conclusion, when he caught sight of the two young gentlemen in the lane,—Master Arthur in fits of laughter at the absurd position of the ex-Yew-lane Ghost, and Mr. Lindsay standing still and silent, with folded arms, set lips, and the gold eye-glass on his nose. As soon as he saw them, he began to shout, "Murder! help!" at the top of his voice.
"I see myself," said Master Arthur, driving his hands contemptuously into his pockets,—"I see myself helping a great lout who came out to frighten a child, and can neither defend his own eyes and nose, nor take a licking with a good grace when he deserves it!"
Bully Tom appealed to Mr. Lindsay:—
"Yah! yah!" he howled. "Will you see a man killed for want of help?"
But the clever young gentleman seemed even less inclined to give his assistance.
"Killed!" he said contemptuously; "I have seen a lad killed on such a night as this, by such a piece of bullying! Be thankful you have been stopped in time! I wouldn't raise my little finger to save you from twice such a thrashing. It has been fairly earned! Give the ghost his shroud, Gardener, and let him go; and recommend him not to haunt Yew-lane in future."
John did so, with a few words of parting advice on his own account.
"Be hoff with you," he said. "Master Lindsay, he speaks like a book. You're a disgrace to your hage and sect, you are! I'd as soon fight with an old char-woman.—Though bless you, young gentlemen," he added, as Bully Tom slunk off muttering, "he is the biggest blackguard in the place; and what the Rector'll say, when he comes to know as you've been mingled up with him, passes me."
"He'll forgive us, I dare say," said Master Arthur. "I only wish he could have seen you emerge from behind that stone! It was a sight for a century! I wonder what the youngster thought of it!—Hi, Willie, here, sir! What did you think of the second ghost?"
Bill had some doubts as to the light in which he ought to regard that apparition; but he decided on the simple truth.
"I thought it looked very horrid, sir."
"I should hope it did! The afternoon's work of three able-bodied men has been marvellously wasted if it didn't. However, I must say you halloed out loud enough!"
Bill colored; the more so, as Mr. Lindsay was looking hard at him over the top of his spectacles.
"Don't you feel rather ashamed of all your fright, now you've seen the ghosts without their sheets?" inquired the clever young gentleman.
"Yes, sir," said Bill, hanging his head. "I shall never believe in ghosts again, sir, though."
Mr. Bartram Lindsay took off his glasses and twiddled them in his fingers.
"Well, well," he said in a low hurried voice; "I'm not the parson, and I don't pretend to say what you should believe and what you shouldn't. We know precious little as to how much the spirits of the dead see and know of what they have left behind. But I think you may venture to assure yourself that when a poor soul has passed the waves of this troublesome world, by whatever means, it doesn't come back kicking about under a white sheet in dark lanes, to frighten little boys from going to school."
"And that's very true, sir," said John Gardener, admiringly.
"So it is," said Master Arthur. "I couldn't have explained that myself, Willie; but those are my sentiments; and I beg you'll attend to what Mr. Lindsay has told you."
"Yes, sir," said Bill.
Mr. Lindsay laughed, though not quite merrily, and said,—
"I could tell him something more, Arthur, though he's too young to understand it; namely, that if he lives, the day will come, when he would be only too happy if the dead might come back and hold out their hands to us, anywhere, and for however short a time."
The young gentleman stopped abruptly; and the gardener heaved a sympathetic sigh.
"I tell you what it is, Bartram," muttered Master Arthur, "I suppose I'm too young too, for I've had quite enough of the melancholies for one night. As to you, you're as old as the hills; but it's time you came home; and if I'd known before what you told me to-night, old fellow, you shouldn't have come out on this expedition.—Now, for you, Willie," added the young gentleman, whirling sharply round, "if you're not a pattern Solomon henceforth, it won't be the fault of your friends. And if wisdom doesn't bring you to school after this, I shall try the argument of the one-legged donkey."
"I don't think I shall miss next time, sir."
"I hope you won't.—Now, John, as you've come so far, you may as well see the lad home; but don't shake hands with the family in the present state of your fists, or you might throw somebody into a fit. Good-night!"
Yew-lane echoed a round of "Good-nights," and Bill and the gardener went off in high spirits. As they crossed the road, Bill looked round, and under the trees saw the young gentlemen strolling back to the Rectory, arm in arm. Mr. Bartram Lindsay with his chin high in the air, and Master Arthur vehemently exhorting him on some topic, of which he was pointing the moral with flourishes of the one-legged donkey.
For those who like to know "what became of" everybody, these facts are added:—
The young gentlemen got safely home; and Master Arthur gave such a comical account of their adventure, that the Rector laughed too much to scold them, even if he had wished.
Beauty Bill went up and down Yew-lane on many a moonlight night after this one, but he never saw another ghost, or felt any more fears in connection with Ephraim Garnett. To make matters more entirely comfortable, however, John kindly took to the custom of walking home with the lad after night-school was ended. In return for this attention, Bill's family were apt to ask him in for an hour; and by their fireside he told the story of the two ghosts so often—from the manufacture in the Rectory barn, to the final apparition at the cross-roads—that the whole family declare they feel just as if they had seen it.
Bessy, under the hands of the cheerful doctor, got quite well, and eventually married. As her cottage boasts the finest window plants in the village, it is shrewdly surmised that her husband is a gardener.
Bully Tom talked very loudly for some time of "having the law of" the rival ghost; but finding, perhaps, that the story did not redound to his credit, was unwilling to give it further publicity, and changed his mind.
Winter and summer, day and night, sunshine and moonlight, have passed over the lane and the churchyard, and the wind has had many a ghostly howl among the yews, since poor Bill learnt the story of the murder; but he knows now that the true Ephraim Garnett has never been seen on the cross-roads since a hundred years ago, and will not be till the Great Day.
In the ditch by the side of Yew-lane, shortly after the events I have been describing, a little lad found a large turnip, in which some one had cut eyes, nose and mouth, and put bits of stick for teeth. The turnip was hollow, and inside it was fixed a bit of wax candle. He lighted it up, and the effect was so splendid, that he made a show of it to his companions at the price of a marble each, who were well satisfied. And this was the last of the Yew-lane Ghosts.
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