"A fine morning after the rain," said Mr. Simpkinson from Bath.
"Just the thing for the 'ops," said Mr. Peters. "I remember when I was a boy——"
"Do hold your tongue, P.," said Mrs. Peters—advice which that exemplary matron was in the constant habit of administering to "her P." as she called him, whenever he prepared to vent his reminiscences. Her precise reason for this it would be difficult to determine, unless, indeed, the story be true which a little bird had whispered into Mrs. Botherby's ear—Mr. Peters, though now a wealthy man had received a liberal education at a charity school, and was apt to recur to the days of his muffin-cap and leathers. As usual, he took his wife's hint in good part, and "paused in his reply."
"A glorious day for the ruins!" said young Ingoldsby. "But Charles, what the deuce are you about? you don't mean to ride through our lanes in such toggery as that?"
"Lassy me!" said Miss Julia Simpkinson, "won't yo' be very wet?"
"You had better take Tom's cab," quoth the squire.
But this proposition was at once over-ruled; Mrs. Ogleton had already nailed the cab, a vehicle of all others the best adapted for a snug flirtation.
"Or drive Miss Julia in the phaeton?" No; that was the post of Mr. Peters, who, indifferent as an equestrian, had acquired some fame as a whip while traveling through the midland counties for the firm of Bagshaw, Snivelby, and Ghrimes.
"Thank you, I shall ride with my cousins," said Charles, with as much nonchalance as he could assume—and he did so; Mr. Ingoldsby, Mrs. Peters, Mr. Simpkinson from Bath, and his eldest daughter with her album, following in the family coach. The gentleman-commoner "voted the affair d——d slow," and declined the party altogether in favor of the gamekeeper and a cigar. "There was 'no fun' in looking at old houses!" Mrs. Simpkinson preferred a short sejour in the still-room with Mrs. Botherby, who had promised to initiate her in that grand arcanum, the transmutation of gooseberry jam into Guava jelly.
* * * * *
"Did you ever see an old abbey before, Mrs. Peters?"
"Yes, miss, a French one; we have got one at Ramsgate; he teaches the Miss Joneses to parley-voo and is turned of sixty."
Miss Simpkinson closed her album with an air of ineffable disdain.
Mr. Simpkinson from Bath was a professed antiquary, and one of the first water; he was master of Gwillim's Heraldry, and Mill's History of the Crusades; knew every plate in the Monasticon; had written an essay on the origin and dignity of the office of overseer, and settled the date on a Queen Anne's farthing. An influential member of the Antiquarian Society, to whose "Beauties of Bagnigge Wells" he had been a liberal subscriber, procured him a seat at the board of that learned body, since which happy epoch Sylvanus Urban had not a more indefatigable correspondent. His inaugural essay on the President's cocked hat was considered a miracle of erudition; and his account of the earliest application of gilding to gingerbread, a masterpiece of antiquarian research. His eldest daughter was of a kindred spirit: if her father's mantle had not fallen upon her, it was only because he had not thrown it off himself; she had caught hold of its tail, however, while it yet hung upon his honored shoulders. To souls so congenial, what a sight was the magnificent ruin of Bolsover! its broken arches, its mouldering pinnacles, and the airy tracery of its half-demolished windows. The party were in raptures; Mr. Simpkinson began to meditate an essay, and his daughter an ode: even Seaforth, as he gazed on these lonely relics of the olden time, was betrayed into a momentary forgetfulness of his love and losses; the widow's eye-glass turned from her cicisbeo's whiskers to the mantling ivy; Mrs. Peters wiped her spectacles; and "her P." supposed the central tower "had once been the county jail." The squire was a philosopher, and had been there often before, so he ordered out the cold tongue and chickens.
"Bolsover Priory," said Mr. Simpkinson, with the air of a connoisseur—"Bolsover Priory was founded in the reign of Henry the Sixth, about the beginning of the eleventh century. Hugh de Bolsover had accompanied that monarch to the Holy Land, in the expedition undertaken by way of penance for the murder of his young nephews in the Tower. Upon the dissolution of the monasteries, the veteran was enfeoffed in the lands and manor, to which he gave his own name of Bowlsover, or Bee-owls-over (by corruption Bolsover)—a Bee in chief, over three Owls, all proper, being the armorial ensigns borne by this distinguished crusader at the siege of Acre."
"Ah! that was Sir Sidney Smith," said Mr. Peters; "I've heard tell of him, and all about Mrs. Partington, and——"
"P. be quiet, and don't expose yourself!" sharply interrupted his lady. P. was silenced, and betook himself to the bottled stout.
"These lands," continued the antiquary, "were held in grand serjeantry by the presentation of three white owls and pot of honey——"
"Lassy me! how nice!" said Miss Julia. Mr. Peters licked his lips.
"Pray give me leave, my dear—owls and honey, whenever the king should come a rat-catching into this part of the country."
"Rat-catching!" ejaculated the squire, pausing abruptly in the mastication of a drumstick.
"To be sure, my dear sir; don't you remember the rats came under the forest laws—a minor species of venison? 'Rats and mice, and such small deer,' eh?—Shakespeare, you know. Our ancestors ate rats ('The nasty fellows!' shuddered Miss Julia, in a parenthesis); and owls, you know, are capital mousers——"
"I've seen a howl," said Mr. Peters; "there's one in the Sohological Gardens—a little hook-nosed chap in a wig—only its feathers and——"
Poor P. was destined never to finish a speech.
"Do be quiet!" cried the authoritative voice; and the would-be naturalist shrank into his shell, like a snail in the "Sohological Gardens."
"You should read Blount's Jocular Tenures, Mr. Ingoldsby," pursued Simpkinson. "A learned man was Blount! Why, sir, His Royal Highness the Duke of York once paid a silver horse-shoe to Lord Ferrers——"
"I've heard of him," broke in the incorrigible Peters; "he was hanged at the Old Bailey in a silk rope for shooting Dr. Johnson."
The antiquary vouchsafed no notice of the interruption; but, taking a pinch of snuff, continued his harangue.
"A silver horse-shoe, sir, which is due from every scion of royalty who rides across one of his manors; and if you look into the penny county histories, now publishing by an eminent friend of mine, you will find that Langhale in Co. Norf. was held by one Baldwin per saltum, sufflatum, et pettum; that is, he was to come every Christmas into Westminster Hall, there to take a leap, cry hem! and——"
"Mr. Simpkinson, a glass of sherry?" cried Tom Ingoldsby, hastily.
"Not any, thank you, sir. This Baldwin, surnamed Le——"
"Mrs. Ogleton challenges you, sir; she insists upon it," said Tom still more rapidly, at the same time filling a glass, and forcing it on the scavant, who, thus arrested in the very crisis of his narrative, received and swallowed the potation as if it had been physic.
"What on earth has Miss Simpkinson discovered there?" continued Tom; "something of interest. See how fast she is writing."
The diversion was effectual; every one looked towards Miss Simpkinson, who, far too ethereal for "creature comforts," was seated apart on the dilapidated remains of an altar-tomb, committing eagerly to paper something that had strongly impressed her; the air—the eye in a "fine frenzy rolling"—all betokened that the divine afflarus was come. Her father rose, and stole silently towards her.
"What an old boar!" muttered young Ingoldsby; alluding, perhaps, to a slice of brawn which he had just begun to operate upon, but which, from the celerity with which it disappeared, did not seem so very difficult of mastication.
But what had become of Seaforth and his fair Caroline all this while? Why, it so happened that they had been simultaneously stricken with the picturesque appearance of one of those high and pointed arches, which that eminent antiquary, Mr. Horseley Curties, has described in his Ancient Records, as "a Gothic window of the Saxon order"; and then the ivy clustered so thickly and so beautifully on the other side, that they went round to look at that; and then their proximity deprived it of half its effect, and so they walked across to a little knoll, a hundred yards off, and in crossing a small ravine, they came to what in Ireland they call "a bad step," and Charles had to carry his cousin over it; and then when they had to come back, she would not give him the trouble again for the world, so they followed a better but more circuitous route, and there were hedges and ditches in the way, and stiles to get over and gates to get through, so that an hour or more had elapsed before they were able to rejoin the party.
"Lassy me!" said Miss Julia Simpkinson, "how long you have been gone!"
And so they had. The remark was a very just as well as a very natural one. They were gone a long while, and a nice cosy chat they had; and what do you think it was all about, my dear miss?
"O lassy me! love, no doubt, and the moon, and eyes, and nightingales, and——"
Stay, stay, my sweet young lady; do not let the fervor of your feelings run away with you! I do not pretend to say, indeed, that one or more of these pretty subjects might not have been introduced; but the most important and leading topic of the conference was—Lieutenant Seaforth's breeches.
"Caroline," said Charles, "I have had some very odd dreams since I have been at Tappington."
"Dreams, have you?" smiled the young lady, arching her taper neck like a swan in pluming. "Dreams, have you?"
"Ah, dreams—or dream, perhaps, I should say; for, though repeated, it was still the same. And what do you imagine was its subject?"
"It is impossible for me to divine," said the tongue; "I have not the least difficulty in guessing," said the eye, as plainly as ever eye spoke.
"I dreamt—of your great-grandfather!"
There was a change in the glance—"My great-grandfather?"
"Yes, the old Sir Giles, or Sir John, you told me about the other day: he walked into my bedroom in his short cloak of murrey-colored velvet, his long rapier, and his Raleigh-looking hat and feather, just as the picture represents him; but with one exception."
"And what was that?"
"Why, his lower extremities, which were visible, were those of a skeleton."
"Well, after taking a turn or two about the room, and looking round him with a wistful air, he came to the bed's foot, stared at me in a manner impossible to describe—and then he—he laid hold of my pantaloons; whipped his long bony legs into them in a twinkling; and strutting up to the glass, seemed to view himself in it with great complacency. I tried to speak, but in vain. The effort, however, seemed to excite his attention; for, wheeling about, he showed me the grimmest-looking death's head you can well imagine, and with an indescribable grin strutted out of the room."
"Absurd! Charles. How can you talk such nonsense?"
"But, Caroline—the breeches are really gone."
* * * * *
On the following morning, contrary to his usual custom, Seaforth was the first person in the breakfast parlor. As no one else was present, he did precisely what nine young men out of ten so situated would have done; he walked up to the mantelpiece, established himself upon the rug, and subducting his coat-tails one under each arm, turned towards the fire that portion of the human frame which it is considered equally indecorous to present to a friend or an enemy. A serious, not to say anxious, expression was visible upon his good-humored countenance, and his mouth was fast buttoning itself up for an incipient whistle, when little Flo, a tiny spaniel of the Blenheim breed—the pet object of Miss Julia Simpkinson's affections—bounced out from beneath a sofa, and began to bark at—his pantaloons.
They were cleverly "built," of a light-grey mixture, a broad stripe of the most vivid scarlet traversing each seam in a perpendicular direction from hip to ankle—in short, the regimental costume of the Royal Bombay Fencibles. The animal, educated in the country, had never seen such a pair of breeches in her life—Omne ignotum pro magnifico! The scarlet streak, inflamed as it was by the reflection of the fire, seemed to act on Flora's nerves as the same color does on those of bulls and turkeys; she advanced at the pas de charge, and her vociferation, like her amazement, was unbounded. A sound kick from the disgusted officer changed its character, and induced a retreat at the very moment when the mistress of the pugnacious quadruped entered to the rescue.
"Lassy me! Flo, what is the matter?" cried the sympathizing lady, with a scrutinizing glance leveled at the gentleman.
It might as well have lighted on a feather bed. His air of imperturbable unconsciousness defied examination; and as he would not, and Flora could not, expound, that injured individual was compelled to pocket up her wrongs. Others of the household soon dropped in, and clustered round the board dedicated to the most sociable of meals; the urn was paraded "hissing hot," and the cups which "cheer, but not inebriate," steamed redolent of hyson and pekoe; muffins and marmalade, newspapers, and Finnan haddies, left little room for observation on the character of Charles's warlike "turn-out." At length a look from Caroline, followed by a smile that nearly ripened to a titter, caused him to turn abruptly and address his neighbor. It was Miss Simpkinson, who, deeply engaged in sipping her tea and turning over her album, seemed, like a female Chrononotonthologos, "immersed in cogibundity of cogitation." An interrogatory on the subject of her studies drew from her the confession that she was at that moment employed in putting the finishing touches to a poem inspired by the romantic shades of Bolsover. The entreaties of the company were of course urgent. Mr. Peters, "who liked verses," was especially persevering, and Sappho at length compliant. After a preparatory hem! and a glance at the mirror to ascertain that her look was sufficiently sentimental, the poetess began:—
"There is a calm, a holy feeling, Vulgar minds, can never know, O'er the bosom softly stealing,— Chasten'd grief, delicious woe! Oh! how sweet at eve regaining Yon lone tower's sequester'd shade— Sadly mute and uncomplaining——"
"—Yow!—yeough!—yeough!—yow!—yow!" yelled a hapless sufferer from beneath the table. It was an unlucky hour for quadrupeds; and if "every dog will have his day," he could not have selected a more unpropitious one than this. Mrs. Ogleton, too, had a pet—a favorite pug—whose squab figure, black muzzle, and tortuosity of tail, that curled like a head of celery in a salad-bowl, bespoke his Dutch extraction. Yow! yow! yow! continued the brute—a chorus in which Flo instantly joined. Sooth to say, pug had more reason to express his dissatisfaction than was given him by the muse of Simpkinson; the other only barked for company. Scarcely had the poetess got through her first stanza, when Tom Ingoldsby, in the enthusiasm of the moment, became so lost in the material world, that, in his abstraction, he unwarily laid his hand on the cock of the urn. Quivering with emotion, he gave it such an unlucky twist, that the full stream of its scalding contents descended on the gingerbread hide of the unlucky Cupid. The confusion was complete; the whole economy of the table disarranged—the company broke up in most admired disorder—and "vulgar minds will never know" anything more of Miss Simpkinson's ode till they peruse it in some forthcoming Annual.
Seaforth profited by the confusion to take the delinquent who had caused this "stramash" by the arm, and to lead him to the lawn, where he had a word or two for his private ear. The conference between the young gentlemen was neither brief in its duration nor unimportant in its result. The subject was what the lawyers call tripartite, embracing the information that Charles Seaforth was over head and ears in love with Tom Ingoldsby's sister; secondly, that the lady had referred him to "papa" for his sanction; thirdly, and lastly, his nightly visitations and consequent bereavement. At the two first times Tom smiled suspiciously—at the last he burst out into an absolute "guffaw."
"Steal your breeches! Miss Bailey over again, by Jove," shouted Ingoldsby. "But a gentleman, you say—and Sir Giles, too. I am not sure, Charles, whether I ought not to call you out for aspersing the honor of the family."
"Laugh as you will, Tom—be as incredulous as you please. One fact is incontestable—the breeches are gone! Look here—I am reduced to my regimentals; and if these go, to-morrow I must borrow of you!"
Rochefoucault says, there is something in the misfortunes of our very best friends that does not displease us; assuredly we can, most of us, laugh at their petty inconveniences, till called upon to supply them. Tom composed his features on the instant, and replied with more gravity, as well as with an expletive, which, if my Lord Mayor had been within hearing might have cost him five shillings.
"There is something very queer in this, after all. The clothes, you say, have positively disappeared. Somebody is playing you a trick; and, ten to one, your servant had a hand in it. By the way, I heard something yesterday of his kicking up a bobbery in the kitchen, and seeing a ghost, or something of that kind, himself. Depend upon it, Barney is in the plot."
It now struck the lieutenant at once, that the usually buoyant spirits of his attendant had of late been materially sobered down, his loquacity obviously circumscribed, and that he, the said lieutenant, had actually rung his bell three several times that very morning before he could procure his attendance. Mr. Maguire was forthwith summoned, and underwent a close examination. The "bobbery" was easily explained. Mr. Oliver Dobbs had hinted his disapprobation of a flirtation carrying on between the gentleman from Munster and the lady from the Rue St. Honore. Mademoiselle had boxed Mr. Maguire's ears, and Mr. Maguire had pulled Mademoiselle upon his knee, and the lady had not cried Mon Dieu! And Mr. Oliver Dobbs said it was very wrong; and Mrs. Botherby said it was "scandalous," and what ought not to be done in any moral kitchen; and Mr. Maguire had got hold of the Honorable Augustus Sucklethumbkin's powder-flask, and had put large pinches of the best Double Dartford into Mr. Dobbs's tobacco-box; and Mr. Dobbs's pipe had exploded, and set fire to Mrs. Botherby's Sunday cap; and Mr. Maguire had put it out with the slop-basin, "barring the wig"; and then they were all so "cantankerous," that Barney had gone to take a walk in the garden; and then—then Mr. Barney had seen a ghost.
"A what? you blockhead!" asked Tom Ingoldsby.
"Sure then, and it's meself will tell your honor the rights of it," said the ghost-seer. "Meself and Miss Pauline, sir—or Miss Pauline and meself, for the ladies comes first anyhow—we got tired of the hobstroppylous scrimmaging among the ould servants, that didn't know a joke when they seen one: and we went out to look at the comet—that's the rorybory-alehouse, they calls him in this country—and we walked upon the lawn—and divil of any alehouse there was there at all; and Miss Pauline said it was bekase of the shrubbery maybe, and why wouldn't we see it better beyonst the tree? and so we went to the trees, but sorrow a comet did meself see there, barring a big ghost instead of it."
"A ghost? And what sort of a ghost, Barney?"
"Och, then, divil a lie I'll tell your honor. A tall ould gentleman he was, all in white, with a shovel on the shoulder of him, and a big torch in his fist—though what he wanted with that it's meself can't tell, for his eyes were like gig-lamps, let alone the moon and the comet, which wasn't there at all—and 'Barney,' says he to me—'cause why he knew me—'Barney,' says he, 'what is it you're doing with the colleen there, Barney?'—Divil a word did I say. Miss Pauline screeched, and cried murther in French, and ran off with herself; and of course meself was in a mighty hurry after the lady, and had no time to stop palavering with him any way: so I dispersed at once, and the ghost vanished in a flame of fire!"
Mr. Maguire's account was received with avowed incredulity by both gentlemen; but Barney stuck to his text with unflinching pertinacity. A reference to Mademoiselle was suggested, but abandoned, as neither party had a taste for delicate investigations.
"I'll tell you what, Seaforth," said Ingoldsby, after Barney had received his dismissal, "that there is a trick here, is evident; and Barney's vision may possibly be a part of it. Whether he is most knave or fool, you best know. At all events, I will sit up with you to-night, and see if I can convert my ancestor into a visiting acquaintance. Meanwhile your finger on your lip!"
* * * * *
'Twas now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn, and graves give up their dead.
Gladly would I grace my tale with decent horror, and therefore I do beseech the "gentle reader" to believe, that if all the succedanea to this mysterious narrative are not in strict keeping, he will ascribe it only to the disgraceful innovations of modern degeneracy upon the sober and dignified habits of our ancestors. I can introduce him, it is true, into an old and high-roofed chamber, its walls covered in three sides with black oak wainscoting, adorned with carvings of fruit and flowers long anterior to those of Grinling Gibbons; the fourth side is clothed with a curious remnant of dingy tapestry, once elucidatory of some Scriptural history, but of which not even Mrs. Botherby could determine. Mr. Simpkinson, who had examined it carefully, inclined to believe the principal figure to be either Bathsheba, or Daniel in the lions' den; while Tom Ingoldsby decided in favor of the king of Bashan. All, however, was conjecture, tradition being silent on the subject. A lofty arched portal led into, and a little arched portal led out of, this apartment; they were opposite each other, and each possessed the security of massy bolts on its interior. The bedstead, too, was not one of yesterday, but manifestly coeval with days ere Seddons was, and when a good four-post "article" was deemed worthy of being a royal bequest. The bed itself, with all the appurtenances of palliasse, mattresses, etc., was of far later date, and looked most incongruously comfortable; the casements, too, with their little diamond-shaped panes and iron binding, had given way to the modern heterodoxy of the sash-window. Nor was this all that conspired to ruin the costume, and render the room a meet haunt for such "mixed spirits" only as could condescend to don at the same time an Elizabethan doublet and Bond Street inexpressibles.
With their green morocco slippers on a modern fender, in front of a disgracefully modern grate, sat two young gentlemen, clad in "shawl pattern" dressing-gowns and black silk stocks, much at variance with the high cane-backed chairs which supported them. A bunch of abomination, called a cigar, reeked in the left-hand corner of the mouth of one, and in the right-hand corner of the mouth of the other—an arrangement happily adapted for the escape of the noxious fumes up the chimney, without that unmerciful "funking" each other, which a less scientific disposition of the weed would have induced. A small pembroke table filled up the intervening space between them, sustaining, at each extremity, an elbow and a glass of toddy—thus in "lonely pensive contemplation" were the two worthies occupied, when the "iron tongue of midnight had tolled twelve."
"Ghost-time's come!" said Ingoldsby, taking from his waistcoat pocket a watch like a gold half-crown, and consulting it as though he suspected the turret-clock over the stables of mendacity.
"Hush!" said Charles; "did I not hear a footstep?"
There was a pause—there was a footstep—it sounded distinctly—it reached the door it hesitated, stopped, and—passed on.
Tom darted across the room, threw open the door, and became aware of Mrs. Botherby toddling to her chamber, at the other end of the gallery, after dosing one of the housemaids with an approved julep from the Countess of Kent's "Choice Manual."
"Good-night, sir!" said Mrs. Botherby.
"Go to the d——l!" said the disappointed ghost-hunter.
An hour—two—rolled on, and still no spectral visitation; nor did aught intervene to make night hideous; and when the turret-clock sounded at length the hour of three, Ingoldsby, whose patience and grog were alike exhausted, sprang from his chair, saying:
"This is all infernal nonsense, my good fellow. Deuce of any ghost shall we see to-night; it's long past the canonical hour. I'm off to bed; and as to your breeches, I'll insure them for the next twenty-four hours at least, at the price of the buckram."
"Certainly.—Oh! thank'ee—to be sure!" stammered Charles, rousing himself from a reverie, which had degenerated into an absolute snooze.
"Good-night, my boy! Bolt the door behind me; and defy the Pope, the Devil, and the Pretender!"
Seaforth followed his friend's advice, and the next morning came down to breakfast dressed in the habiliments of the preceding day. The charm was broken, the demon defeated; the light greys with the red stripe down the seams were yet in rerum natura, and adorned the person of their lawful proprietor.
Tom felicitated himself and his partner of the watch on the result of their vigilance; but there is a rustic adage, which warns us against self-gratulation before we are quite "out of the wood."—Seaforth was yet within its verge.
* * * * *
A rap at Tom Ingoldsby's door the following morning startled him as he was shaving—he cut his chin.
"Come in, and be d——d to you!" said the martyr, pressing his thumb on the scarified epidermis. The door opened, and exhibited Mr. Barney Maguire.
"Well, Barney, what is it?" quoth the sufferer, adopting the vernacular of his visitant.
"The master, sir——"
"Well, what does he want?"
"The loanst of a breeches, plase your honor."
"Why, you don't mean to tell me—By Heaven, this is too good!" shouted Tom, bursting into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. "Why, Barney, you don't mean to say the ghost has got them again?"
Mr. Maguire did not respond to the young squire's risibility; the cast of his countenance was decidedly serious.
"Faith, then, it's gone they are sure enough! Hasn't meself been looking over the bed, and under the bed, and in the bed, for the matter of that, and divil a ha'p'orth of breeches is there to the fore at all:—I'm bothered entirely!"
"Hark'ee! Mr. Barney," said Tom, incautiously removing his thumb, and letting a crimson stream "incarnadine the multitudinous" lather that plastered his throat—"this may be all very well with your master, but you don't humbug me, sir:—Tell me instantly what have you done with the clothes?"
This abrupt transition from "lively to severe" certainly took Maguire by surprise, and he seemed for an instant as much disconcerted as it is possible to disconcert an Irish gentleman's gentleman.
"Me? is it meself, then, that's the ghost to your honor's thinking?" said he after a moment's pause, and with a slight shade of indignation in his tones; "is it I would stale the master's things—and what would I do with them?"
"That you best know: what your purpose is I can't guess, for I don't think you mean to 'stale' them, as you call it; but that you are concerned in their disappearance, I am satisfied. Confound this blood!—give me a towel, Barney."
Maguire acquitted himself of the commission. "As I've a sowl, your honor," said he, solemnly, "little it is meself knows of the matter: and after what I seen——"
"What you've seen! Why, what have you seen?—Barney, I don't want to inquire into your flirtations; but don't suppose you can palm off your saucer eyes and gig-lamps upon me!"
"Then, as sure as your honor's standing there, I saw him: and why wouldn't I, when Miss Pauline was to the fore as well as meself, and——"
"Get along with your nonsense—leave the room, sir!"
"But the master?" said Barney, imploringly; "and without a breeches?—sure he'll be catching cowld——!"
"Take that, rascal!" replied Ingoldsby, throwing a pair of pantaloons at, rather than to, him: "but don't suppose, sir, you shall carry on your tricks here with impunity; recollect there is such a thing as a treadmill, and that my father is a county magistrate."
Barney's eye flashed fire—he stood erect, and was about to speak; but, mastering himself, not without an effort, he took up the garment, and left the room as perpendicular as a Quaker.
* * * * *
"Ingoldsby," said Charles Seaforth, after breakfast, "this is now past a joke; to-day is the last of my stay; for, notwithstanding the ties which detain me, common decency obliges me to visit home after so long an absence. I shall come to an immediate explanation with your father on the subject nearest my heart, and depart while I have a change of dress left. On his answer will my return depend! In the meantime tell me candidly—I ask it in all seriousness, and as a friend—am I not a dupe to your well-known propensity to hoaxing? have you not a hand in——"
"No, by heaven, Seaforth; I see what you mean: on my honor, I am as much mystified as yourself; and if your servant——"
"Not he:—If there be a trick, he at least is not privy to it."
"If there be a trick? why, Charles, do you, think——"
"I know not what to think, Tom. As surely as you are a living man, so surely did that spectral anatomy visit my room again last night, grin in my face, and walk away with my trousers; nor was I able to spring from my bed, or break the chain which seemed to bind me to my pillow."
"Seaforth!" said Ingoldsby, after a short pause, "I will—But hush! here are the girls and my father. I will carry off the females, and leave you a clear field with the governor: carry your point with him, and we will talk about your breeches afterwards."
Tom's diversion was successful; he carried off the ladies en masse to look at a remarkable specimen of the class Dodecandria Monogynia—which they could not find—while Seaforth marched boldly up to the encounter, and carried "the governor's" outworks by a coup de main. I shall not stop to describe the progress of the attack; suffice it that it was as successful as could have been wished, and that Seaforth was referred back again to the lady. The happy lover was off at a tangent; the botanical party was soon overtaken; and the arm of Caroline, whom a vain endeavor to spell out the Linnaean name of a daffy-down-dilly had detained a little in the rear of the others, was soon firmly locked in his own.
What was the world to them, Its noise, its nonsense and its "breeches" all?
Seaforth was in the seventh heaven; he retired to his room that night as happy as if no such thing as a goblin had ever been heard of, and personal chattels were as well fenced in by law as real property. Not so Tom Ingoldsby: the mystery—for mystery there evidently was—had not only piqued his curiosity, but ruffled his temper. The watch of the previous night had been unsuccessful, probably because it was undisguised. To-night he would "ensconce himself"—not indeed "behind the arras"—for the little that remained was, as we have seen, nailed to the wall—but in a small closet which opened from one corner of the room, and by leaving the door ajar, would give to its occupant a view of all that might pass in the apartment. Here did the young ghost-hunter take up a position, with a good stout sapling under his arm, a full half-hour before Seaforth retired for the night. Not even his friend did he let into his confidence, fully determined that if his plan did not succeed, the failure should be attributed to himself alone.
At the usual hour of separation for the night, Tom saw, from his concealment, the lieutenant enter his room, and after taking a few turns in it, with an expression so joyous as to betoken that his thoughts were mainly occupied by his approaching happiness, proceed slowly to disrobe himself. The coat, the waistcoat, the black silk stock, were gradually discarded; the green morocco slippers were kicked off, and then—ay, and then—his countenance grew grave; it seemed to occur to him all at once that this was his last stake—nay, that the very breeches he had on were not his own—that to-morrow morning was his last, and that if he lost them—A glance showed that his mind was made up; he replaced the single button he had just subducted, and threw himself upon the bed in a state of transition—half chrysalis, half grub.
Wearily did Tom Ingoldsby watch the sleeper by the flickering light of the night-lamp, till the clock striking one, induced him to increase the narrow opening which he had left for the purpose of observation. The motion, slight as it was, seemed to attract Charles's attention; for he raised himself suddenly to a sitting posture, listened for a moment, and then stood upright upon the floor. Ingoldsby was on the point of discovering himself, when, the light flashing full upon his friend's countenance, he perceived that, though his eyes were open, "their sense was shut"—that he was yet under the influence of sleep. Seaforth advanced slowly to the toilet, lit his candle at the lamp that stood on it, then, going back to the bed's foot, appeared to search eagerly for something which he could not find. For a few moments he seemed restless and uneasy, walking round the apartment and examining the chairs, till, coming fully in front of a large swing-glass that flanked the dressing-table, he paused as if contemplating his figure in it. He now returned towards the bed; put on his slippers, and, with cautious and stealthy steps, proceeded towards the little arched doorway that opened on the private staircase.
As he drew the bolt, Tom Ingoldsby emerged from his hiding-place; but the sleep-walker heard him not; he proceeded softly downstairs, followed at a due distance by his friend; opened the door which led out upon the gardens; and stood at once among the thickest of the shrubs, which there clustered round the base of a corner turret, and screened the postern from common observation. At this moment Ingoldsby had nearly spoiled all by making a false step: the sound attracted Seaforth's attention—he paused and turned; and, as the full moon shed her light directly upon his pale and troubled features, Tom marked, almost with dismay, the fixed and rayless appearance of his eyes:
There was no speculation in those orbs That he did glare withal.
The perfect stillness preserved by his follower seemed to reassure him; he turned aside, and from the midst of a thickest laurustinus drew forth a gardener's spade, shouldering which he proceeded with great rapidity into the midst of the shrubbery. Arrived at a certain point where the earth seemed to have been recently disturbed, he set himself heartily to the task of digging, till, having thrown up several shovelfuls of mould, he stopped, flung down his tool, and very composedly began to disencumber himself of his pantaloons.
Up to this moment Tom had watched him with a wary eye; he now advanced cautiously, and, as his friend was busily engaged in disentangling himself from his garment, made himself master of the spade. Seaforth, meanwhile, had accomplished his purpose: he stood for a moment with
His streamers waving in the wind,
occupied in carefully rolling up the small-clothes into as compact a form as possible, and all heedless of the breath of heaven, which might certainly be supposed at such a moment, and in such a plight, to "visit his frame too roughly."
He was in the act of stooping low to deposit the pantaloons in the grave which he had been digging for them, when Tom Ingoldsby came close behind him, and with the flat side of the spade——
* * * * *
The shock was effectual; never again was Lieutenant Seaforth known to act the part of a somnambulist. One by one, his breeches—his trousers—his pantaloons—his silk-net tights—his patent cords—his showy greys with the broad red stripe of the Bombay Fencibles were brought to light—rescued from the grave in which they had been buried, like the strata of a Christmas pie; and after having been well aired by Mrs. Botherby, became once again effective.
The family, the ladies especially, laughed; the Peterses laughed; the Simpkinsons laughed;—Barney Maguire cried "Botheration!" and Ma'mselle Pauline, "Mon Dieu!"
Charles Seaforth, unable to face the quizzing which awaited him on all sides, started off two hours earlier than he had proposed:—he soon returned, however; and having, at his father-in-law's request, given up the occupation of Rajah-hunting and shooting Nabobs, led his blushing bride to the altar.
Mr. Simpkinson from Bath did not attend the ceremony, being engaged at the Grand Junction meeting of Scavans, then, congregating from all parts of the known world in the city of Dublin. His essay, demonstrating that the globe is a great custard, whipped into coagulation by whirlwinds and cooked by electricity—a little too much baked in the Isle of Portland, and a thought underdone about the Bog of Allen—was highly spoken of, and narrowly escaped obtaining a Bridgewater prize.
Miss Simpkinson and her sister acted as brides-maids on the occasion; the former wrote an epithalamium, and the latter cried "Lassy me!" at the clergyman's wig. Some years have since rolled on; the union has been crowned with two or three tidy little off-shoots from the family tree, of whom Master Neddy is "grandpapa's darling," and Mary Anne mamma's particular "Sock." I shall only add, that Mr. and Mrs. Seaforth are living together quite as happily as two good-hearted, good-tempered bodies, very fond of each other, can possibly do; and that, since the day of his marriage, Charles has shown no disposition to jump out of bed, or ramble out of doors o' nights—though from his entire devotion to every wish and whim of his young wife, Tom insinuates that the fair Caroline does still occasionally take advantage of it so far as to "slip on the breeches."
IN THE BARN
BY BURGES JOHNSON
From the Century Magazine, June, 1920. By permission of the Century Company and Burges Johnson.
In the Barn
BY BURGES JOHNSON
The moment we had entered the barn, I regretted the rash good nature which prompted me to consent to the plans of those vivacious young students. Miss Anstell and Miss Royce and one or two others, often leaders in student mischief, I suspect, were the first to enter, and they amused themselves by hiding in the darkness and greeting the rest of our party as we entered with sundry shrieks and moans such as are commonly attributed to ghosts. My wife and I brought up the rear, carrying the two farm lanterns. She had selected the place after an amused consideration of the question, and I confess I hardly approved her judgment. But she is native to this part of the country, and she had assured us that there were some vague traditions hanging about the building that made it most suitable for our purposes.
It was a musty old place, without even as much tidiness as is usually found in barns, and there was a dank smell about it, as though generations of haymows had decayed there. There were holes in the floor, and in the dusk of early evening it was necessary for us to pick our way with the greatest care. It occurred to me then, in a premonitory sort of way, that if some young woman student sprained her ankle in this absurd environment, I should be most embarrassed to explain it. Apparently it was a hay barn, whose vague dimensions were lost in shadow. Rafters crossed its width about twenty feet above our heads, and here and there a few boards lay across the rafters, furnishing foothold for anyone who might wish to operate the ancient pulley that was doubtless once used for lifting bales. The northern half of the floor was covered with hay to a depth of two or three feet. How long it had actually been there I cannot imagine. It was extremely dusty, and I feared a recurrence of my old enemy, hay fever; but it was too late to offer objection on such grounds, and my wife and I followed our chattering guides, who disposed themselves here and there on this ancient bed of hay, and insisted that we should find places in the center of their circle.
At my suggestion, the two farm lanterns had been left at a suitable distance, in fact, quite at the other side of the barn, and our only light came from the rapidly falling twilight of outdoors, which found its way through a little window and sundry cracks high in the eaves above the rafters.
There was something about the place, now that we were settled and no longer occupied with adjustments of comfort, that subdued our spirits, and it was with much less hilarity that the young people united in demanding a story. I looked across at my wife, whose face was faintly visible within the circle. I thought that even in the half-light I glimpsed the same expression of amused incredulity which she had worn earlier in the day when I had yielded to the importunities of a deputation of my students for this ghost-story party on the eve of a holiday.
"There is no reason," I thought to myself, repeating the phrases I had used then—"there is no reason why I should not tell a ghost story. True, I had never done so before, but the literary attainments which have enabled me to perfect my recent treatise upon the 'Disuse of the Comma' are quite equal to impromptu experimentation in the field of psychic phenomena." I was aware that the young people themselves hardly expected serious acquiescence, and that, too, stimulated me. I cleared my throat in a prefatory manner, and silence fell upon the group. A light breeze had risen outside, and the timbers of the barn creaked persistently. From the shadows almost directly overhead there came a faint clanking. It was evidently caused by the rusty pulley-wheel which I had observed there as we entered. An iron hook at the end of an ancient rope still depended from it, and swung in the lightly stirring air several feet above our heads, directly over the center of our circle.
Some curious combination of influences—perhaps the atmosphere of the place, added to the stimulation of the faintly discernible faces around me, and my impulse to prove my own ability in this untried field of narration—gave me a sudden sense of being inspired. I found myself voicing fancies as though they were facts, and readily including imaginary names and data which certainly were not in any way premeditated.
"This barn stands on the old Creed place," I began. "Peter Creed was its last owner, but I suppose that it has always been and always will be known as the Turner barn. A few yards away to the south you will find the crumbling brick-work and gaping hollows of an old foundation, now overgrown with weeds that almost conceal a few charred timbers. That is all that is left of the old Ashley Turner house."
I cleared my throat again, not through any effort to gain time for my thoughts, but to feel for a moment the satisfaction arising from the intent attitude of my audience, particularly my wife, who had leaned forward and was looking at me with an expression of startled surprise.
"Ashley Turner must have had a pretty fine-looking farm here thirty years or so ago," I continued, "when he brought his wife to it. This barn was new then. But he was a ne'er-do-well, with nothing to be said in his favor, unless you admit his fame as a practical joker. Strange how the ne'er-do-well is often equipped with an extravagant sense of humor! Turner had a considerable retinue among the riffraff boys of the neighborhood, who made this barn a noisy rendezvous and followed his hints in much whimsical mischief. But he committed most of his practical jokes when drunk, and in his sober moments he abused his family and let his wife struggle to keep up the acres, assisted only by a half-competent man of all work. Finally he took to roving. No one knew how he got pocket-money; his wife could not have given him any. Then someone discovered that he was going over to Creed's now and then, and everything was explained."
This concise data of mine was evidently not holding the close attention of my youthful audience. They annoyed me by frequent pranks and whisperings. No one could have been more surprised at my glibness than I myself, except perhaps my wife, whose attitude of strained attention had not relaxed. I resumed my story.
"Peter Creed was a good old-fashioned usurer of the worst type. He went to church regularly one day in the week and gouged his neighbors—any that he could get into his clutches—on the other six. He must have been lending Turner drinking money, and everyone knew what the security must be.
"At last there came a day when the long-suffering wife revolted. Turner had come home extra drunk and in his most maudlin humor. Probably he attempted some drunken prank upon his over-taxed helpmate. Old Ike, the hired man, said that he thought Turner had rigged up some scare for her in the barn and that he had never heard anything so much like straight talking from his mistress, either before or since, and he was working in the woodshed at the time, with the door shut. Shortly after that tirade Ashley Turner disappeared, and no one saw or heard of him or thought about him for a couple of years except when the sight of his tired-looking wife and scrawny children revived the recollection.
"At last, on a certain autumn day, old Peter Creed turned up here at the Turner place. I imagine Mrs. Turner knew what was in store for her when his rusty buggy came in sight around the corner of the barn. At any rate, she made no protest, and listened meekly to his curt statement that he held an overdue mortgage, with plenty of back interest owing, and it was time for her to go. She went. Neither she nor anyone else doubted Creed's rights in the matter, and, after all, I believe it got a better home for her somewhere in the long run."
I paused here in my narration to draw breath and readjust my leg, which had become cramped. There was a general readjustment and shifting of position, with some levity. It was darker now. The rafters above us were invisible, and the faces about me looked oddly white against the shadowy background. After a moment or two of delay I cleared my throat sharply and continued.
"Old Creed came thus into possession of this place, just as he had come to own a dozen others in the county. He usually lived on one until he was able to sell it at a good profit over his investment; so he settled down in the Turner house, and kept old Ike because he worked for little or nothing. But he seemed to have a hard time finding a purchaser.
"It must have been about a year later when an unexpected thing happened. Creed had come out here to the barn to lock up—he always did that himself—when he noticed something unusual about the haymow—this haymow—which stood then about six feet above the barn floor. He looked closer through the dusk, and saw a pair of boots; went nearer, and found that they were fitted to a pair of human legs whose owner was sound asleep in his hay. Creed picked up a short stick and beat on one boot.
"'Get out of here,' he said, 'or I'll have you locked up.' The sleeper woke in slow fashion, sat up, grinned, and said:
"'Hello, Peter Creed.' It was Ashley Turner, beyond question. Creed stepped back a pace or two and seemed at a loss for words. An object slipped from Turner's pocket as he moved, slid along the hay, and fell to the barn floor. It was a half-filled whisky-flask.
"No one knows full details of the conversation that ensued, of course. Such little as I am able to tell you of what was said and done comes through old Ike, who watched from a safe distance outside the barn, ready to act at a moment's notice as best suited his own safety and welfare. Of one thing Ike was certain—Creed lacked his usual browbeating manner. He was apparently struggling to assume an unwonted friendliness. Turner was very drunk, but triumphant, and his satisfaction over what he must have felt was the practical joke of his life seemed to make him friendly.
"'I kept 'em all right,' he said again and again. 'I've got the proof. I wasn't working for nothing all these months. I ain't fool enough yet to throw away papers even when I'm drunk.'
"To the watchful Ike's astonishment, Creed evidently tried to persuade him to come into the house for something to eat. Turner slid off the haymow, found his steps too unsteady, laughed foolishly, and suggested that Creed bring some food to him there. 'Guess I've got a right to sleep in the barn or house, whichever I want,' he said, leering into Creed's face. The old usurer stood there for a few minutes eying Turner thoughtfully. Then he actually gave him a shoulder back onto the hay, said something about finding a snack of supper, and started out of the barn. In the doorway he turned, looked back, then walked over to the edge of the mow and groped on the floor until he found the whisky-flask, picked it up, tossed it into Turner's lap, and stumbled out of the barn again."
I was becoming interested in my own story and somewhat pleased with the fluency of it, but my audience annoyed me. There was intermittent whispering, with some laughter, and I inferred that one or another would occasionally stimulate this inattention by tickling a companion with a straw. Miss Anstell, who is so frivolous by nature that I sometimes question her right to a place in my classroom, I even suspected of irritating the back of my own neck in the same fashion. Naturally, I ignored it.
"Peter Creed," I repeated, "went into the house. Ike hung around the barn, waiting. He was frankly curious. In a few minutes his employer reappeared, carrying a plate heaped with an assortment of scraps. Ike peered and listened then without compunction.
"'It's the best I've got,' he heard Creed say grudgingly. Turner's tones were now more drunkenly belligerent.
"'It had better be,' he said loudly. 'And I'll take the best bed after to-night.' Evidently he was eating and muttering between mouthfuls. 'You might have brought me another bottle.'
"'I did,' said Creed, to the listening Ike's great astonishment. Turner laughed immoderately.
"A long silence followed. Turner was either eating or drinking. Then he spoke again, more thickly and drowsily.
"'Damn unpleasant that rope. Why don't you haul it up out of my way?'
"'It don't hurt you any,' said Creed.
"'Don't you wish it would?' said Turner, with drunken shrewdness. 'But I don't like it. Haul it away.'
"'I will,' said Creed.
"There was a longer silence, and then there came an intermittent rasping sound. A moment later Creed came suddenly from the barn. Ike fumbled with a large rake, and made as though to hang it on its accustomed peg near the barn door. Creed eyed him sharply. 'Get along to bed,' he ordered, and Ike obeyed.
"That was a Saturday night. On Sunday morning Ike went to the barn later than usual and hesitatingly. Even then he was first to enter. He found the drunkard's body hanging here over the mow, just about where we are sitting, stark and cold. It was a gruesome end to a miserable home-coming."
My audience was quiet enough now. Miss Anstell and one or two others giggled loudly, but it was obviously forced, and found no further echo. The breeze which had sprung up some time before was producing strange creakings and raspings in the old timbers, and the pulley-wheel far above us clanked with a dismal repetitious sound, like the tolling of a cracked bell.
I waited a moment, well satisfied with the effect, and then continued.
"The coroner's jury found it suicide, though some shook their heads meaningly. Turner had apparently sobered up enough to stand, and, making a simple loop around his neck by catching the rope through its own hook, had then slid off the mow. The rope which went over the pulley-wheel up there in the roof ran out through a window under the eaves, and was made fast near the barn door outside, where anyone could haul on it. Creed testified the knot was one he had tied many days before. Ike was a timorous old man, with a wholesome fear of his employer, and he supported the testimony and made no reference to his eavesdropping of the previous evening, though he heard Creed swear before the jury that he did not recognize the tramp he had fed and lodged. There were no papers in Turner's pockets; only a few coins, and a marked pocket-knife that gave the first clue to his identity.
"A few of the neighbors said that it was a fitting end, and that the verdict was a just one. Nevertheless, whisperings began and increased. People avoided Creed and the neighborhood. Rumors grew that the barn was haunted. Passers-by on the road after dark said they heard the old pulley-wheel clanking when no breeze stirred, much as you hear it now. Some claim to have heard maudlin laughter. Possible purchasers were frightened away, and Creed grew more and more solitary and misanthropic. Old Ike hung on, Heaven knows why, though I suppose Creed paid him some sort of wage.
"Rumors grew. Folks said that neither Ike nor Creed entered this barn after a time, and no hay was put in, though Creed would not have been Creed if he had not sold off the bulk of what he had, ghost or no ghost. I can imagine him slowly forking it out alone, daytimes, and the amount of hay still here proves that even he finally lost courage."
I paused a moment, but though there was much uneasy stirring about, and the dismal clanking directly above us was incessant, no one of my audience spoke. It was wholly dark now, and I think all had drawn closer together.
"About ten years ago people began calling Creed crazy." Here I was forced to interrupt my own story. "I shall have to ask you, Miss Anstell, to stop annoying me. I have been aware for some moments that you are brushing my head with a straw, but I have ignored it for the sake of the others." Out of the darkness came Miss Anstell's voice, protesting earnestly, and I realized from the direction of the sound that in the general readjustment she must have settled down in the very center of our circle, and could not be the one at fault. One of the others was childish enough to simulate a mocking burst of raucous laughter, but I chose to ignore it.
"Very well," said I, graciously; "shall I go on?"
"Go on," echoed a subdued chorus.
"It was the night of the twenty-eighth of May, ten years ago——"
"Not the twenty-eighth," broke in my wife's voice, sharply; "that is to-day's date." There was a note in her voice that I hardly recognized, but it indicated that she was in some way affected by my narration, and I felt a distinct sense of triumph.
"It was the night of May twenty-eighth," I repeated firmly.
"Are you making up this story?" my wife's voice continued, still with the same odd tone.
"I am, my dear, and you are interrupting it."
"But an Ashley Turner and later a Peter Creed owned this place," she persisted almost in a whisper, "and I am sure you never heard of them."
I confess that I might wisely have broken off my story then and called for a light. There had been an hysterical note in my wife's voice, and I was startled at her words, for I had no conscious recollection of either name; yet I felt a resultant exhilaration. Our lanterns had grown strangely dim, though I was certain both had been recently trimmed and filled; and from their far corner of the barn they threw no light whatever into our circle. I faced an utter blackness.
"On that night," said I, "old Ike was wakened by sounds as of someone fumbling to unbar and open the housedoor. It was an unwonted hour, and he peered from the window of his little room. By the dim starlight—it was just before dawn—he could see all of the open yard and roadway before the house, with the great barn looming like a black and sinister shadow as its farther barrier. Crossing this space, he saw the figure of Peter Creed, grotesquely stooped and old in the obscuring gloom, moving slowly, almost gropingly, and yet directly, as though impelled, toward the barn's overwhelming shadow. Slowly he unbarred the great door, swung it open, and entered the blacker shadows it concealed. The door closed after him.
"Ike in his secure post of observation did not stir. He could not. Even to his crude imagining there was something utterly horrible in the thought of Creed alone at that hour in just such black darkness as this, with the great timbered chamber haunted at least by its dread memories. He could only wait, tense and fearful of he knew not what.
"A shriek that pierced the silence relaxed his tension, bringing almost a sense of relief, so definite had been his expectancy. But it was a burst of shrill laughter, ribald, uncanny, undeniable, accompanying the shriek that gave him power of motion. He ran half naked a quarter of a mile to the nearest neighbor's and told his story."
* * * * *
"They found Creed hanging, the rope hooked simply around his neck. It was a silent jury that filed from the barn that morning after viewing the body. 'Suicide,' said they, after Ike, shivering and stammering, had testified, harking back to the untold evidence of that other morning years before. Yes, Creed was dead, with a terrible look on his wizen face, and the dusty old rope ran through its pulley-wheel and was fast to a beam high above.
"'He must of climbed to the beam, made the rope fast, and jumped,' said the foreman, solemnly. 'He must of, he must of,' repeated the man, parrot-like, while the sweat stood out on his forehead, 'because there wasn't no other way; but as God is my judge, the knot in the rope and the dust on the beam ain't been disturbed for years.'"
At this dramatic climax there was an audible sigh from my audience. I sat quietly for a time, content to allow the silence and the atmosphere of the place, which actually seemed surcharged with influences not of my creation, to add to the effect my story had caused. There was scarcely a movement in our circle; of that I felt sure. And yet once more, out of the almost tangible darkness above me, something seemed to reach down and brush against my head. A slight motion of air, sufficient to disturb my rather scanty locks, was additional proof that I was the butt of some prank that had just missed its objective. Then, with a fearful suddenness, close to my ear burst a shrill discord of laughter, so uncanny and so unlike the usual sound of student merriment that I started up, half wondering if I had heard it. Almost immediately after it the heavy darkness was torn again by a shriek so terrible in its intensity as completely to differentiate it from the other cries which followed.
"Bring a light!" cried a voice that I recognized as that of my wife, though strangely distorted by emotion. There was a great confusion. Young women struggled from their places and impeded one another in the darkness; but finally, and it seemed an unbearable delay, someone brought a single lantern.
Its frail light revealed Miss Anstell half upright from her place in the center of our circle, my wife's arms sustaining her weight. Her face, as well as I could see it, seemed darkened and distorted, and when we forced her clutching hands away from her bared throat we could see, even in that light, the marks of an angry, throttling scar entirely encircling it. Just above her head the old pulley-rope swayed menacingly in the faint breeze.
My recollection is even now confused as to the following moments and our stumbling escape from that gruesome spot. Miss Anstell is now at her home, recovering from what her physician calls mental shock. My wife will not speak of it. The questions I would ask her are checked on my lips by the look of utter terror in her eyes. As I have confessed to you, my own philosophy is hard put to it to withstand not so much the community attitude toward what they are pleased to call my taste in practical joking, but to assemble and adjust the facts of my experience.
A SHADY PLOT
BY ELSIE BROWN
This story was submitted as a class exercise in one of my short-story classes at Columbia University. At my request the author, Elsie Brown, contributed it to this volume.
A Shady Plot
BY ELSIE BROWN
So I sat down to write a ghost story.
Jenkins was responsible.
"Hallock," he had said to me, "give us another on the supernatural this time. Something to give 'em the horrors; that's what the public wants, and your ghosts are live propositions."
Well, I was in no position to contradict Jenkins, for, as yet, his magazine had been the only one to print my stuff. So I had said, "Precisely!" in the deepest voice I was capable of, and had gone out.
I hadn't the shade of an idea, but at the time that didn't worry me in the least. You see, I had often been like that before and in the end things had always come my way—I didn't in the least know how or why. It had all been rather mysterious. You understand I didn't specialize in ghost stories, but more or less they seemed to specialize in me. A ghost story had been the first fiction I had written. Curious how that idea for a plot had come to me out of nowhere after I had chased inspiration in vain for months! Even now whenever Jenkins wanted a ghost, he called on me. And I had never found it healthy to contradict Jenkins. Jenkins always seemed to have an uncanny knowledge as to when the landlord or the grocer were pestering me, and he dunned me for a ghost. And somehow I'd always been able to dig one up for him, so I'd begun to get a bit cocky as to my ability.
So I went home and sat down before my desk and sucked at the end of my pencil and waited, but nothing happened. Pretty soon my mind began to wander off on other things, decidedly unghostly and material things, such as my wife's shopping and how on earth I was going to cure her of her alarming tendency to take every new fad that came along and work it to death. But I realized that would never get me any place, so I went back to staring at the ceiling.
"This writing business is delightful, isn't it?" I said sarcastically at last, out loud, too. You see, I had reached the stage of imbecility when I was talking to myself.
"Yes," said a voice at the other end of the room, "I should say it is!"
I admit I jumped. Then I looked around.
It was twilight by this time and I had forgotten to turn on the lamp. The other end of the room was full of shadows and furniture. I sat staring at it and presently noticed something just taking shape. It was exactly like watching one of these moving picture cartoons being put together. First an arm came out, then a bit of sleeve of a stiff white shirtwaist, then a leg and a plaid skirt, until at last there she was complete,—whoever she was.
She was long and angular, with enormous fishy eyes behind big bone-rimmed spectacles, and her hair in a tight wad at the back of her head (yes, I seemed able to see right through her head) and a jaw—well, it looked so solid that for the moment I began to doubt my very own senses and believe she was real after all.
She came over and stood in front of me and glared—yes, positively glared down at me, although (to my knowledge) I had never laid eyes on the woman before, to say nothing of giving her cause to look at me like that.
I sat still, feeling pretty helpless I can tell you, and at last she barked:
"What are you gaping at?"
I swallowed, though I hadn't been chewing anything.
"Nothing," I said. "Absolutely nothing. My dear lady, I was merely waiting for you to tell me why you had come. And excuse me, but do you always come in sections like this? I should think your parts might get mixed up sometimes."
"Didn't you send for me?" she crisped.
Imagine how I felt at that!
"Why, no. I—I don't seem to remember——"
"Look here. Haven't you been calling on heaven and earth all afternoon to help you write a story?"
I nodded, and then a possible explanation occurred to me and my spine got cold. Suppose this was the ghost of a stenographer applying for a job! I had had an advertisement in the paper recently. I opened my mouth to explain that the position was filled, and permanently so, but she stopped me.
"And when I got back to the office from my last case and was ready for you, didn't you switch off to something else and sit there driveling so I couldn't attract your attention until just now?"
"I—I'm very sorry, really."
"Well, you needn't be, because I just came to tell you to stop bothering us for assistance; you ain't going to get it. We're going on Strike!"
"You don't have to yell at me."
"I—I didn't mean to yell," I said humbly. "But I'm afraid I didn't quite understand you. You said you were——"
"Going on strike. Don't you know what a strike is? Not another plot do you get from us!"
I stared at her and wet my lips.
"Is—is that where they've been coming from?"
"Of course. Where else?"
"But my ghosts aren't a bit like you——"
"If they were people wouldn't believe in them." She draped herself on the top of my desk among the pens and ink bottles and leaned towards me. "In the other life I used to write."
"But that has nothing to do with my present form. It might have, but I gave it up at last for that very reason, and went to work as a reader on a magazine." She sighed, and rubbed the end of her long eagle nose with a reminiscent finger. "Those were terrible days; the memory of them made me mistake purgatory for paradise, and at last when I attained my present state of being, I made up my mind that something should be done. I found others who had suffered similarly, and between us we organized 'The Writer's Inspiration Bureau.' We scout around until we find a writer without ideas and with a mind soft enough to accept impression. The case is brought to the attention of the main office, and one of us assigned to it. When that case is finished we bring in a report."
"But I never saw you before——"
"And you wouldn't have this time if I hadn't come to announce the strike. Many a time I've leaned on your shoulder when you've thought you were thinking hard—" I groaned, and clutched my hair. The very idea of that horrible scarecrow so much as touching me! and wouldn't my wife be shocked! I shivered. "But," she continued, "that's at an end. We've been called out of our beds a little too often in recent years, and now we're through."
"But my dear madam, I assure you I have had nothing to do with that. I hope I'm properly grateful and all that, you see."
"Oh, it isn't you," she explained patronizingly. "It's those Ouija board fanatics. There was a time when we had nothing much to occupy us and used to haunt a little on the side, purely for amusement, but not any more. We've had to give up haunting almost entirely. We sit at a desk and answer questions now. And such questions!"
She shook her head hopelessly, and taking off her glasses wiped them, and put them back on her nose again.
"But what have I got to do with this?"
She gave me a pitying look and rose.
"You're to exert your influence. Get all your friends and acquaintances to stop using the Ouija board, and then we'll start helping you to write."
There was a footstep outside my door.
"John! Oh, John!" called the voice of my wife.
I waved my arms at the ghost with something of the motion of a beginner when learning to swim.
"Madam, I must ask you to leave, and at once. Consider the impression if you were seen here——"
The ghost nodded, and began, very sensibly, I thought, to demobilize and evaporate. First the brogans on her feet grew misty until I could see the floor through them, then the affection spread to her knees and gradually extended upward. By this time my wife was opening the door.
"Don't forget the strike," she repeated, while her lower jaw began to disintegrate, and as my Lavinia crossed the room to me the last vestige of her ear faded into space.
"John, why in the world are you sitting in the dark?"
"Just—thinking, my dear."
"Thinking, rubbish! You were talking out loud."
I remained silent while she lit the lamps, thankful that her back was turned to me. When I am nervous or excited there is a muscle in my face that starts to twitch, and this pulls up one corner of my mouth and gives the appearance of an idiotic grin. So far I had managed to conceal this affliction from Lavinia.
"You know I bought the loveliest thing this afternoon. Everybody's wild over them!"
I remembered her craze for taking up new fads and a premonitory chill crept up the back of my neck.
"It—it isn't——" I began and stopped. I simply couldn't ask; the possibility was too horrible.
"You'd never guess in the world. It's the duckiest, darlingest Ouija board, and so cheap! I got it at a bargain sale. Why, what's the matter, John?"
I felt things slipping.
"Nothing," I said, and looked around for the ghost. Suppose she had lingered, and upon hearing what my wife had said should suddenly appear——Like all sensitive women, Lavinia was subject to hysterics.
"But you looked so funny——"
"I—I always do when I'm interested," I gulped. "But don't you think that was a foolish thing to buy?"
"Foolish! Oh, John! Foolish! And after me getting it for you!"
"For me! What do you mean?"
"To help you write your stories. Why, for instance, suppose you wanted to write an historical novel. You wouldn't have to wear your eyes out over those musty old books in the public library. All you'd have to do would be to get out your Ouija and talk to Napoleon, or William the Conqueror, or Helen of Troy—well, maybe not Helen—anyhow you'd have all the local color you'd need, and without a speck of trouble. And think how easy writing your short stories will be now."
"But Lavinia, you surely don't believe in Ouija boards."
"I don't know, John—they are awfully thrilling."
She had seated herself on the arm of my chair and was looking dreamily across the room. I started and turned around. There was nothing there, and I sank back with relief. So far so good.
"Oh, certainly, they're thrilling all right. That's just it, they're a darn sight too thrilling. They're positively devilish. Now, Lavinia, you have plenty of sense, and I want you to get rid of that thing just as soon as you can. Take it back and get something else."
My wife crossed her knees and stared at me through narrowed lids.
"John Hallock," she said distinctly. "I don't propose to do anything of the kind. In the first place they won't exchange things bought at a bargain sale, and in the second, if you aren't interested in the other world I am. So there!" and she slid down and walked from the room before I could think of a single thing to say. She walked very huffily.
Well, it was like that all the rest of the evening. Just as soon as I mentioned Ouija boards I felt things begin to cloud up; so I decided to let it go for the present, in the hope that she might be more reasonable later.
After supper I had another try at the writing, but as my mind continued a perfect blank I gave it up and went off to bed.
The next day was Saturday, and it being near the end of the month and a particularly busy day, I left home early without seeing Lavinia. Understand, I haven't quite reached the point where I can give my whole time to writing, and being bookkeeper for a lumber company does help with the grocery bills and pay for Lavinia's fancy shopping. Friday had been a half holiday, and of course when I got back the work was piled up pretty high; so high, in fact, that ghosts and stories and everything else vanished in a perfect tangle of figures.
When I got off the street car that evening my mind was still churning. I remember now that I noticed, even from the corner, how brightly the house was illuminated, but at the time that didn't mean anything to me. I recall as I went up the steps and opened the door I murmured:
"Nine times nine is eighty-one!"
And then Gladolia met me in the hall.
"Misto Hallock, de Missus sho t'inks you's lost! She say she done 'phone you dis mawnin' to be home early, but fo' de lawd's sake not to stop to argify now, but get ready fo' de company an' come on down."
Some memory of a message given me by one of the clerks filtered back through my brain, but I had been hunting three lost receipts at the time, and had completely forgotten it.
"Company?" I said stupidly. "What company?"
"De Missus's Ouija boahrd pahrty," said Gladolia, and rolling her eyes she disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.
I must have gone upstairs and dressed and come down again, for I presently found myself standing in the dimly lighted lower hall wearing my second best suit and a fresh shirt and collar. But I have no recollections of the process.
There was a great chattering coming from our little parlor and I went over to the half-opened door and peered through.
The room was full of women—most of them elderly—whom I recognized as belonging to my wife's Book Club. They were sitting in couples, and between each couple was a Ouija board! The mournful squeak of the legs of the moving triangular things on which they rested their fingers filled the air and mixed in with the conversation. I looked around for the ghost with my heart sunk down to zero. What if Lavinia should see her and go mad before my eyes! And then my wife came and tapped me on the shoulder.
"John," she said in her sweetest voice, and I noticed that her cheeks were very pink and her eyes very bright. My wife is never so pretty as when she's doing something she knows I disapprove of, "John, dear I know you'll help us out. Mrs. William Augustus Wainright 'phoned at the last moment to say that she couldn't possibly come, and that leaves poor Laura Hinkle without a partner. Now, John, I know some people can work a Ouija by themselves, but Laura can't, and she'll just have a horrible time unless you——"
"Me!" I gasped. "Me! I won't——" but even as I spoke she had taken my arm, and the next thing I knew I was sitting with the thing on my knees and Miss Laura Hinkle opposite, grinning in my face like a flirtatious crocodile.
"I—I won't——" I began.
"Now, Mr. Hallock, don't you be shy." Miss Laura Hinkle leaned forward and shook a bony finger almost under my chin.
"I—I'm not! Only I say I won't——!"
"No, it's very easy, really. You just put the tips of your fingers right here beside the tips of my fingers——"
And the first thing I knew she had taken my hands and was coyly holding them in the position desired. She released them presently, and the little board began to slide around in an aimless sort of way. There seemed to be some force tugging it about. I looked at my partner, first with suspicion, and then with a vast relief. If she was doing it, then all that talk about spirits——Oh, I did hope Miss Laura Hinkle was cheating with that board!
"Ouija, dear, won't you tell us something?" she cooed, and on the instant the thing seemed to take life.
It rushed to the upper left hand corner of the board and hovered with its front leg on the word "Yes." Then it began to fly around so fast that I gave up any attempt to follow it. My companion was bending forward and had started to spell out loud:
"'T-r-a-i-t-o-r.' Traitor! Why, what does she mean?"
"I don't know," I said desperately. My collar felt very tight.
"But she must mean something. Ouija, dear, won't you explain yourself more fully?"
"'A-s-k-h-i-m!' Ask him. Ask who, Ouija?"
"I—I'm going." I choked and tried to get up but my fingers seemed stuck to that dreadful board and I dropped back again.
Apparently Miss Hinkle had not heard my protest. The thing was going around faster than ever and she was reading the message silently, with her brow corrugated, and the light of the huntress in her pale blue eyes.
"Why, she says it's you, Mr. Hallock. What does she mean? Ouija, won't you tell us who is talking?"
I groaned, but that inexorable board continued to spell. I always did hate a spelling match! Miss Hinkle was again following it aloud:
"'H-e-l-e-n.' Helen!" She raised her voice until it could be heard at the other end of the room. "Lavinia, dear, do you know anyone by the name of Helen?"
"By the name of——? I can't hear you." And my wife made her way over to us between the Book Club's chairs.
"You know the funniest thing has happened," she whispered excitedly. "Someone had been trying to communicate with John through Mrs. Hunt's and Mrs. Sprinkle's Ouija! Someone by the name of Helen——"
"Why, isn't that curious!"
Miss Hinkle simpered.
"Someone giving the name of Helen has just been calling for your husband here."
"But we don't know anyone by the name of Helen——"
Lavinia stopped and began to look at me through narrowed lids much as she had done in the library the evening before.
And then from different parts of the room other manipulators began to report. Every plagued one of those five Ouija boards was calling me by name! I felt my ears grow crimson, purple, maroon. My wife was looking at me as though I were some peculiar insect. The squeak of Ouija boards and the murmur of conversation rose louder and louder, and then I felt my face twitch in the spasm of that idiotic grin. I tried to straighten my wretched features into their usual semblance of humanity, I tried and——
"Doesn't he look sly!" said Miss Hinkle. And then I got up and fled from the room.
I do not know how that party ended. I do not want to know. I went straight upstairs, and undressed and crawled into bed, and lay there in the burning dark while the last guest gurgled in the hall below about the wonderful evening she had spent. I lay there while the front door shut after her, and Lavinia's steps came up the stairs and—passed the door to the guest room beyond. And then after a couple of centuries elapsed the clock struck three and I dozed off to sleep.
At the breakfast table the next morning there was no sign of my wife. I concluded she was sleeping late, but Gladolia, upon being questioned, only shook her head, muttered something, and turned the whites of her eyes up to the ceiling. I was glad when the meal was over and hurried to the library for another try at that story.
I had hardly seated myself at the desk when there came a tap at the door and a white slip of paper slid under it. I unfolded it and read:
"I am going back to my grandmother. My lawyer will communicate with you later."
"Oh," I cried. "Oh, I wish I was dead!"
"That's exactly what you ought to be!" said that horrible voice from the other end of the room.
I sat up abruptly—I had sunk into a chair under the blow of the letter—then I dropped back again and my hair rose in a thick prickle on the top of my head. Coming majestically across the floor towards me was a highly polished pair of thick laced shoes. I stared at them in a sort of dreadful fascination, and then something about their gait attracted my attention and I recognized them.
"See here," I said sternly. "What do you mean by appearing here like this?"
"I can't help it," said the voice, which seemed to come from a point about five and a half feet above the shoes. I raised my eyes and presently distinguished her round protruding mouth.
"Why can't you? A nice way to act, to walk in sections——"
"If you'll give me time," said the mouth in an exasperated voice, "I assure you the rest of me will presently arrive."
"But what's the matter with you? You never acted this way before."
She seemed stung to make a violent effort, for a portion of a fishy eye and the end of her nose popped into view with a suddenness that made me jump.
"It's all your fault." She glared at me, while part of her hair and her plaid skirt began slowly to take form.
"Of course. How can you keep a lady up working all night and then expect her to retain all her faculties the next day? I'm just too tired to materialize."
"Then why did you bother?"
"Because I was sent to ask when your wife is going to get rid of that Ouija board."
"How should I know! I wish to heaven I'd never seen you!" I cried. "Look what you've done! You've lost me my wife, you've lost me my home and happiness, you've——you've——"
"Misto Hallock," came from the hall outside, "Misto Hallock, I's gwine t' quit. I don't like no hoodoos." And the steps retreated.
"You've——you've lost me my cook——"
"I didn't come here to be abused," said the ghost coldly. "I—I——"
And then the door opened and Lavinia entered. She wore the brown hat and coat she usually travels in and carried a suitcase which she set down on the floor.
That suitcase had an air of solid finality about it, and its lock leered at me brassily.
I leaped from my chair with unaccustomed agility and sprang in front of my wife. I must conceal that awful phantom from her, at any risk!
She did not look at me, or—thank heaven!—behind me, but fixed her injured gaze upon the waste-basket, as if to wrest dark secrets from it.
"I have come to tell you that I am leaving," she staccatoed.
"Oh, yes, yes!" I agreed, flapping my arms about to attract attention from the corner. "That's fine—great!"
"So you want me to go, do you?" she demanded.
"Sure, yes—right away! Change of air will do you good. I'll join you presently!" If only she would go till Helen could de-part! I'd have the devil of a time explaining afterward, of course, but anything would be better than to have Lavinia see a ghost. Why, that sensitive little woman couldn't bear to have a mouse say boo at her—and what would she say to a ghost in her own living-room?
Lavinia cast a cold eye upon me. "You are acting very queerly," she sniffed. "You are concealing something from me."
Just then the door opened and Gladolia called, "Mis' Hallock! Mis' Hallock! I've come to tell you I'se done lef' dis place."
My wife turned her head a moment. "But why, Gladolia?"
"I ain't stayin' round no place 'long wid dem Ouija board contraptions. I'se skeered of hoodoos. I's done gone, I is."
"Is that all you've got to complain about?" Lavinia inquired.
"All right, then. Go back to the kitchen. You can use the board for kindling wood."
"Who? Me touch dat t'ing? No, ma'am, not dis nigger!"
"I'll be the coon to burn it," I shouted. "I'll be glad to burn it."
Gladolia's heavy steps moved off kitchenward.
Then my Lavinia turned waspishly to me again. "John, there's not a bit of use trying to deceive me. What is it you are trying to conceal from me?"
"Who? Me? Oh, no," I lied elaborately, looking around to see if that dratted ghost was concealed enough. She was so big, and I'm rather a smallish man. But that was a bad move on my part.
"John," Lavinia demanded like a ward boss, "you are hiding somebody in here! Who is it?"
I only waved denial and gurgled in my throat. She went on, "It's bad enough to have you flirt over the Ouija board with that hussy——"
"Oh, the affair was quite above-board, I assure you, my love!" I cried, leaping lithely about to keep her from focusing her gaze behind me.
She thrust me back with sudden muscle. "I will see who's behind you! Where is that Helen?"
"Me? I'm Helen," came from the ghost.
Lavinia looked at that apparition, that owl-eyed phantom, in plaid skirt and stiff shirtwaist, with hair skewed back and no powder on her nose. I threw a protecting husbandly arm about her to catch her when she should faint. But she didn't swoon. A broad, satisfied smile spread over her face.
"I thought you were Helen of Troy," she murmured.
"I used to be Helen of Troy, New York," said the ghost. "And now I'll be moving along, if you'll excuse me. See you later."
With that she telescoped briskly, till we saw only a hand waving farewell.
My Lavinia fell forgivingly into my arms. I kissed her once or twice fervently, and then I shoved her aside, for I felt a sudden strong desire to write. The sheets of paper on my desk spread invitingly before me.
"I've got the bulliest plot for a ghost story!" I cried.
THE LADY AND THE GHOST
BY ROSE CECIL O'NEILL
From the Cosmopolitan Magazine. By permission of John Brisben Walker and Rose O'Neill.
The Lady and the Ghost
BY ROSE CECIL O'NEILL
It was some moments before the Lady became rationally convinced that there was something occurring in the corner of the room, and then the actual nature of the thing was still far from clear.
"To put it as mildly as possible," she murmured, "the thing verges upon the uncanny"; and, leaning forward upon her silken knees, she attended upon the phenomenon.
At first it had seemed like some faint and unexplained atmospheric derangement, occasioned, apparently, neither by an opened window nor by a door. Some papers fluttered to the floor, the fringes of the hangings softly waved, and, indeed, it would still have been easy to dismiss the matter as the effect of a vagrant draft had not the state of things suddenly grown unmistakably unusual. All the air of the room, it then appeared, rushed even with violence to the point and there underwent what impressed her as an aerial convulsion, in the very midst and well-spring of which, so great was the confusion, there seemed to appear at intervals almost the semblance of a shape.
The silence of the room was disturbed by a book that flew open with fluttering leaves, the noise of a vase of violets blown over, from which the perfumed water dripped to the floor, and soft touchings all around as of a breeze passing through a chamber full of trifles.
The ringlets of the Lady's hair were swept forward toward the corner upon which her gaze was fixed, and in which the conditions had now grown so tense with imminent occurrence and so rent with some inconceivable throe that she involuntarily rose, and, stepping forward against the pressure of her petticoats which were blown about her ankles, she impatiently thrust her hand into the——
She was immediately aware that another hand had received it, though with a far from substantial envelopment, and for another moment what she saw before her trembled between something and nothing. Then from the precarious situation there slowly emerged into dubious view the shape of a young man dressed in evening clothes over which was flung a mantle of voluminous folds such as is worn by ghosts of fashion.
"The very deuce was in it!" he complained; "I thought I should never materialize."
She flung herself into her chair, confounded; yet, even in the shock of the emergency, true to herself, she did not fail to smooth her ruffled locks.
Her visitor had been scanning his person in a dissatisfied way, and with some vexation he now ejaculated: "Beg your pardon, my dear, but are my feet on the floor, or where in thunder are they?"
It was with a tone of reassurance that she confessed that his patent-leathers were the trivial matter of two or three inches from the rug. Whereupon, with still another effort, he brought himself down until his feet rested decently upon the floor. It was only when he walked about to examine the bric-a-brac that a suspicious lightness was discernible in his tread.
When he had composed himself by the survey, effecting it with an air of great insouciance, which, however, failed to conceal the fact that his heart was beating somewhat wildly, he approached the Lady.
"Well, here we are again, my love!" he cried, and devoured her hands with ghostly kisses. "It seems an eternity that I've been struggling back to you through the outer void and what-not. Sometimes, I confess I all but despaired. Life is not, I assure you, all beer and skittles for the disembodied."
He drew a long breath, and his gaze upon her and the entire chamber seemed to envelop all and cherish it.
"Little room, little room! And so you are thus! Do you know," he continued, with vivacity, "I have wondered about it in the grave, and I could hardly sleep for this place unpenetrated. Heigho! What a lot of things we leave undone! I dashed this off at the time, the literary passion strong in me, thus: