the Haunted Hulk

Christmas Ghost Stories: Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk by Frank Cowper

I have been negligent, kittens, and skipped yesterday’s story. By way of apology, here’s an extra-creepy one! Perhaps “genuinely creepy” is our theme for this week, as “droll and broad” was for last week.

Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk never actually shows you anything, nor does it fall into the Lovecraftian habit of describing things as “unnameable,” clearly a dodge to get around a limited ghostie-and-ghoulie-related vocabulary. It simply makes you aware that you are far, far away from anyone who cares if you are alive or dead, and that you are, most horribly, not alone!


Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk
by Frank Cowper

the Haunted Hulk

the Haunted Hulk

I shall never forget that night as long as I live.

It was during the Christmas vacation 187_.  I was staying with an old college friend who had lately been appointed the curate of a country parish, and had asked me to come and cheer him up, since he could not get away at that time.

As we drove along the straight country lane from the little wayside station, it forcibly struck me that a life in such a place must be dreary indeed. I have always been much influenced by local colour; above all things, I am depressed by a dead level, and here was monotony with a vengeance. On each side of the low hedges, lichen-covered and wind-cropped, stretched bare fields, the absolute level of the horizon being only broken at intervals by some mournful tree that pointed like a decrepit finger-post towards the east, for all its western growth was nipped and blasted by the roaring south-west winds. An occasional black spot, dotted against the grey distance, marked a hay-rick or labourer’s cottage, while some two miles ahead of us the stunted spire of my friend’s church stood out against the wintry sky, amid the withered branches of a few ragged trees. On our right hand stretched dreary wastes of mud, interspersed here and there with firmer patches of land, but desolate and forlorn, cut off from all communication with the mainland by acres of mud and thin streaks of brown water.

A few sea-birds were piping over the waste, and this was the only sound, except the grit of our own wheels and the steady step of the horse, which broke the silence.

“Not lively is it?” said Jones; and I couldn’t say it was. As we drove “up street,” as the inhabitants fondly called the small array of low houses which bordered the highroad, I noticed the lack-lustre expression of the few children and untidy women who were loitering about the doors of their houses.

There was an old tumble-down inn, with a dilapidated sign-board, scarcely held up by its rickety iron­work. A daub of yellow and red paint, with a dingy streak of blue, was supposed to represent the Duke’s head, although what exalted member of the aristocracy was thus distinguished it would be hard to say. Jones inclined to think it was the Duke of Wellington; but I upheld the theory that it was the Duke of Marlborough, chiefly basing my arguments on the fact that no artist who desired to convey a striking likeness would fail to show the Great Duke in profile, whereas this personage was evidently depicted full face, and wearing a three-cornered hat.

At the end of the village was the church, standing in an untidy churchyard, and opposite it was a neat little house, quite new, and of that utilitarian order of architecture which will stamp the Victorian age as one of the least imaginative of eras. Two windows flanked the front door, and three narrow windows looked out overhead from under a slate roof; variety and distinction being given to the facade by the brilliant blending of the yellow bricks with red, so bright as to suggest the idea of their having been painted. A scrupulously clean stone at the front door, together with the bright green of the little palings and woodwork, told me what sort of landlady to expect, and I was not disappointed. A kindly featured woman, thin, cheery, and active, received us, speaking in that encouraging tone of half-compassionate, half-proprietary patronage, which I have observed so many women adopt towards lone beings of the opposite sex.

“You will find it precious dull, old man,” said Jones, as we were eating our frugal dinner. “There’s nothing for you to do, unless you care to try a shot at the duck over the mud-flats. I shall be busy on and off nearly all to-morrow.”

As we talked, I could not help admiring the cheerful pluck with which Jones endured the terrible monotony of his life in this dreary place. His rector was said to be delicate, and in order to prolong a life, which no doubt he considered valuable to the Church, he lived with his family either at Torquay or Cannes in elegant idleness, quite unable to do any duty, but fully equal to enjoying the pleasant society of those charming places, and quite satisfied that he had done his duty when he sacrificed a tenth of his income to provide for the spiritual needs of his parish. There was no squire in the place; no “gentlefolk,” as the rustics called them, lived nearer than five miles; and there was not a single being of his own class with whom poor Jones could associate. And yet he made no complaint. The nearest approach to one being the remark that the worst of it was, it was so difficult, if not impossible, to be really understood. “The poor being so suspicious and ignorant, they look at everything from such a low standpoint, enthusiasm and freshness sink so easily into formalism and listlessness.”

The next day, finding that I really could be of no use, and feeling awkward and bored, as a man always is when another is actively doing his duty, I went off to the marshes to see if I could get any sport.

I took some sandwiches and a flask with me, not intending to return until dinner. After wandering about for some time, crossing dyke after dyke by treacherous rails more or less rotten, I found myself on the edge of a wide mere. I could see some duck out in the middle, and standing far out in the shallow water was a heron. They were all out of shot, and I saw I should do no good without a duck-punt.

I sat down on an old pile left on the top of the sea-wall, which had been lately repaired. The duck looked very tempting; but I doubted if I should do much good in broad daylight, even if I had a duck­punt, without a duck-gun. After sitting disconsolately for some time, I got up and wandered on.
The dreariness of the scene was most depressing: everything was brown and grey. Nothing broke the monotony of the wide-stretching mere; the whole scene gave me the impression of a straight line of interminable length, with a speck in the centre of it. That speck was myself.

At last, as I turned an angle in the sea-wall, I saw something lying above high-water mark, which looked like a boat.

Rejoiced to see any signs of humanity, I quickened my pace. It was a boat, and, better still, a duck­punt. As I came nearer I could see that she was old and very likely leaky; but here was a prospect of adventure, and I was not going to be readily daunted. On examination, the old craft seemed more water-tight than I expected. At least she held water very well, and if she kept it in, she must equally well keep it out. I turned her over to run the water out, and then dragging the crazy old boat over the line of seaweed, launched her. But now a real difficulty met me. The paddles were nowhere to be seen. They had doubtless been taken away by the owner, and it would be little use searching for them. But a stout stick would do to punt her over the shallow water; and after some little search. I found an old stake which would answer well.

This was real luck. I had now some hope of bagging a few duck; at any rate, I was afloat, and could explore the little islets, which barely rose above the brown water. I might at least find some rabbits on them. I cautiously poled myself towards the black dots; but before I came within range, up rose first one, then another and another, like a string of beads, and the whole flight went, with outstretched necks and rapidly beating wings, away to my right, and seemed to pitch again beyond a low island some half-mile away. The heron had long ago taken himself off; so there was nothing to be done but pole across the mud in pursuit of the duck. I had not gone many yards when I found that I was going much faster than I expected, and soon saw the cause. The tide was falling, and I was being carried along with it. This would bring rile nearer to my ducks, and I lazily guided the punt with the stake.

On rounding the island I found a new source of interest. The mere opened out to a much larger extent, and away towards my right I could see a break in the low land, as if a wide ditch had been cut through; while in this opening ever and anon dark objects rose up and disappeared again in a way I could not account for. The water seemed to be running off the mud-flats, and I saw that if I did not wish to be left high, but not dry, on the long slimy wastes, I must be careful to keep in the little channels or “lakes,” which acted as natural drains to the acres of greasy mud.

A conspicuous object attracted my attention some mile or more towards the opening in the land. It was a vessel lying high up on the mud, and looking as if she was abandoned.

The ducks had pitched a hundred yards or so beyond the island, and I approached as cautiously as I could; but just as I was putting down the stake to take up my gun, there was a swift sound of beating wings and splashing water, and away my birds flew, low over the mud, towards the old hulk.

Here was a chance, I thought. If I could get on board and remain hidden, I might, by patiently waiting, get a shot. I looked at my watch; there was still plenty of daylight left, and the tide was only just beginning to leave the mud. I punted away, therefore, with renewed hope, and was not long in getting up to the old ship.

There was just sufficient water over the mud to allow me to approach within ten or twelve feet, but further I could not push the punt. This was disappointing; however, I noticed a deep lake ran round the other side, and determined to try my luck there. So with a slosh and a heave I got the flat afloat again, and made for the deeper water. It turned out quite successful, and I was enabled to get right under the square overhanging counter, while a little lane of water led alongside her starboard quarter. I pushed the nose of the punt into this, and was not long in clambering on board by the rusty irons of her fore-chains.

The old vessel lay nearly upright in the soft mud, and a glance soon told she would never be used again. Her gear and rigging were, all rotten, and everything valuable had been removed. She was a brig of some two hundred tons, and had been a fine vessel, no doubt. To me there is always a world of romance in a deserted ship. The places she has been to, the scenes she has witnessed, the possibilities of crime, of adventure–all these thoughts crowd upon me when I see an old hulk lying deserted and forgotten–left to rot upon the mud of some lonely creek.

In order to keep my punt afloat as long as possible, I towed her round and moored her under the stern, and then looked over the bulwarks for the duck. There they were, swimming not more than a hundred and fifty yards away, and they were coming towards me. I remained perfectly concealed under the high bulwark, and could see them paddling and feeding in the greasy weed. Their approach was slow, but I could afford to wait. Nearer and nearer they came; another minute, and they would be well within shot. I was already congratulating myself upon the success of my adventure, and thinking of the joy of Jones at this large accession to his larder, when suddenly there was a heavy splash, and with a wild spluttering rush the whole pack rose out of the water, and went skimming over the mud towards the distant sea. I let off both barrels after them, and tried to console myself by thinking that I saw the feathers fly from one; but not a bird dropped, and I was left alone in my chagrin.

What could have caused the splash, that luckless splash, I wondered. There was surely no one else on board the ship, and certainly no one could get out here without mud-pattens or a boat. I looked round. All was perfectly still Nothing broke the monotony of the grey scene–sodden and damp and lifeless. A chill breeze came up from the southwest, bringing with it a raw mist, which was blotting out the dark distance, and fast limiting my horizon. The day was drawing in, and I must be thinking of going home. As I turned round, my attention was arrested by seeing a duck-punt glide past me in the now rapidly falling water, which was swirling by the mud-bank on which the vessel lay. But there was no one in her. A dreadful thought struck me. It must be my boat, and how shall I get home? I ran to the stern and looked over. The duck-punt was gone.

The frayed and stranded end of the painter told me how it had happened. I had not allowed for the fall of the tide, and the strain of the punt, as the water fell away, had snapped the line, old and rotten as it was.

I hurried to the bows, and jumping on to the bitts, saw my punt peacefully drifting away, some quarter of a mile off. It was perfectly evident I could not hope to get her again.

It was beginning to rain steadily. I could see that I was in for dirty weather, and became a little anxious about how I was to get back, especially as it was now rapidly growing dark. So thick was it that I could not see the low land anywhere, and could only judge of its position by remembering that the stern of the vessel pointed that way.

The conviction grew upon me that I could not possibly get away from this doleful old hulk without assistance, and how to get it, I could not for the life of me see. I had not seen a sign of a human being the whole day. It was not likely any more would be about at night. However, I shouted as loud as I could, and then waited to hear if there were any response. There was not a sound, only the wind moaned slightly through the stumps of the masts, and something creaked in the cabin.

Well, I thought, at least it might be worse. I shall have shelter for the night; while had I been left on one of these islands, I should have had to spend the night exposed to the pelting rain. Happy thought! Go below before it gets too dark, and see what sort of a berth can be got, if the worst comes to the worst. So thinking, I went to the booby-hatch, and found as I expected that it was half broken open, and anyone could go below who liked.

As I stepped down the rotting companion, the air smelt foul and dank. I went below very cautiously, for I was not at all sure that the boards would bear me. It was fortunate I did so, for as I stepped off the lowest step the floor gave way under my foot, and had I not been holding on to the stair-rail, I should have fallen through. Before going any further, I took a look round.

The prospect was not inviting. The light was dim; I could scarcely make out objects near me, all else was obscurity. I could see that the whole of the inside of the vessel was completely gutted. What little light there was came through the stern ports. A small round speck of light looked at me out of the darkness ahead, and I could see that the flooring had either all given way or been taken out of her. At my feet a gleam of water showed me what to expect if I should slip through the floor-joists. Altogether, a more desolate, gloomy, ghostly place it would be difficult to find.

I could not see any bunk or locker where I could sit down, and everything movable had been taken out of the hulk. Groping my way with increasing caution, I stepped across the joists, and felt along the side of the cabin. I soon came to a bulkhead. Continuing to grope, I came to an opening. If the cabin was dim, here was blackness itself. I felt it would be useless to attempt to go further, especially as a very damp foul odour came up from the bilge­water in her hold. As I stood looking into the darkness, a creepy, chilly shudder passed over me, and with a shiver I turned round to look at the cabin. My eyes had now become used to the gloom. A deeper patch of darkness on my right suggested the possibility of a berth, and groping my way over to it, I found the lower bunk was still entire. Here at least I could rest, if I found it impossible to get to shore. Having some wax vestas in my pocket, I struck a light and examined the bunk. It was better than I expected. If I could only find something to burn, I should be comparatively cheerful.

Before reconciling myself to my uncomfortable position, I resolved to see whether I could not get to the shore, and went up the rickety stairs again. It was raining hard, and the wind had got up. Nothing could be more dismal. I looked over the side and lowered myself down from the main-chains, to see if it were possible to walk over the mud. I found I could not reach the mud at all; and fearful of being unable to climb back if I let go, I clambered up the side again and got on board.

It was quite clear I must pass the night here. Before going below I once more shouted at the top of my voice, more to keep up my own spirits than with any hope of being heard, and then paused to listen. Not a sound of any sort replied. I now prepared to make myself as comfortable as I could.

It was a dreary prospect. I would rather have spent the night on deck than down below in that foul cabin; but the drenching driving rain, as well as the cold, drove me to seek shelter below. It seemed so absurd to be in the position of a ship­wrecked sailor, within two or three miles of a prosy country hamlet, and in a landlocked harbour while actually on land, if the slimy deep mud could be called land. I had not many matches left, but I had my gun and cartridges. The idea occurred to me to fire off minute-guns. “That’s what I ought to do, of course. The red flash will be seen in this dark night,” for it was dark now and no mistake. Getting up on to the highest part of the vessel, I blazed away. The noise sounded to me deafening; surely the whole countryside would be aroused. After firing off a dozen cartridges, I waited. But the silence only seemed the more oppressive, and the blackness all the darker. “It’s no good; I’ll turn in,” I thought, dejectedly.

With great difficulty I groped my way to the top of the companion-ladder, and bumped dismally down the steps. If only I had a light I should be fairly comfortable, I thought. “Happy thought, make a ‘spit-devil!’ ” as we used when boys to call a little cone of damp gunpowder.

I got out my last two cartridges, and emptying the powder carefully into my hand, I moistened it, and worked it up to a paste. I then placed it on the smooth end of the rail, and lighted it. This was brilliant: at least so it seemed by contrast with the absolute blackness around me. By its light I was able to find my way to the bunk, and it lasted just long enough for me to arrange myself fairly comfortably for the night. By contriving a succession of matches, I was enabled to have enough light to see to eat my frugal supper; for I had kept a little sherry and a few sandwiches to meet emergencies, and it was a fortunate thing I had. The light and the food made me feel more cheery, and by the time the last match had gone out, I felt worse might have happened to me by a long way.

As I lay still, waiting for sleep to come, the absurdity of the situation forced itself upon me. Here was I, to all intents and purposes as much cut off from all communication with the rest of the world as if I were cast away upon a desert island. The chances were that I should make some one see or hear me the next day. Jones would be certain to have the country searched, and at the longest I should only endure the discomfort of one night, and get well laughed at for my pains; but meanwhile I was absolutely severed from all human contact, and was as isolated as Robinson Crusoe, only “more so,” for I had no other living thing whatever to share my solitude. The silence of the place was perfect; and if silence can woo sleep, sleep ought very soon to have come. But when one is hungry and wet, and in a strange uncanny kind of place, besides being in one’s clothes, it is a very difficult thing to go to sleep. First, my head was too low; then, after resting it on my arms, I got cramp in them. My back seemed all over bumps; when I turned on my side, I appeared to have got a rather serious enlargement of the hip­joint; and I found my damp clothes smell very musty. After sighing and groaning for some time, I sat up for change of position, and nearly fractured my skull in so doing, against the remains of what had once been a berth above me. I didn’t dare to move in the inky blackness, for I had seen sufficient to know that I might very easily break my leg or my neck in the floorless cabin.

There was nothing for it but to sit still, or lie down and wait for daylight. I had no means of telling the time. When I had last looked at my watch, before the last match had gone out, it was not more than six o’clock; it might be now about eight, or perhaps not so late. Fancy twelve long hours spent in that doleful black place, with nothing in the world to do to pass away the time! I must go to sleep; and so, full of this resolve, I lay down again.

I suppose I went to sleep. All I can recollect, after lying down, is keeping my mind resolutely turned inwards, as it were, and fixed upon the arduous business of counting an imaginary and interminable flock of sheep pass one by one through an ideal gate. This meritorious method of compelling sleep had, no doubt, been rewarded; but I have no means of knowing how long I slept, and I cannot tell at what hour of the night the following strange circumstances occurred–for occur they certainly did–and I am as perfectly convinced that I was the oral witness to some ghastly crime, as I am that I am writing these lines. I have little doubt I shall be laughed at, as Jones laughed at me–be told that I was dreaming, that I was overtired and nervous. In fact, so accustomed have I become to this sort of thing, that I now hardly ever tell my tale; or, if I do, I put it in the third person, and then I find people believe it, or at least take much more interest in it. I suppose the reason is, that people cannot bring themselves to think so strange a thing could have happened to such a prosy everyday sort of man as myself, and they cannot divest their minds of the idea that I am–well, to put it mildly—“drawing on my imagination for facts.” Perhaps, if the tale appears in print, it will be believed, as a facetious friend of mine once said to a newly married couple, who had just seen the announcement of their marriage in the ‘Times,’ “Ah, didn’t know you were married till you saw it in print!”

Well, be the time what it may have been, all I know is that the next thing I can remember after getting my five-hundredth sheep through the gate is, that I heard two most horrible yells ring through the darkness. I sat bolt-upright; and as a proof that. my senses were “all there,” I did not bring my head this time against the berth overhead, remembering to bend it outwards so as to clear it.

There was not another sound. The silence was as absolute as the darkness. “I must have been dreaming,” I thought; but the sounds were ringing in my ears, and my heart was beating with excitement. There must have been some reason for this. I never was “taken this way” before. I could not make it out, and felt very uncomfortable. I sat there listening for some time. No other sound breaking the deathly stillness, and becoming tired of sitting, I lay down again. Once more I set myself to get my interminable flocks through that gate, but I could not help myself listening.

There seemed to me a sound growing in the darkness, a something gathering in the particles of the air, as if molecules of the atmosphere were rustling together, and with stilly movement were whispering something. The wind had died down, and I would have gone on deck if I could move; but it was hazardous enough moving about in the light: it would have been madness to attempt to move in that blackness. And so I lay still and tried to sleep.

But now there was a sound, indistinct, but no mere fancy; a muffled sound, as of some movement in the forepart of the ship.

I listened intently and gazed into the darkness.

What was the sound? It did not seem like rats. It was a dull, shuffling kind of noise, very indistinct, and conveying no clue whatever as to its cause. It lasted only for a short time. But now the cold damp air seemed to have become more piercingly chilly. The raw iciness seemed to strike into the very marrow of my bones, and my teeth chattered. At the same time a new sense seemed to be assailed: the foul odour which I had noticed arising from the stagnant water in the bilge appeared to rise into more objectionable prominence, as if it had been stirred.

“I cannot stand this,” I muttered, shivering in horrible aversion at the disgusting odour; “I will go on deck at all hazards.”

Rising to put this resolve in execution, I was arrested by the noise beginning again. I listened. This time I distinctly distinguished two separate sounds: one, like a heavy soft weight being dragged along with difficulty; the other like the hard sound of boots on boards. Could there be others on board after all? If so, why had they made no sound when I clambered on deck, or afterwards, when I shouted and fired my gun?

Clearly, if there were people, they wished to remain concealed, and my presence was inconvenient to them. But how absolutely still and quiet they had kept! It appeared incredible that there should be anyone. I listened intently. The sound had ceased again, and once more the most absolute stillness reigned around. A gentle swishing, wobbling, lapping noise seemed to form itself in the darkness. It increased, until I recognised the chattering and bubbling of water. “It must be the tide which is rising,” I thought; “it has reached the rudder, and is eddying round the stern-post.” This also accounted, in my mind, for the other noises, because, as the tide surrounded the vessel, and she thus became water-borne, all kinds of sounds might be produced in the old hulk as she resumed her upright position.

However, I could not get rid of the chilly horrid feeling those two screams had produced, combined with the disgusting smell, which was getting more and more obtrusive. It was foul, horrible, revolting, like some carrion, putrid and noxious. I prepared to take my chances of damage, and rose up to grope my way to the companion-ladder.

It was a more difficult job than I had any idea of. I had my gun, it was true, and with it I could feel for the joists; but when once I let go of the edge of the bunk I had nothing to steady me, and nearly went headlong at the first step. Fortunately I reached back in time to prevent my fall; but this attempt convinced me that I had better endure the strange horrors of the unknown, than the certain miseries of a broken leg or neck.

I sat down, therefore, on the bunk.

Now that my own movements had ceased, I became aware that the shuffling noise was going on all the time. “Well,” thought I, “they may shuffle. They won’t hurt me, and I shall go to sleep again.” So reflecting, I lay down, holding my gun, ready to use as a club if necessary.

Now it is all very well to laugh at superstitious terrors. Nothing is easier than to obtain a cheap reputation for brilliancy, independence of thought, and courage, by deriding the fear of the supernatural when comfortably seated in a drawing-room well lighted, and with company. But put those scoffers in a like situation with mine, and I don’t believe they would have been any more free from a feeling the reverse of bold, mocking, and comfortable, than I was.

I had read that most powerful ghost-story, “The Haunted and the Haunters,” by the late Lord Lytton, and the vividness of that weird tale had always impressed me greatly. Was I actually now to experience in my own person, and with no possibility of escape, the trying ordeal that bold ghost-hunter went through, under much more favourable circumstances? He at least had his servant with him. He had fuel and a light, and above all, he could get away when he wanted to. I felt I could face any number of spiritual manifestations, if only I had warmth and light. But the icy coldness of the air was eating into my bones, and I shivered until my teeth chattered.

I could not get to sleep. I could not prevent myself listening, and at last I gave up the contest, and let myself listen. But there seemed now nothing to listen to. All the time I had been refusing to let my ears do their office, by putting my handkerchief over one ear, and lying on my arm with the other, a confused noise appeared to reach me, but the moment I turned round and lay on my back, everything seemed quiet. “It’s only my fancy after all; the result of cold and want of a good dinner. I will go to sleep.” But in spite of this I lay still, listening a little longer. There was the sound of trickling water against the broad bilge of the old hulk, and I knew the tide was rising fast: my thoughts turned to the lost canoe, and to reproaching myself with my stupidity in not allowing enough rope, or looking at it more carefully. Suddenly I became all attention again. An entirely different sound now arrested me. It was distinctly a low groan, and followed almost immediately by heavy blows–blows which fell on a soft substance, and then more groans, and again those sickening blows.

“There must be men here. Where are they? and what is it?” I sat up, and strained my eyes towards where the sound came from. The sounds had ceased again. Should I call out, and let the man or men know that I was here? What puzzled me was the absolute darkness. How could anyone see to hit an object; or do anything else in this dense obscurity? It appalled me. Anything might pass at an inch’s distance, and I could not tell who or what it was. But how could anything human find its way about, any more than I could?  Perhaps there was a solid bulkhead dividing the forecastle from me. But it would have to be very sound, and with no chink whatever, to prevent a gleam or ray of light finding its way out somewhere. I could not help feeling convinced that the whole hull was open from one end to the other. Was I really dreaming after all? To convince myself that I was wide awake, I felt in my pockets for my notebook, and pulling out my pencil, I opened the book, and holding it in my left hand, wrote as well as I could, by feel alone: “I am wide awake; it is about midnight–Christmas eve, 187_.” I found I had got to the bottom of the page, so I shut the book up, resolving to look at it the next morning. I felt curious to see what the writing looked like by daylight.

But all further speculation was cut short by the shuffling and dragging noise beginning again. There was no doubt the sounds were louder, and were coming my way.

I never in all my life felt so uncomfortable–I may as well at once confess it–so frightened. There, in that empty hull, over that boardless floor, over these rotting joists, somebody or something was dragging some heavy weight. What, I could not imagine; only the shrieks, the blows, the groans, the dull thumping sounds, compelled me to suspect the worst;–to feel convinced that I was actually within some few feet of a horrible murder then being committed. I could form no idea of who the victim was, or who was the assassin. That I actually heard the sounds I had no doubt; that they were growing louder and more distinct I felt painfully aware. The horror of the situation was intense. If only I could strike a light, and see what was passing close there­–but I had no matches. I could hear a sound as of some one breathing slowly, stertorously, then a dull groan. And once more the cruel sodden blows fell again, followed by a drip, drip, and heavy drop in the dank water below, from which the sickening smell rose, pungent, reeking, horrible.

The dragging shuffling noise now began again. It came quite close to me, so close that I felt I had only to put out my hand to touch, the thing. Good heavens! was it coming to my bunk? The thing passed, and all the time the dull drip, as of some heavy drops, fell into the water below. It was awful. All this time I was sitting up, and holding my gun by its barrel, ready to use it if I were attacked. As the sound passed me at the closest, I put out the gun involuntarily; but it touched nothing, and I shuddered at the thought that there was no floor over which the weight could be drawn.

I must be dreaming some terribly vivid dream. It could not be real I pinched myself. I felt I was pinching myself. It was no dream. The sweat poured off my brow, my teeth chattered with the cold. It was terrific in its dreadful mystery.

And now the sounds altered. The noises had reached the companion-ladder. Something was climbing them with difficulty. The old stairs creaked. Bump, thump, the thing was dragged up the steps with many pauses, and at last it seemed to have reached the deck. A long pause now followed. The silence grew dense around. I dreaded the stillness-­the silence that made itself be heard almost more than the sounds. What new horror would that awful quiet bring forth?  What terror was still brooding in the depths of that clinging darkness–darkness that could be felt?

The absolute silence was broken,–horribly broken,–by a dull drip from the stairs, and then the dragging began again. Distant and less distinct, but the steps were louder. They came nearer–over my head–the old boards creaked, and the weight was dragged right over me. I could hear it above my head: for the steps stopped, and two distinct raps, followed by a third heavier one, sounded so clearly above me, that it seemed almost as if it was something striking the rotten woodwork of the berth over my head. The sounds were horribly suggestive of the elbows and head of a body being dropped on the deck.

And now, as if the horrors had not been enough, a fresh ghastliness was added. So close were the raps above me that I involuntarily moved, as if I had been struck by what caused them. As I did so, I felt something drop on to my head and slowly trickle over my forehead: it was too horrible! I sprang up in my disgust, and with a wild cry I stepped forward, and instantly fell between the joists into the rank water below.

The shock was acute. Had I been asleep and dreaming before, this must inevitably have roused me up. I found myself completely immersed in water, and, for a moment, was absolutely incapable of thinking. As it was pitch-dark and my head had gone under, I could not tell whether I was above water or not, as I felt the bottom and struggled and splashed on to my legs. It was only by degrees I knew I must be standing with my head out of the foul mixture, because I was able to breathe easily, although the wet running down from my hair dribbled into my mouth as I stood shivering and gasping. It was astonishing how a physical discomfort overcame a mental terror. Nothing could be more miserable than my present position, and my efforts were at once directed to getting out of this dreadful place. But let anyone who has ever had the ill-luck to fall out of bed in his boyhood try and recollect his sensations. The bewildering realisation that he is not in bed, that he does not know where he is, which way to go, or what to do to get back again; everything he touches seems strange, and one piece of furniture much the same as any other. I well remember such an accident, and how, having rolled under the bed before I was wide awake, I could not for the life of me understand why I could not get up, what it was that kept me down. I had not the least idea which way to get out, and kept going round and round in a circle under my bed for a long time, and should probably have been doing it until daylight, had not my sighs and groans awoke my brother, who slept in the same room, and who came to my help.

If, then, one is so utterly at fault in a room every inch of which one knows intimately, how much more hopeless was my position at the bottom of this old vessel, half immersed in water, and totally without any clue which could help me to get out! I had not the least idea which was the ship’s stern or which her stem, and every movement I made with my feet only served to unsteady me, as the bottom was all covered with slime, and uneven with the great timbers of the vessel.

My first thought on recovering my wits was to stretch my arms up over my head, and I was relieved to find that I could easily reach the joists above me. I was always fairly good at gymnastics, and I had not much difficulty in drawing myself up and sitting on the joist, although the weight of my wet clothes added to my exertions considerably. Having so far succeeded, I sat and drained, as it were, into the water below. The smell was abominable. I never disliked myself so much, and I shivered with cold.

As I could not get any wetter, I determined to go on deck somehow, but where was the companion­ladder? I had nothing to guide me. Strange to say, the reality of my struggles had almost made me forget the mysterious phenomena I had been listening to. But now, as I looked round, my attention was caught by a luminous patch which quivered and flickered on my right, at what distance from me I could not tell. It was like the light from a glow­worm, only larger and changing in shape; sometimes elongated like a lambent oval, and then it would sway one way or another, as if caught in a draught of air. While I was looking at it and wondering what could cause it, I heard the steps over my head; they passed above me, and then seemed to grow louder on my left. A creeping dread again came over me. If only I could get out of this horrible place–but where were the stairs? I listened. The footfall seemed to be coming down some steps; then the companion-ladder must be on my left. But if I moved that way I should meet the Thing, whatever it was, that was coming down. I shuddered at the thought. However, I made up my mind. Stretching out my hand very carefully, I felt for the next joist, reached it, and crawled across. I stopped to listen. The steps were coming nearer. My hearing had now become acute; I could almost tell the exact place of each footfall. It came closer–closer,–quite close, surely–on the very joist on which I was sitting. I thought I could feel the joist quiver, and involuntarily moved my hand to prevent the heavy tread falling on it. The steps passed on, grew fainter, and ceased, as they drew near the pale lambent light. One thing I noticed with curious horror, and that was, that although the thing must have passed between me and the light, yet it was never for a moment obscured, which it must have been had any body or substance passed between, and yet I was certain that the steps went directly from me to it.

It was all horribly mysterious; and what had become of the other sound–the thing that was being dragged? An irresistible shudder passed over me; but I determined to pursue my way until I came to something. It would never do to sit still and shiver there.

After many narrow escapes of falling again, I reached a bulkhead, and cautiously feeling along it, I came to an opening. It was the companion-ladder. By this time my hands, by feeling over the joists, had become dry again. I felt along the step to be quite sure that it was the stairs, and in so doing I touched something wet, sticky, clammy. Oh, horror! what was it? A cold shiver shook me nearly off the joist, and I felt an unutterable sense of repulsion to going on. However, the fresher air which came down the companion revived me, and, conquering my dread, I clambered on to the step. It did not take long to get upstairs and stand on the deck again.

I think I never in all my life experienced such a sense of joy as I did on being out of that disgusting hole. It was true I was soaking wet, and the night wind cut through me like a knife; but these were things I could understand, and were matter of common experience. What I had gone through might only be a question of nerves, and had no tangible or visible terror; but it was none the less very dreadful, and I would not go through such an experience again for worlds. As I stood cowering under the lee of the bulwark, I looked round at the sky. There was a pale light as if of daybreak away in the east, and it seemed as if all my troubles would be over with the dawn. It was bitterly cold. The wind had got round to the north, and I could faintly make out the low shore astern.

While I stood shivering there, a cry came down the wind. At first I thought it was a sea-bird, but it sounded again. I felt sure it was a human voice. I sprang up on to the taffrail, and shouted at the top of my lungs, then paused. The cry came down clearer and distinct. It was Jones’s voice–had he heard me? I waved my draggled pocket-handkerchief and shouted again. In the silence which followed, I caught the words, “We are coming.” What joyful words! Never did shipwrecked mariner on a lonely isle feel greater delight. My misery would soon be over. Anyhow, I should not have to wait long.

Unfortunately the tide was low, and was still falling. Nothing but a boat could reach me, I thought, and to get a boat would take some time. I therefore stamped up and down the deck to get warm; but I had an instinctive aversion for the companion-ladder, and the deep shadows of the forepart of the vessel.

As I turned round in my walk, I thought I saw something moving over the mud. I stopped. It was undoubtedly a figure coming towards me. A voice hailed me in gruff accents­—

“Lily, ahoy! Be anyone aboard?”

Was anyone aboard? What an absurd question! and here had I been shouting myself hoarse. However, I quickly reassured him, and then understood why my rescuer did not sink in the soft mud. He had mud-pattens on. Coming up as close as he could, he shouted to me to keep clear, and then threw first one, then the other, clattering wooden board on to the deck. I found them, and under the instructions of my friend, I did not take long in putting them on. The man was giving me directions as to how to manage; but I did not care how much wetter I got, and dropped over the side into the slime. Sliding and straddling, I managed to get up to my friend, and then together we skated, as it were, to the shore-­although skating very little represents the awkward splashes and slips I made on my way to land. I found quite a little crowd awaiting me on the bank; but Jones, with ready consideration, hurried me off to a cart he had in a lane near, and drove me home.

I told him the chief points of the adventure on our way; but did not say anything of the curious noises. It is odd how shy a man feels at telling what he knows people will never believe. It was not until the evening of the next day that I began to tell him, and then only after I was fortified by an excellent dinner, and some very good claret. Jones listened attentively. He was far too kindly and well bred to laugh at me; but I could see he did not believe one word as to the reality of the occurrence. “Very strange!” “How remarkable!” “Quite extraordinary!” he kept saying, with evident interest. But I was sure he put it all down to my fatigue and disordered imagination. And so, to do him justice, has everybody else to whom I have told the tale since.

The fact is, we cannot, in this prosaic age, believe in anything the least approaching the supernatural. Nor do I. But nevertheless I am as certain as I am that I am writing these words, that the thing did really happen, and will happen again, may happen every night for all I know, only I don’t intend to try and put my belief to the test. I have a theory which of course will be laughed at, and as I am not in the least scientific, I cannot bolster it up by scientific arguments. It is this: As Mr. Edison has now discovered that by certain simple processes human sounds can be reproduced at any future date, so accidentally, and owing to the combination of most curious coincidences, it might happen that the agonised cries of some suffering being, or the sounds made by one at a time when all other emotions are as nothing compared to the supreme sensations of one committing some awful crime, could be impressed on the atmosphere or surface of an enclosed building, which could be reproduced by a current of air passing into that building under the same atmospheric conditions. This is the vague explanation I have given to myself.

However, be the explanation what it may, the facts are as I have stated them. Let those laugh who did not experience them. To return to the end of the story. There were two things I pointed out to Jones as conclusive that I was not dreaming. One was my pocket-book. I showed it him, and the words were quite clear–only, of course, very straggling. This is a facsimile of the writing, but I cannot account for the date being 1837­—

I am wide awake – it is Xmas Eve 1837

The other point was the horrible stains on my hands and clothes. A foul-smelling dark chocolate stain was on my hair, hands, and clothes. Jones said, of course, this was from the rust off the mouldering iron-work, some of which no doubt had trickled down, owing to the heavy rain, through the defective caulking of the deck. The fact is, there is nothing that an ingenious mind cannot explain; but the question is, Is the explanation the right one?

I could easily account for the phosphorescent light. The water was foul and stagnant, and. it was no doubt caused by the same gases which produce the well­known ignis-fatuus or Will-o’-the-wisp.

We visited the ship, and I recovered my gun., There were the same stains on the deck as there were on my clothes; and curiously enough they went in a nearly straight line over the place where I lay, from the top of the companion to the starboard bulwark.

We carefully examined the forepart of the ship: it was as completely gutted as the rest of her. Jones was glad to get on deck again, as the atmosphere was very unpleasant, and I had no wish to stay.

At my request Jones made every inquiry he could about the old hulk. Not much was elicited. It bore an evil name, and no one would go on board who could help it. So far it looked as if it were credited with being haunted. The owner, who had been the captain of her, had died about three years before. His character did not seem amiable; but as he had left his money to the most influential farmer in the district, the country-people were unwilling to talk against him.

I went with Jones to call on the farmer, and asked him point-blank if he had ever heard whether a murder had been committed on board the Lily. He stared at me, and then laughed. “Not as I know of” was all his answer–and I never got any nearer than that.

I feel that this is all very unsatisfactory. I wish I could give some thrilling and sensational explanation. I am sorry I cannot. My imagination suggests many, as no doubt it will to each of my readers who possesses that faculty; but I have only written this to tell the actual facts, not to add to our superabundant fiction.

If ever I come across any details bearing upon the subject, I will not fail to communicate them at once. The vessel I found was the Lily of Goole, owned by one Master Gad Earwaker, and built in 1801.

The ghost bag

Christmas Ghost Story: The Kit-Bag, by Algernon Blackwood

We’ve had several amusing, and one wistful, Christmas ghost stories in our series. Now it’s time for something genuinely terrifying, and you can always rely on Algernon Blackwood to bring the blood-curdling and subtle. This is his seasonal masterpiece The Kit-Bag.

A jolly young man with jolly young friends prepares to go on a jolly young holiday, with all the skiing, cocoa, sleighing, and friendly girls in furs that the youthful heart (or other organs) could desire. Have you ever gone away for a holiday? You’ll know, then, that the worst part is packing, as our hero discovers, to his chagrin.

I venture to say, however, none of us have had quite as much trouble with our luggage as this poor unfortunate, and thank god for that!


The Kit-Bag
by Algernon Blackwood

The ghost bag

The ghost bag

From “Pall Mall Magazine”, December 1908

When the words ‘Not Guilty’ sounded through the crowded courtroom that
dark December afternoon, Arthur Wilbraham, the great criminal KC, and
leader for the triumphant defence, was represented by his junior; but
Johnson, his private secretary, carried the verdict across to his
chambers like lightning.

‘It’s what we expected, I think,’ said the barrister, without emotion;
‘and, personally, I am glad the case is over.’ There was no particular
sign of pleasure that his defence of John Turk, the murderer, on a plea
of insanity, had been successful, for no doubt he felt, as everybody who
had watched the case felt, that no man had ever better deserved the
gallows.

‘I’m glad too,’ said Johnson. He had sat in the court for ten days
watching the face of the man who had carried out with callous detail one
of the most brutal and cold-blooded murders of recent years.

Thee counsel glanced up at his secretary. They were more than employer and
employed; for family and other reasons, they were friends. ‘Ah, I
remember; yes,’ he said with a kind smile, ‘and you want to get away for
Christmas? You’re going to skate and ski in the Alps, aren’t you? If I
was your age I’d come with you.’

Johnson laughed shortly. He was a young man of twenty-six, with a
delicate face like a girl’s. ‘I can catch the morning boat now,’ he said;
‘but that’s not the reason I’m glad the trial is over. I’m glad it’s over
because I’ve seen the last of that man’s dreadful face. It positively
haunted me. That white skin, with the black hair brushed low over the
forehead, is a thing I shall never forget, and the description of the way
the dismembered body was crammed and packed with lime into that–‘

‘Don’t dwell on it, my dear fellow,’ interrupted the other, looking at
him curiously out of his keen eyes, ‘don’t think about it. Such pictures
have a trick of coming back when one least wants them.’ He paused a
moment. ‘Now go,’ he added presently, ‘and enjoy your holiday. I shall
want all your energy for my Parliamentary work when you get back. And
don’t break your neck skiing.’

Johnson shook hands and took his leave. At the door he turned suddenly.

‘I knew there was something I wanted to ask you,’ he said. ‘Would you
mind lendang me one of your kit-bags? It’s too late to get one tonight,
and I leave in the morning before the shops are open.’

‘Of course; I’ll send Henry over with it to your rooms. You shall have it
the moment I get home.’

‘I promise to take great care of it,’ said Johnson gratefully, delighted
to think that within thirty hours he would be nearing the brilliant
sunshine of the high Alps in winter. The thought of that criminal court
was like an evil dream in his mind.

He dined at his club and went on to Bloomsbury, where he occupied the top
floor in one of those old, gaunt houses in which the rooms are large and
lofty. The floor below his own was vacant and unfurnished, and below that
were other lodgers whom he did not know. It was cheerless, and he looked
forward heartily to a change. The night was even more cheerless: it was
miserable, and few people were about. A cold, sleety rain was driving
down the streets before the keenest east wind he had ever felt. It howled
dismally among the big, gloomy houses of the great squares, and when he
reached his rooms he heard it whistling and shouting over the world of
black roofs beyond his windows.

In the hall he met his landlady, shading a candle from the draughts with
her thin hand. ‘This come by a man from Mr Wilbr’im’s, sir.’

She pointed to what was evidently the kit-bag, and Johnson thanked her
and took it upstairs with him. ‘I shall be going abroad in the morning
for ten days, Mrs Monks,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave an address for letters.’

‘And I hope you’ll ‘ave a merry Christmas, sir,’ she said, in a raucous,
wheezy voice that suggested spirits, ‘and better weather than this.’

‘I hope so too,’ replied her lodger, shuddering a little as the wind went
roaring down the street outside.

When he got upstairs he heard the sleet volleying against the window
panes. He put his kettle on to make a cup of hot coffee, and then set
about putting a few things in order for his absence. ‘And now I must
pack–such as my packing is,’ he laughed to himself, and set to work at
once.

He liked the packing, for it brought the snow mountains so vividly
before him, and made him forget the unpleasant scenes of the past ten
days. Besides, it was not elaborate in nature. His fraend had lent him
the very thing–a stout canvas kit-bag, sack-shaped, with holes round the
neck for the brass bar and padlock. It was a bit shapeless, true, and not
much to look at, but its capacity was unlimited, and there was no need to
pack carefully. He shoved in his waterproof coat, his fur cap and gloves,
his skates and climbing boots, his sweaters, snow-boots, and ear-caps;
and then on the top of these he piled his woollen shirts and underwear,
his thick socks, puttees, and knickerbockers. The dress suit came next,
in case the hotel people dressed for dinner, and then, thinking of the
best way to pack his white shirts, he paused a moment to reflect. ‘That’s
the worst of these kit-bags,’ he mused vaguely, standing in the centre of
the sitting-room, where he had come to fetch some string.

It was after ten o’clock. A furious gust of wind rattled the windows as
though to hurry him up, and he thought with pity of the poor Londoners
whose Christmas would be spent in such a climate, whilst he was skimming
over snowy slopes in bright sunshine, and dancing in the evening with
rosy-checked girls–Ah! that reminded him; he must put in his
dancing-pumps and evening socks. He crossed over from his sitting-room to
the cupboard on the landing where he kept his linen.

And as he did so he heard someone coming softly up the stairs.

He stood still a moment on the landing to listen. It was Mrs Monks’s
step, he thought; she must he coming up with the last post. But then the
steps ceased suddenly, and he heard no more. They were at least two
flights down, and he came to the conclusion they were too heavy to be
those of his bibulous landlady. No doubt they belonged to a late lodger
who had mistaken his floor. He went into his bedroom and packed his pumps
and dress-shirts as best he could.

The kit-bag by this time was two-thirds full, and stood upright on its own
base like a sack of flour. For the first time he noticed that it was old
and dirty, the canvas faded and worn, and that it had obviously been
subjected to rather rough treatment. It was not a very nice bag to have
sent him–certainly not a new one, or one that his chief valued. He gave
the matter a passing thought, and went on with his packing. Once or
twice, however, he caught himself wondering who it could have been
wandering down below, for Mrs Monks had not come up with letters, and the
floor was empty and unfurnished. From time to time, moreover, he was
almost certain he heard a soft tread of someone padding about over the
bare boards–cautiously, stealthily, as silently as possible–and,
further, that the sounds had been lately coming distinctly nearer.

For the first time in his life he began to feel a little creepy. Then, as
though to emphasize this feeling, an odd thing happened: as he left the
bedroom, having, just packed his recalcitrant white shirts, he noticed
that the top of the kit-bag lopped over towards him with an extraordinary
resemblance to a human face. The canvas fell into a fold like a nose and
forehead, and the brass rings for the padlock just filled the position of
the eyes. A shadow–or was it a travel stain? for he could not tell
exactly–looked like hair. It gave him rather a turn, for it was so
absurdly, so outrageously, like the face of John Turk the murderer.

He laughed, and went into the front room, where the light was stronger.

‘That horrid case has got on my mind,’ he thought; ‘I shall be glad of a
change of scene and air.’ In the sitting-room, however, he was not
pleased to hear again that stealthy tread upon the stairs, and to realize
that it was much closer than before, as well as unmistakably real. And
this time he got up and went out to see who it could be creeping about on
the upper staircase at so late an hour.

But the sound ceased; there was no one visible on the stairs. He went to
the floor below, not without trepidation, and turned on the electric
light to make sure that no one was hiding in the empty rooms of the
unoccupied suite. There was not a stick of furniture large enough to hide
a dog. Then he called over the banisters to Mrs Monks, but there was no
answer, and his voice echoed down into the dark vault of the house, and
was lost in the roar of the gale that howled outside. Everyone was in bed
and asleep–everyone except himself and the owner of this soft and
stealthy tread.

‘My absurd imagination, I suppose,’ he thought. ‘It must have been the
wind after all, although–it seemed so _very_ real and close, I thought.’
He went back to his packing. It was by this time getting on towards
midnight. He drank his coffee up and lit another pipe–the last before
turning in.

It is difficult to say exactly at what point fear begins, when the causes
of that fear are not plainly before the eyes. Impressions gather on the
surface of the mind, film by film, as ice gathers upon the surface of
still water, but often so lightly that they claim no definite recognation
from the consciousness. Then a point is reached where the accumulated
impressions become a definite emotion, and the mind realizes that
something has happened. With something of a start, Johnson suddenly
recognized that he felt nervous–oddly nervous; also, that for some time
past the causes of this feeling had been gathering slowly in has mind,
but that he had only just reached the point where he was forced to
acknowledge them.

It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he
hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something
that was strongly objected to by another person, another person,
moreover, who had some right to object. It was a most disturbing and
disagreeable feeling, not unlike the persistent promptings of conscience:
almost, in fact, as if he were doing something he knew to be wrong. Yet,
though he searched vigorously and honestly in his mind, he could nowhere
lay his finger upon the secret of this growing uneasiness, and it
perplexed him. More, it distressed and frightened him.

‘Pure nerves, I suppose,’ he said aloud with a forced laugh. ‘Mountain
air will cure all that! Ah,’ he added, still speaking to himself, ‘and
that reminds me–my snow-glasses.’

He was standing by the door of the bedroom during this brief soliloquy,
and as he passed quickly towards the sitting-room to fetch them from the
cupboard he saw out of the corner of his eye the indistinct outline of a
figure standing on the stairs, a few feet from the top. It was someone in
a stooping position, with one hand on the banisters, and the face peering
up towards the landing. And at the same moment he heard a shuffling
footstep. The person who had been creeping about below all this time had
at last come up to his own floor. Who in the world could it be? And what
in the name of Heaven did he want?

Johnson caught his breath sharply and stood stock still. Then, after a
few seconds’ hesitation, he found his courage, and turned to investigate.
Be stairs, he saw to his utter amazement, were empty; there was no one.
He felt a series of cold shivers run over him, and something about the
muscles of his legs gave a little and grew weak. For the space of several
minutes he peered steadily into the shadows that congregated about the
top of the staircase where he had seen the figure, and then he walked
fast–almost ran, in fact–into the light of the front room; but hardly
had he passed inside the doorway when he heard someone come up the stairs
behind him with a quick bound and go swiftly into his bedroom. It was a
heavy, but at the same time a stealthy footstep–the tread of somebody
who did not wish to be seen. And it was at this precise moment that the
nervousness he had hitherto experienced leaped the boundary line, and
entered the state of fear, almost of acute, unreasoning fear. Before it
turned into terror there was a further boundary to cross, and beyond that
again lay the region of pure horror. Johnson’s position was an unenviable
one.

By Jove! That was someone on the stairs, then,’ he muttered, his flesh
crawling all over; ‘and whoever it was has now gone into my bedroom.’ His
delicate, pale face turned absolutely white, and for some minutes he
hardly knew what to think or do. Then he realized intuitively that delay
only set a premium upon fear; and he crossed the landing boldly and went
straight into the other room, where, a few seconds before, the steps had
disappeared.

‘Who’s there? Is that you, Mrs Monks?’ he called aloud, as he went, and
heard the first half of his words echo down the empty stairs, while the
second half fell dead against the curtains in a room that apparently held
no other human figure than his own.

‘Who’s there?’ he called again, in a voice unnecessarily loud and that
only just held firm. ‘What do you want here?’

The curtains swayed very slightly, and, as he saw it, his heart felt as
if it almost missed a beat; yet he dashed forward and drew them aside
with a rush. A window, streaming with rain, was all that met his gaze. He
continued his search, but in vain; the cupboards held nothing but rows of
clothes, hanging motionless; and under the bed there was no sign of
anyone hiding. He stepped backwards into the middle of the room, and, as
he did so, something all but tripped him up. Turning with a sudden spring
of alarm he saw–the kit-bag.

‘Odd!’ he thought. ‘That’s not where I left it!’ A few moments before it
had surely been on his right, between the bed and the bath; he did not
remember having moved it. It was very curious. What in the world was the
matter with everything? Were all his senses gone queer? A terrific gust
of wind tore at the windows, dashing the sleet against the glass with the
force of small gunshot, and then fled away howling dismally over the
waste of Bloomsbury roofs. A sudden vision of the Channel next day rose
in his mind and recalled him sharply to realities.

There’s no one here at any rate; that’s quite clear!’ he exclaimed aloud.
Yet at the time he uttered them he knew perfectly well that his words
were not true and that he did not believe them himself. He felt exactly
as though someone was hiding close about him, watching all his movements,
trying to hinder his packing in some way. ‘And two of my senses,’ he
added, keeping up the pretence, ‘have played me the most absurd tricks:
the steps I heard and the figure I saw were both entirely imaginary.’

He went hack to the front room, poked the fire into a blaze, and sat down
before it to think. What impressed him more than anythang else was the
fact that the kit-bag was no longer where he had left at. It had been
dragged nearer to the door.

What happened afterwards that night happened, of course, to a man already
excited by fear, and was perceived by a mand that had not the full and
proper control, therefore, of the senses. Outwardly, Johson remained calm
and master of himself to the end, pretending to the very last that
everything he witnessed had a natural explanation, or was merely
delusions of his tired nerves. But inwardly, in his very heart, he knew
all along that someone had been hiding downstairs in the empty suite when
he came in, that this person had watched his opportunity and then
stealthily made his way up to the bedroom, and that all he saw and heard
afterwards, from the moving of the kit-bag to–well, to the other things
this story has to tell–were caused directly by the presence of this
invisible person.

And it was here, just when he most desired to keep his mind and thoughts
controlled, that the vivid pictures received day after day upon the
mental plates exposed in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, came strongly
to light and developed themselves in the dark room of his inner vision.
Unpleasant, haunting memories have a way of coming to life again just
when the mind least desires them–in the silent watches of the night, on
sleepless pillows, during the lonely hours spent by sick and dying beds.
And so now, in the same way, Johnson saw nothing but the dreadful face of
John Turk, the murderer, lowering at him from every corner of his mental
field of vision; the white skin, the evil eyes, and the fringe of black
hair low over the forehead. All the pictures of those ten days in court
crowded back into his mind unbidden, and very vivid.

‘This is all rubbish and nerves,’ he exclaimed at length, springing with
sudden energy from his chair. ‘I shall finish my packing and go to bed.
I’m overwrought, overtired. No doubt, at this rate I shall hear steps and
things all night!’

But his face was deadly white all the same. He snatched up his
field-glasses and walked across to the bedroom, humming a music-hall song
as he went–a trifle too loud to be natural; and the instant he crossed
the threshold and stood within the room something turned cold about his
heart, and he felt that every hair on his head stood up.

The kit-bag lay close in front of him, several feet nearer to the door
than he had left it, and just over its crumpled top he saw a head and
face slowly sinking down out of sight as though someone were crouching
behind it to hide, and at the same moment a sound like a long-drawn
sigh was distinctly audible in the still air about him between the
gusts of the storm outside.

Johnson had more courage and will-power than the girlish indecision of
his face indicated; but at first such a wave of terror came over him that
for some seconds he could do nothing but stand and stare. A violent
trembling ran down his back and legs, and he was conscious of a foolish,
almost a hysterical, impulse to scream aloud. That sigh seemed in his
very ear, and the air still quivered with it. It was unmistakably a human
sigh.

‘Who’s there?’ he said at length, findinghis voice; but thought he meant
to speak with loud decision, the tones came out instead in a faint
whisper, for he had partly lost the control of his tongue and lips.

He stepped forward, so that he could see all round and over the kit-bag.
Of course there was nothing there, nothing but the faded carpet and the
bulgang canvas sides. He put out his hands and threw open the mouth of
the sack where it had fallen over, being only three parts full, and then
he saw for the first time that round the inside, some six inches from the
top, there ran a broad smear of dull crimson. It was an old and faded
blood stain. He uttered a scream, and drew hack his hands as if they had
been burnt. At the same moment the kit-bag gave a faint, but
unmistakable, lurch forward towards the door.

Johnson collapsed backwards, searching with his hands for the support of
something solid, and the door, being further behind him than he realized,
received his weight just in time to prevent his falling, and shut to with
a resounding bang. At the same moment the swinging of his left arm
accidentally touched the electric switch, and the light in the room went
out.

It was an awkward and disagreeable predicament, and if Johnson had not
been possessed of real pluck he might have done all manner of foolish
things. As it was, however, he pulled himself together, and groped
furiously for the little brass knob to turn the light on again. But the
rapid closing of the door had set the coats hanging on it a-swinging, and
his fingers became entangled in a confusion of sleeves and pockets, so
that it was some moments before he found the switch. And in those few
moments of bewilderment and terror two things happened that sent him
beyond recall over the boundary into the region of genuine horror–he
distinctly heard the kit-bag shuffling heavily across the floor in jerks,
and close in front of his face sounded once again the sigh of a human
being.

In his anguished efforts to find the brass button on the wall he nearly
scraped the nails from his fingers, but even then, in those frenzied
moments of alarm–so swift and alert are the impressaons of a mand
keyed-up by a vivid emotion–he had time to realize that he dreaded the
return of the light, and that it might be better for him to stay hidden
in the merciful screen of darkness. It was but the impulse of a moment,
however, and before he had time to act upon it he had yielded
automatically to the original desire, and the room was flooded again with
light.

But the second instinct had been right. It would have been better for him
to have stayed in the shelter of the kind darkness. For there, close
before him, bending over the half-packed kit-bag, clear as life in the
merciless glare of the electric light, stood the figure of John Turk, the
murderer. Not three feet from him the man stood, the fringe of black hair
marked plainly against the pallor of the forehead, the whole horrible
presentment of the scoundrel, as vivid as he had seen him day after day
in the Old Bailey, when he stood there in the dock, cynical and callous,
under the very shadow of the gallows.

In a flash Johnson realized what it all meant: the dirty and much-used
bag; the smear of crimson within the top; the dreadful stretched
condition of the bulging sides. He remembered how the victim’s body had
been stuffed into a canvas bag for burial, the ghastly, dismembered
fragments forced with lime into this very bag; and the bag itself
produced as evidence–it all came back to him as clear as day…

Very softly and stealthily his hand groped behind him for the handle of
the door, but before he could actually turn it the very thing that he
most of all dreaded came about, and John Turk lifted his devil’s face and
looked at him. At the same moment that heavy sigh passed through the air
of the room, formulated somehow into words: It’s my bag. And I want it.’

Johnson just remembered clawing the door open, and then falling in a heap
upon the floor of the landing, as he tried frantically to make his way
into the front room.

He remained unconscious for a long time, and it was still dark when he
opened his eyes and realized that he was lying, stiff and bruised, on the
cold boards. Then the memory of what he had seen rushed back into his
mind, and he promptly fainted again. When he woke the second time the
wintry dawn was just beginning to peep in at the windows, painting the
stairs a cheerless, dismal grey, and he managed to crawl into the front
room, and cover himself with an overcoat in the armchair, where at length
he fell asleep.

A great clamour woke him. He recognized Mrs Monks’s voice, loud and
voluble.

‘What! You ain’t been to bed, sir! Are you ill, or has anything ‘appened?
And there’s an urgent gentleman to see you, though it ain’t seven o’clock
yet, and–‘

‘Who is it?’ he stammered. ‘I’m all right, thanks. Fell asleep in my
chair, I suppose.’

‘Someone from Mr Wilb’rim’s, and he says he ought to see you quick before
you go abroad, and I told him–‘

‘Show him up, please, at once,’ said Johnson, whose head was whirling,
and his mind was still full of dreadful visions.

Mr Wilbraham’s man came in with many apologies, and explained briefly and
quickly that an absurd mistake had been made, and that the wrong kit-bag
had been sent over the night before.

‘Henry somehow got hold of the one that came over from the courtoom, and
Mr Wilbraham only discovered it when he saw his own lying in his room,
and asked why it had not gone to you,’ the man said.

‘Oh!’ said Johnson stupidly.

‘And he must have brought you the one from the murder case instead, sir,
I’m afraid,’ the man continued, without the ghost of an expression on his
face. ‘The one John Turk packed the dead both in. Mr Wilbraham’s awful
upset about it, sir, and told me to come over first thing this morning
with the right one, as you were leaving by the boat.’

He pointed to a clean-looking kit-bag on the floor, which he had just
brought. ‘And I was to bring the other one back, sir,’ he added casually.

For some minutes Johnson could not find his voice. At last he pointed in
the direction of his bedroom. ‘Perhaps you would kindly unpack it for me.
Just empty the things out on the floor.’

The man disappeared into the other room, and was gone for five minutes.
Johnson heard the shifting to and fro of the bag, and the rattle of the
skates and boots being unpacked.

‘Thank you, sir,’ the man said, returning with the bag folded over his
arm. ‘And can I do anything more to help you, sir?’

‘What is it?’ asked Johnson, seeing that he still had something he wished
to say.

The man shuffled and looked mysterious. ‘Beg pardon, sir, but knowing
your interest in the Turk case, I thought you’d maybe like to know what’s
happened–‘

‘Yes.’

‘John Turk killed hisself last night with poison immediately on getting
his release, and he left a note for Mr Wilbraham saying as he’d be much
obliged if they’d have him put away, same as the woman he murdered, in
the old kit-hag.’

‘What time–did he do it?’ asked Johnson.

‘Ten o’clock last night, sir, the warder says.’

THE END

A Christmas Tea Party for one...or is it?

Christmas Ghost Stories: Christmas Meeting by Rosemary Timperley

Tonight’s feature Christmas Ghost Story, Christmas Meeting by Rosemary Timperley, is melancholy rather than spooky, bittersweet rather than bone-chilling, and I think this is far more like real ghosts are than those featured in most of these stories.

Or I mean, would be, if they existed! Right? I mean, ghosts aren’t real. Look around you, there, in the existential bubble of emptiness which surrounds each of us clinging to this glob of frozen lava, hurtling through the void towards the death, not only of ourselves, but of all living things and even the stars. No ghosts here, amirite???

Moving on…

Since this is about a schoolteacher, it even comes with a short quiz. Enjoy!


Christmas Meeting
by Rosemary Timperley

 

A Christmas Tea Party for one...or is it?

A Christmas Tea Party for one…or is it?

I have never spent Christmas alone before.

It gives me an uncanny feeling, sitting alone in my “furnished room”, with my head full of ghosts, and the room full of voices of the past. It’s a drowning feeling -all the Christmases of the past coming back in a mad jumble: the childish Christmas, with a house full of relations, a tree in the window, sixpences in the pudding, and the delicious, crinkly stocking in the dark morning: the adolescent Christmas, with mother and father, the war and the bitter cold, and the letters from abroad; the first really grown-up Christmas, with a lover – the snow and the enchantment, red wine and kisses, and the walk in the dark before midnight, with the grounds so white, and the stars diamond bright in a black sky -so many Christmases through the years.

And, now the first Christmas alone.

But not quite loneliness. A feeling of companionship with all the other people who are spending Christmas alone -millions of them – past and present.

A feeling that if I close my eyes, there will be no past or future, only an endless present which is time, because it is all we ever have.

Yes, however cynical you are, however irreligious, it makes you feel queer to be alone at Christmas time.

So I’m absurdly relieved when the young man walks in. There’s nothing romantic about it – I’m a woman of nearly fifty, a spinster schoolma’ am with grim, dark hair, and myopic eyes that once were beautiful, and he’s a kid of twenty, rather unconventionally dressed with a flowing wine-colored tie and black velvet jacket, and brown curls which could do with a taste of the barber’s scissors. The effeminacy of his dress is belied by his features – narrow, piercing, blue eyes, and arrogant, jutting nose and chin.

Not that he looks strong. The skin is fine-drawn over the prominent features, and he is very white.

He bursts in without knocking, then pauses, says: “I’m sorry. I thought this was my room.” He begins to go out, then hesitates and says:” Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

“It’s – queer, being alone at Christmas, isn’t it? May I stay and talk?”

“I’d be glad if you would.”

He comes right in, and sits down by the fire.

“I hope you don’t think i came in here on purpose. I really did think it was my room,” he explains.

“I’m glad you made the mistake. But you’re a very young person to be alone at Christmas time.”

“I wouldn’t go back to the country to my family. It would hold up my work. I’m a writer.”

“I see.” I can’t help smiling a little. That explains his rather unusual dress. And he takes himself so seriously, this young man! “Of course, you mustn’t waste a precious moment of writing,” I say with a twinkle.

“No, not a moment! That’s what my family won’t see. They don’t appreciate urgency.”

“Families are never appreciative of the artistic nature.”

“No, they aren’t,” he agrees seriously.

“What are you writing?”

“Poetry and a diary combined. It’s called “My poems and I”, by Francis Randel. That’s my name. My family say there’s no point in my writing, that I’m too young. But i don’t feel young. Sometimes I feel like an old man, with too much to do before he dies.”

“Revolving faster and faster on the wheel of creativeness.”

“Yes! Yes, exactly! You understand! You must read my work some time. Please read my work! Read my work!” A note of desperation in his voice, a look of fear in his eyes makes me say:

“We’re both getting much too solemn for Christmas Day. I’m going to make you some coffee. And i have plum cake.”

I move about, clattering cups, spooning coffee into my percolator. But I must have offended him, for, when i look around, I found his has left me. I am absurdly disappointed.

I finish making coffee, however, then turn to the bookshelf in the room. It is piled high with volumes, for which the landlady has apologized profusely:”Hope you don’t mind the books, Miss, but my husband won’t part with them, and there’s nowhere to put them. We charge a bit less for the room for that reason.”

“I don’t mind,” I said. “Books are good friends.”

But these aren’t very friendly-looking books. I take one at random. Or does some strange fate guide my hand?

Sipping my coffee, inhaling my cigarette smoke, I begin to read the battered little book, published, I see, in Spring, 1852. It’s mainly poetry – immature stuff, but vivid. Then there’s a kind of diary. More realistic, less affected. Out of curiosity, to see if there are any amusing comparisons, I turn to the entry for Christmas Day, 1851. I read:

“My first Christmas alone. I had rather an odd experience. When I went back to my lodgings after a walk, there was a middle-aged woman in my room. I thought ,at first, I’d walked into the wrong room, but this was not so, and after a pleasant talk, she disappeared. I suppose she was a ghost. But I wasn’t frightened. I liked her. But I do not feel well tonight. Not at all well. I have never felt ill at Christmas before.”

A publisher’s note followed the last entry: Francis Randel died from a sudden heart attack on the night of Christmas Day 1851. The woman mentioned in this final entry in his diary was the last person to see him alive. In spite of requests for her to come forward, she never did so. Her identity remains a mystery.


Christmas Ghost Stories: A Strange Christmas Game by J. H. Riddle

A Christmas Game

Why didn’t Santa ever bring me THIS????

Today’s installment of our Christmas Ghost Story Series, A Strange Christmas Game by J.H. Riddle, comes to us as a YouTube reading (audio only) for your enjoyment while pottering about the room dusting or drinking or knitting or doing whatever you like to do behind closed doors in the presence of a YouTube video narrated by a fellow with a colorful British Isles accent from god knows where.

This particular story has a particularly romantic context, with young, attractive poor people coming into sudden wealth, and an evil that endures beyond the grave threatening their happiness. Along with a super passive-aggressive relative. Enjoy!

Of course, Elf Bowling is the actual REAL best Christmas game, but there are no ghosts in it. Elf Bowling 2 was pretty rad too!

Krampus

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Curse of the Catafalques, by F. Anstey

Ah, The Curse of the Catafalques. This is a gooder.

As explained previously, all this month leading up to The Big Day we will be featuring that delightful tradition of Christmas Ghost Stories here on the ol’ blog, focusing particularly on those which are out of copyright and can actually be posted instead of just referred to furtively and referenced with shoddily-edited YouTube clips of the dreadful tv movie adaptation.

And this one is my favourite.

Well, second-favourite, as I always save the fave-fave for The Big Day. But you’ll find this one a delight. Well, no. You’ll probably find it infuriating. I remember clearly the first time I read it I actually flung the book across the room, which is the sort of thing you read about people doing in old books, like flirting with their fans and narrowly escaping quicksand, but which never, ever happens in real life.

Only it did. I flung the HELL out of that book. And then I swore at it. My aunt came in to check on me, as I was lying in bed with a fever and she was worried I’d gotten out of bed to pee and just keeled over. She was not interested in hearing about how frustrating this Christmas ghost story was. She was very focused, my aunt, and once she’d determined that I was not only not keeled over but seemingly regaining my strength, she told me I was expected downstairs for dinner that night and that there’d be no more lying around in bed sick from then on.

So, ever since then I have been very careful not to read anything frustrating around my aunt. It’s Just! Not! Worth! It!

Anyhoodle, here’s our story. It’s heavy on the atmospherics, almost perfectly atmospheric, in fact. If it were any more atmospheric it would vanish into thin air. And for whatever reason, I found it on the Australian Gutenberg site, because the protagonist spends some time on Australia (voluntarily, of all things), leaves, and then things begin to happen, as is the way. I mean, have you been there?


 

Krampus

Krampus comes calling

The Curse of the Catafalques
F. Anstey

Chapter I

Unless I am very much mistaken, until the time when I was subjected to
the strange and exceptional experience which I now propose to relate,
I had never been brought into close contact with anything of a
supernatural description. At least if I ever was, the circumstance can
have made no lasting impression upon me, as I am quite unable to
recall it. But in the “Curse of the Catafalques” I was confronted with
a horror so weird and so altogether unusual, that I doubt whether I
shall ever succeed in wholly forgetting it–and I know that I have
never felt really well since.

It is difficult for me to tell my story intelligibly without some
account of my previous history by way of introduction, although I will
try to make it as little diffuse as I may.

I had not been a success at home; I was an orphan, and, in my anxiety
to please a wealthy uncle upon whom I was practically dependent, I had
consented to submit myself to a series of competitive examinations for
quite a variety of professions, but in each successive instance I
achieved the same disheartening failure. Some explanation of this may,
no doubt, be found in the fact that, with a fatal want of forethought,
I had entirely omitted to prepare myself by any particular course of
study–which, as I discovered too late, is almost indispensable to
success in these intellectual contests.

My uncle himself took this view, and conceiving–not without
discernment–that I was by no means likely to retrieve myself by any
severe degree of application in the future, he had me shipped out to
Australia, where he had correspondents and friends who would put
things in my way.

They did put several things in my way–and, as might have been
expected, I came to grief over every one of them, until at length,
having given a fair trial to each opening that had been provided for
me, I began to perceive that my uncle had made a grave mistake in
believing me suited for a colonial career.

I resolved to return home and convince him of his error, and give him
one more opportunity of repairing it; he had failed to discover the
best means of utilizing my undoubted ability, yet I would not reproach
him (nor do I reproach him even now), for I too have felt the
difficulty.

In pursuance of my resolution, I booked my passage home by one of the
Orient liners from Melbourne to London. About an hour before the ship
was to leave her moorings, I went on board and made my way at once to
the stateroom which I was to share with a fellow passenger, whose
acquaintance I then made for the first time.

He was a tall cadaverous young man of about my own age, and my first
view of him was not encouraging, for when I came in, I found him
rolling restlessly on the cabin floor, and uttering hollow groans.

“This will never do,” I said, after I had introduced myself; “if
you’re like this now, my good sir, what will you be when we’re fairly
out at sea? You must husband your resources for that.”

“And why trouble to roll? The ship will do all that for you, if you
will only have patience.”

He explained, somewhat brusquely, that he was suffering from mental
agony, not seasickness; and by a little pertinacious questioning (for
I would not allow myself to be rebuffed) I was soon in possession of
the secret which was troubling my companion, whose name, as I also
learned, was Augustus McFadden.

It seemed that his parents had emigrated before his birth, and he had
lived all his life in the Colony, where he was contented and fairly
prosperous–when an eccentric old aunt of his over in England happened
to die.

She left McFadden himself nothing, having given by her will the bulk
of her property to the only daughter of a baronet of ancient family,
in whom she took a strong interest. But the will was not without its
effect upon her existence, for it expressly mentioned the desire of
the testatrix that the baronet should receive her nephew Augustus if
he presented himself within a certain time, and should afford him
every facility for proving his fitness for acceptance as a suitor. The
alliance was merely recommended, however, not enjoined, and the gift
was unfettered by any conditions.

“I heard of it first,” said McFadden, “from Chlorine’s father
(Chlorine is her name, you know)”.

Sir Paul Catafalque wrote to me, informing me of the mention of my
name in my aunt’s will, enclosing his daughter’s photograph, and
formally inviting me to come over and do my best, if my affections
were not preengaged, to carry out the last wishes of the departed. He
added that I might expect to receive shortly a packet from my aunt’s
executors which would explain matters fully, and in which I should
find certain directions for my guidance. The photograph decided me; it
was so eminently pleasing that I felt at once that my poor aunt’s
wishes must be sacred to me. I could not wait for the packet to
arrive, and so I wrote at once to Sir Paul accepting the invitation.

“Yes,” he added, with another of the hollow groans, “miserable wretch
that I am, I pledged my honor to present myself as a suitor, and now–
now–here I am, actually embarked upon the desperate errand!”

He seemed inclined to begin to roll again here, but I stopped him.
“Really,” I said, “I think in your place, with an excellent chance–
for I presume the lady’s heart is also disengaged–with an excellent
chance of winning a baronet’s daughter with a considerable fortune and
a pleasing appearance, I should bear up better.”

“You think so,” he rejoined, “but you do not know all! The very day
after I had despatched my fatal letter, my aunt’s explanatory packet
arrived. I tell you that when I read the hideous revelations it
contained, and knew to what horrors I had innocently pledged myself,
my hair stood on end, and I believe it has remained on end ever since.
But it was too late. Here I am, engaged to carry out a task from which
my inmost soul recoils. Ah, if I dared but retract!”

“Then why in the name of common sense, don’t you retract?” I asked.
“Write and say that you much regret that a previous engagement, which
you had unfortunately overlooked, deprives you of the pleasure of
accepting.”

“Impossible,” he said; “it would be agony to me to feel that I had
incurred Chlorine’s contempt, even though I only know her through a
photograph at present. If I were to back out of it now, she would have
reason to despise me, would she not?”

“Perhaps she would,” I said.

“You see my dilemma–I cannot retract; on the other hand, I dare not
go on. The only thing, as I have thought lately, which could save me
and my honor at the same time would be my death on the voyage out, for
then my cowardice would remain undiscovered.”

“Well,” I said, “you can die on the voyage out if you want to–there
need be no difficulty about that. All you have to do is just to slip
over the side some dark night when no one is looking. I tell you
what,” I added (for somehow I began to feel a friendly interest in
this poor slack-baked creature): “if you don’t find your nerves equal
to it when it comes to the point, I don’t mind giving you a leg over
myself.”

“I never intended to go as far as that,” he said, rather pettishly,
and without any sign of gratitude for my offer; “I don’t care about
actually dying, if she could only be made to believe I had died that
would be quite enough for me. I could live on here, happy in the
thought that I was saved from her scorn. But how can she be made to
believe it?–that’s the point.”

“Precisely,” I said. “You can hardly write yourself and inform her
that you died on the voyage.”

“You might do this, though: sail to England as you propose, and go to
see her under another name, and break the sad intelligence to her.”

“Why, to be sure, I might do that!” he said, with some animation; “I
should certainly not be recognized–she can have no photograph of me,
for I have never been photographed. And yet—no,” he added, with a
shudder, “it is useless. I can’t do it; I dare not trust myself under
that roof!”

“I must find some other way. You have given me an idea. Listen,” he
said, after a short pause:

“You seem to take an interest in me; you are going to London; the
Catafalques live there, or near it, at some place called Parson’s
Green. Can I ask a great favor of you–would you very much mind
seeking them out yourself as a fellow-voyager of mine? I could not
expect you to tell a positive untruth on my account–but if, in the
course of an interview with Chlorine, you could contrive to convey the
impression that I died on my way to her side, you would be doing me a
service I can never repay!”

“I should very much prefer to do you a service that you could repay,”
was my very natural rejoinder.

“She will not require strict proof,” he continued eagerly; “I could
give you enough papers and things to convince her that you come from
me. Say you will do me this kindness!”

I hesitated for some time longer, not so much, perhaps, from scruples
of a conscientious kind as from a disinclination to undertake a
troublesome commission for an entire stranger—gratuitously. But
McFadden pressed me hard, and at length he made an appeal to springs
in my nature which are never touched in vain, and I yielded.

When we had settled the question in its financial aspect, I said to
McFadden, “The only thing now is–how would you prefer to pass away?
Shall I make you fall over and be devoured by a shark? That would be a
picturesque end–and I could do myself justice over the shark? I
should make the young lady weep considerably.”

“That won’t do at all!” he said irritably; “I can see from her face
that Chlorine is a girl of a delicate sensibility, and would be
disgusted by the idea of any suitor of hers spending his last cohesive
moments inside such a beastly repulsive thing as a shark. I don’t want
to be associated in her mind with anything so unpleasant. No, sir; I
will die–if you will oblige me by remembering it–of a low fever, of
a noninfectious type, at sunset, gazing at her portrait with my fading
eyesight and gasping her name with my last breath. She will cry more
over that!”

“I might work it up into something effective, certainly,” I admitted;
“and, by the way, if you are going to expire in my stateroom, I ought
to know a little more about you than I do. There is time still before
the tender goes; you might do worse than spend it in coaching me in
your life’s history.”

He gave me a few leading facts, and supplied me with several documents
for study on the voyage; he even abandoned to me the whole of his
traveling arrangements, which proved far more complete and serviceable
than my own.

And then the “All-ashore” bell rang, and McFadden, as he bade me
farewell, took from his pocket a bulky packet. “You have saved me,” he
said. “Now I can banish every recollection of this miserable episode.
I need no longer preserve my poor aunt’s directions; let them go,
then.”

Before I could say anything, he had fastened something heavy to the
parcel and dropped it through the cabin-light into the sea, after
which he went ashore, and I have never seen nor heard of him since.

During the voyage I had leisure to think seriously over the affair,
and the more I thought of the task I had undertaken, the less I liked
it.

No man with the instincts of a gentleman can feel any satisfaction at
finding himself on the way to harrow up a poor young lady’s feelings
by a perfectly fictitious account of the death of a poor-spirited
suitor who could selfishly save his reputation at her expense.

And so strong was my feeling about this from the very first, that I
doubt whether, if McFadden’s terms had been a shade less liberal, I
could ever have brought myself to consent.

But it struck me that, under judiciously sympathetic treatment, the
lady might prove not inconsolable, and that I myself might be able to
heal the wound I was about to inflict.

I found a subtle pleasure in the thought of this, for, unless McFadden
had misinformed me, Chlorine’s fortune was considerable, and did not
depend upon any marriage she might or might not make. On the other
hand, I was penniless, and it seemed to me only too likely that her
parents might seek to found some objection to me on that ground.

I studied the photograph McFadden had left with me; it was that of a
pensive but distinctly pretty face, with an absence of firmness in it
that betrayed a plastic nature. I felt certain that if I only had the
recommendation, as McFadden had, of an aunt’s dying wishes, it would
not take me long to effect a complete conquest.

And then, as naturally as possible, came the thought–why should not I
procure myself the advantages of this recommendation? Nothing could be
easier; I had merely to present myself as Augustus McFadden, who was
hitherto a mere name to them; the information I already possessed as
to his past life would enable me to support the character, and as it
seemed that the baronet lived in great seclusion, I could easily
contrive to keep out of the way of the few friends and relations I had
in London until my position was secure.

What harm would this innocent deception do to anyone? McFadden, even
if he ever knew, would have no right to complain–he had given up all
pretentions himself–and if he was merely anxious to preserve his
reputation, his wishes would be more than carried out, for I flattered
myself that whatever ideal Chlorine might have formed of her destined
suitor, I should come much nearer to it than poor McFadden could ever
have done. No, he would gain, positively gain, by my assumption. He
could not have counted upon arousing more than a mild regret as it
was; now he would be fondly, it might be madly, loved. By proxy, it is
true, but that was far more than he deserved.

Chlorine was not injured–far from it; she would have a suitor to
welcome, not weep over, and his mere surname could make no possible
difference to her. And lastly, it was a distinct benefit to me, for
with a new name and an excellent reputation success would be an
absolute certainty.

What wonder, then, that the scheme, which opened out a far more manly
and honorable means of obtaining a livelihood than any I had
previously contemplated, should have grown more attractively feasible
each day, until I resolved at last to carry it out? Let rigid
moralists blame me if they will; I have never pretended to be better
than the average run of mankind (though I am certainly no worse), and
no one who really knows what human nature is will reproach me very
keenly for obeying what was almost an instinct. And I may say this,
that if ever an unfortunate man was bitterly punished for a fraud
which was harmless, if not actually pious, by a visitation of intense
and protracted terror, that person was I!

Chapter II

After arriving in England, and before presenting myself at Parson’s
Green in my assumed character, I took one precaution against any
danger there might be of my throwing away my liberty in a fit of
youthful impulsiveness. I went to Somerset House, and carefully
examined the probate copy of the late Miss Petronia McFadden’s last
will and testament.

Nothing could have been more satisfactory; a sum of between forty and
fifty thousand pounds was Chlorine’s unconditionally, just as McFadden
had said. I searched, but could find nothing in the will whatever to
prevent her property, under the then existing state of the law, from
passing under the entire control of a future husband.

After this, then, I could no longer restrain my ardor, and so, one
foggy afternoon about the middle of December, I found myself driving
towards the house in which I reckoned upon achieving a comfortable
independence.

Parson’s Green was reached at last; a small triangular open space
bordered on two of its sides by mean and modern erections, but on the
third by some ancient mansions, gloomy and neglected-looking indeed,
but with traces on them still of their former consequence.

My cab stopped before the gloomiest of them all–a square grim house
with dull and small-paned windows, flanked by two narrow and
projecting wings, and built of dingy brick, faced with yellow-stone.
Some old scrollwork railings, with a corroded frame in the middle for
a long departed oil lamp, separated the house from the road; inside
was a semicircular patch of rank grass, and a damp gravel sweep led
from the heavy gate to a square portico supported by two wasted black
wooden pillars.

As I stood there, after pulling the pear-shaped bell-handle, and heard
the bell tinkling and jangling fretfully within, and as I glanced up
at the dull housefront looming cheerless out of the fog-laden December
twilight, I felt my confidence beginning to abandon me for the first
time, and I really was almost inclined to give the whole thing up and
run away.

Before I could make up my mind, a mouldy and melancholy butler had
come slowly down the sweep and opened the gate—and my opportunity
had fled. Later I remembered how, as I walked along the gravel, a wild
and wailing scream pierced the heavy silence–it seemed at once a
lamentation and a warning. But as the District Railway was quite near,
I did not attach any particular importance to the sound at the time.

I followed the butler through a dank and chilly hall, where an antique
lamp hung glimmering feebly through its panes of dusty stained glass,
up a broad carved staircase, and along some tortuous paneled passages,
until at length I was ushered into a long and rather low reception
room, scantily furnished with the tarnished mirrors and spindle-legged
brocaded furniture of a bygone century.

A tall and meager old man, with a long white beard, and haggard,
sunken black eyes, was seated at one side of the high chimney-piece,
while opposite him sat a little limp old lady with a nervous
expression, and dressed in trailing black robes relieved by a little
yellow lace about the head and throat. As I saw them, I recognized at
once that I was in the presence of Sir Paul Catafalque and his wife.

They both rose slowly, and advanced arm-in-arm in their old-fashioned
way, and met me with a stately solemnity. “You are indeed welcome,”
they said in faint hollow voices. “We thank you for this proof of your
chivalry and devotion. It cannot be but that such courage and such
self-sacrifice will meet with their reward!”

And although I did not quite understand how they could have discerned,
as yet, that I was chivalrous and devoted, I was too glad to have made
a good impression to do anything but beg them not to mention it.

And then a slender figure, with a drooping head, a wan face, and large
sad eyes, came softly down the dimly-lighted room towards me, and I
and my destined bride met for the first time.

As I had expected, after she had once anxiously raised her eyes, and
allowed them to rest upon me, her face was lighted up by an evident
relief, as she discovered that the fulfillment of my aunt’s wishes
would not be so distasteful to her, personally, as it might have been.

For myself, I was upon the whole rather disappointed in her; the
portrait had flattered her considerably–the real Chlorine was thinner
and paler than I had been led to anticipate, while there was a settled
melancholy in her manner which I felt would prevent her from being an
exhilarating companion.

And I must say I prefer a touch of archness and animation in
womankind, and, if I had been free to consult my own tastes, should
have greatly preferred to become a member of a more cheerful family.
Under the circumstances, however, I was not entitled to be too
particular, and I put up with it.

From the moment of my arrival I fell easily and naturally into the
position of an honored guest, who might be expected in time to form
nearer and dearer relations with the family, and certainly I was
afforded every opportunity of doing so.

I made no mistakes, for the diligence with which I had got up
McFadden’s antecedents enabled me to give perfectly satisfactory
replies to most of the few allusions or questions that were addressed
to me, and I drew upon my imagination for the rest.

But those days I spent in the baronet’s family were far from lively:
the Catafalques went nowhere; they seemed to know nobody; at least no
visitors ever called or dined there while I was with them, and the
time dragged slowly on in a terrible monotony in that dim tomb of a
house, which I was not expected to leave except for very brief
periods, for Sir Paul would grow uneasy if I walked out alone–even to
Putney.

There was something, indeed, about the attitude of both the old people
towards myself which I could only consider as extremely puzzling. They
would follow me about with a jealous care, blended with anxious alarm,
and their faces as they looked at me wore an expression of tearful
admiration, touched with something of pity, as for some youthful
martyr; at times, too, they spoke of the gratitude they felt, and
professed a determined hopefulness as to my ultimate success.

Now I was well aware that this is not the ordinary bearing of the
parents of an heiress to a suitor who, however deserving in other
respects, is both obscure and penniless, and the only way in which I
could account for it was by the supposition that there was some latent
defect in Chlorine’s temper or constitution, which entitled the man
who won her to commiseration, and which would also explain their
evident anxiety to get her off their hands.

But although anything of this kind would be, of course, a drawback, I
felt that forty or fifty thousand pounds would be a fair set-off–and
I could not expect everything.

When the time came at which I felt that I could safely speak to
Chlorine of what lay nearest my heart, I found an unforeseen
difficulty in bringing her to confess that she reciprocated my
passion.

She seemed to shrink unaccountably from speaking the word which gave
me the right to claim her, confessing that she dreaded it not for her
own sake, but for mine alone, which struck me as an unpleasantly
morbid trait in so young a girl.

Again and again I protested that I was willing to run all risks–as I
was–and again and again she resisted, though always more faintly,
until at last my efforts were successful, and I forced from her lips
the assent which was of so much importance to me.

But it cost her a great effort, and I believe she even swooned
immediately afterwards; but this is only conjecture, as I lost no time
in seeking Sir Paul and clenching the matter before Chlorine had time
to retract.

He heard what I had to tell him with a strange light of triumph and
relief in his weary eyes.

“You have made an old man very happy and hopeful,” he said. “I ought,
perhaps, even now to deter you, but I am too selfish for that. And you
are young and brave and ardent; why need we despair? I suppose,” he
added, looking keenly at me, “you would prefer as little delay as
possible?”

“I should indeed,” I replied. I was pleased, for I had not expected to
find him so sensible as that.

“Then leave all preliminaries to me; when the day and time have been
settled, I will let you know. As you are aware, it will be necessary
to have your signature to this document; and here, my boy, I must in
conscience warn you solemnly that by signing you make your decision
irrevocable–irrevocable, you understand?”

When I had heard this, I need scarcely say that I was all eagerness to
sign; so great was my haste that I did not even try to decipher the
somewhat crabbed and antiquated writing in which the terms of the
agreement were set out.

I was anxious to impress the baronet with a sense of my gentlemanly
feeling and the confidence I had in him, while I naturally presumed
that, since the contract was binding upon me, the baronet would, as a
man of honor, hold it equally conclusive on his own side.

As I look back upon it now, it seems simply extraordinary that I
should have been so easily satisfied, have taken so little pains to
find out the exact position in which I was placing myself; but, with
the ingenuous confidence of youth, I fell an easy victim, as I was to
realize later with terrible enlightenment.

“Say nothing of this to Chlorine,” said Sir Paul, as I handed him the
document signed, “until the final arrangements are made; it will only
distress her unnecessarily.”

I wondered why at the time, but I promised to obey, supposing that he
knew best, and for some days after that I made no mention to Chlorine
of the approaching day which was to witness our union.

As we were continually together, I began to regard her with an esteem
which I had not thought possible at first. Her looks improved
considerably under the influence of happiness, and I found she could
converse intelligently enough upon several topics, and did not bore me
nearly as much as I was fully prepared for.

And so the time passed less heavily, until one afternoon the baronet
took me aside mysteriously. “Prepare yourself, Augustus,” (they had
all learned to call me Augustus), he said; “all is arranged. The event
upon which our dearest hopes depend is fixed for tomorrow–in the Gray
Chamber of course, and at midnight.”

I thought this a curious time and place for the ceremony, but I had
divined his eccentric passion for privacy and retirement, and only
imagined that he had procured some very special form of license.

“But you do not know the Gray Chamber,” he added.

“Come with me, and I will show you where it is.” And he led me up the
broad staircase, and, stopping at the end of a passage before an
immense door covered with black baize and studded with brass nails,
which gave it a hideous resemblance to a gigantic coffin lid, he
pressed a spring, and it fell slowly back.

I saw a long dim gallery, whose very existence nothing in the external
appearance of the mansion had led me to suspect; it led to a heavy
oaken door with cumbrous plates and fastenings of metal.

“Tomorrow night is Christmas eve, as you are doubtless aware,” he said
in a hushed voice. “At twelve, then, you will present yourself at
yonder door–the door of the Gray Chamber–where you must fulfill the
engagement you have made.”

I was surprised at his choosing such a place for the ceremony; it
would have been more cheerful in the long drawing room; but it was
evidently a whim of his, and I was too happy to think of opposing it.
I hastened at once to Chlorine, with her father’s sanction, and told
her that the crowning moment of both our lives was fixed at last.

The effect of my announcement was astonishing: she fainted, for which
I remonstrated with her as soon as she came to herself. “Such extreme
sensitiveness, my love,” I could not help saying, “may be highly
creditable to your sense of maidenly propriety, but allow me to say
that I can scarcely regard it as a compliment.”

“Augustus,” she said, “you must not think I doubt you; and yet–and
yet–the ordeal will be a severe one for you.”

“I will steel my nerves,” I said grimly (for I was annoyed with her);
“and, after all, Chlorine, the ceremony is not invariably fatal; I
have heard of the victim surviving it–occasionally.”

“How brave you are!” she said earnestly. “I will imitate you,
Augustus; I too will hope.”

I really thought her insane, which alarmed me for the validity of the
marriage. “Yes, I am weak, foolish, I know,” she continued; “but oh, I
shudder so when I think of you, away in that gloomy Gray Chamber,
going through it all alone!”

This confirmed my worst fears. No wonder her parents felt grateful to
me for relieving them of such a responsibility! “May I ask where you
intend to be at the time?” I inquired very quietly.

“You will not think us unfeeling,” she replied, “but dear papa
considered that such anxiety as ours would be scarcely endurable did
we not seek some distraction from it; and so, as a special favor, he
has procured evening orders for Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s
Inn Fields, where we shall drive immediately after dinner.”

I knew that the proper way to treat the insane was by reasoning with
them gently, so as to place their own absurdity clearly before them.
“If you are forgetting your anxiety in Sir John Soane’s Museum, while
I cool my heels in the Gray Chamber,” I said, “is it probable that any
clergyman will be induced to perform the marriage ceremony? Did you
really think two people can be united separately?”

She was astonished this time. “You are joking!” she cried; “you cannot
really believe that we are to be married in–in the Gray Chamber?”

“Then will you tell me where we are to be married?” I asked. “I think
I have the right to know–it can hardly be at the Museum!”

She turned upon me with a sudden misgiving; “I could almost fancy,”
she said anxiously, “that this is no feigned ignorance. Augustus, your
aunt sent you a message–tell me, have you read it?” Now, owing to
McFadden’s want of consideration, this was my one weak point–I had
not read it, and thus I felt myself upon delicate ground. The message
evidently related to business of importance which was to be transacted
in this Gray Chamber, and as the genuine McFadden clearly knew all
about it, it would have been simply suicidal to confess my own
ignorance.

“Why of course, darling, of course,” I said hastily. “You must think
no more of my silly joke; there is something I have to arrange in the
Gray Chamber before I can call you mine. But, tell me, why does it
make you so uneasy?” I added, thinking it might be prudent to find out
beforehand what formality was expected from me.

“I cannot help it–no, I cannot!” she cried, “the test is so
searching–are you sure that you are prepared at all points? I
overheard my father say that no precaution could safely be neglected.
I have such a terrible foreboding that, after all, this may come
between us.”

It was clear enough to me now; the baronet was by no means so simple
and confiding in his choice of a son-in-law as I had imagined, and had
no intention, after all, of accepting me without some inquiry into my
past life, my habits, and my prospects.

That he should seek to make this examination more impressive by
appointing this ridiculous midnight interview for it, was only what
might have been expected from an old man of his confirmed
eccentricity.

But I knew I could easily contrive to satisfy the baronet, and with
the idea of consoling Chlorine, I said as much. “Why will you persist
in treating me like a child, Augustus?” she broke out almost
petulantly. “They have tried to hide it all from me, but do you
suppose I do not know that in the Gray Chamber you will have to
encounter one far more formidable, far more difficult to satisfy, than
poor dear papa?”

“I see you know more than I–more than I thought you did,” I said.
“Let us understand one another, Chlorine–tell me exactly how much you
know.”

“I have told you all I know,” she said; “it is your turn to confide in
me.”

“Not even for your sweet sake, my dearest,” I was obliged to say, “can
I break the seal that is set upon my tongue. You must not press me.
Come, let us talk of other things.”

But I now saw that matters were worse than I had thought; instead of
the feeble old baronet I should have to deal with a stranger, some
exacting and officious friend or relation perhaps, or, more probably,
a keen family solicitor who would put questions I should not care
about answering, and even be capable of insisting upon strict
settlements.

It was that, of course; they would try to tie my hands by a strict
settlement, with a brace of cautious trustees; unless I was very
careful, all I should get by my marriage would be a paltry life-
interest, contingent upon my surviving my wife.

This revolted me; it seems to me that when law comes in with its
offensively suspicious restraints upon the husband and its
indelicately premature provisions for the offspring, all the poetry of
love is gone at once. By allowing the wife to receive the income “for
her separate use and free from the control of her husband,” as the
phrase runs, you infallibly brush the bloom from the peach, and
implant the “little speck within the fruit” which, as Tennyson
beautifully says, will widen by and by and make the music mute.

This may be overstrained on my part, but it represents my honest
conviction; I was determined to have nothing to do with law. If it was
necessary, I felt quite sure enough of Chlorine to defy Sir Paul. I
would refuse to meet a family solicitor anywhere, and I intended to
say so plainly at the first convenient opportunity.

Chapter III

The opportunity came after dinner that evening when we were all in the
drawing-room, Lady Catafalque dozing uneasily in her armchair behind a
fire screen, and Chlorine, in the further room, playing funereal
dirges in the darkness, and pressing the stiff keys of the old piano
with a languid uncertain touch.

Drawing a chair up to Sir Paul’s, I began to broach the subject calmly
and temperately. “I find,” I said, “that we have not quite understood
one another over this affair in the Gray Chamber. When I agreed to an
appointment there, I thought–well, it doesn’t matter what I thought,
I was a little too premature. What I want to say now is, that while I
have no objection to you, as Chlorine’s father, asking me any
questions (in reason) about myself, I feel a delicacy in discussing my
private affairs with a perfect stranger.”

His burning eyes looked me through and through; “I don’t understand,”
he said. “Tell me what you are talking about.”

I began all over again, telling him exactly what I felt about
solicitors and settlements. “Are you well?” he asked sternly. “What
have I ever said about settlements or solicitors?”

I saw that I was wrong again, and could only stammer something to the
effect that a remark of Chlorine’s had given me this impression.

“What she could have said to convey such an idea passes my
comprehension,” he said gravely; “but she knows nothing—she’s a mere
child. I have felt from the first, my boy, that your aunt’s intention
was to benefit you quite as much as my own daughter. Believe me, I
shall not attempt to restrict you in any way; I shall be too rejoiced
to see you come forth in safety from the Gray Chamber.”

All the relief I had begun to feel respecting the settlements was
poisoned by these last words.

Why did he talk of that confounded Gray Chamber as if it were a fiery
furnace, or a cage of lions? What mystery was there concealed beneath
all this, and how, since I was obviously supposed to be thoroughly
acquainted with it, could I manage to penetrate the secret of this
perplexing appointment?

While he had been speaking, the faint, mournful music died away, and,
looking up, I saw Chlorine, a pale, slight form, standing framed in
the archway which connected the two rooms.

“Go back to your piano, my child,” said the baronet; “Augustus and I
have much to talk about which is not for your ears.

“But why not?” she said; “oh, why not? Papa! Dearest mother! Augustus!
I can bear it no longer! I have often felt of late that we are living
this strange life under the shadow of some fearful Thing, which would
chase all cheerfulness from any home. More than this I did not seek to
know; I dared not ask. But now, when I know that Augustus, whom I love
with my whole heart, must shortly face this ghastly presence, you
cannot wonder if I seek to learn the real extent of the danger that
awaits him! Tell me all. I can bear the worst–for it cannot be more
horrible than my own fears!”

Lady Catafalque had roused herself and was wringing her long mittened
hands and moaning feebly. “Paul,” she said, “you must not tell her; it
will kill her; she is not strong!” Her husband seemed undecided, and I
myself began to feel exquisitely uncomfortable. Chlorine’s words
pointed to something infinitely more terrible than a mere solicitor.

“Poor girl,” said Sir Paul at last, “it was for your own good that the
whole truth has been thus concealed from you; but now, perhaps, the
time has come when the truest kindness will be to reveal all. What do
you say, Augustus?” “I–I agree with you,” I replied faintly; “she
ought to be told.”

“Precisely!” he said. “Break to her, then, the nature of the ordeal
which lies before you.”

It was the very thing which I wanted to be broken to me! I would have
given the world to know all about it myself, and so I stared at his
gloomy old face with eyes that must have betrayed my helpless dismay.
At last I saved myself by suggesting that such a story would come less
harshly from a parent’s lips.

“Well, so be it,” he said. “Chlorine, compose yourself, dearest one;
sit down there, and summon up all your fortitude to hear what I am
about to tell you. You must know, then–I think you had better let
your mother give you a cup of tea before I begin; it will steady your
nerves.”

During the delay which followed–for Sir Paul did not consider his
daughter sufficiently fortified until she had taken at least three
cups–I suffered tortures of suspense, which I dared not betray.

They never thought of offering me any tea, though the merest observer
might have noticed how very badly I wanted it.

At last the baronet was satisfied, and not without a sort of gloomy
enjoyment and a proud relish of the distinction implied in his
exceptional affliction, he began his weird and almost incredible tale.

“It is now,” said he, “some centuries since our ill-fated house was
first afflicted with the family curse which still attends it. A
certain Humfrey de Catafalque, by his acquaintance with the black art,
as it was said, had procured the services of a species of familiar, a
dread and supernatural being. For some reason he had conceived a
bitter enmity towards his nearest relations, whom he hated with a
virulence that not even death could soften. For, by a refinement of
malice, he bequeathed this baleful thing to his descendants forever,
as an inalienable heirloom! And to this day it follows the title–and
the head of the family for the time being is bound to provide it with
a secret apartment under his own roof. But that is not the worst as
each member of our house succeeds to the ancestral rank and honors, he
must seek an interview with ‘The Curse,’ as it has been styled for
generations. And, in that interview, it is decided whether the spell
is to be broken and the Curse depart from us forever–or whether it is
to continue its blighting influence, and hold yet another life in
miserable thraldom.”

“And are you one of its thralls then, papa?” faltered Chlorine.

“I am, indeed,” he said. “I failed to quell it, as every Catafalque,
however brave and resolute, has failed yet. It checks all my accounts,
and woe to me if that cold, withering eye discovers the slightest
error–even in the pence column! I could not describe the extent of my
bondage to you, my daughter, or the humiliation of having to go and
tremble monthly before that awful presence.

“Not even yet, old as I am, have I grown quite accustomed to it!”

Never, in my wildest imaginings, had I anticipated anything one
quarter so dreadful as this; but still I clung to the hope that it was
impossible to bring me into the affair.

“But, Sir Paul,” I said–“Sir Paul, you–you mustn’t stop there, or
you’ll alarm Chlorine more than there’s any need to do. She–ha, ha!–
don’t you see, she has got some idea into her head that I have to go
through much the same sort of thing. Just explain that to her. I’m not
a Catafalque, Chlorine, so it–it can’t interfere with me. That is so,
isn’t it, Sir Paul? Good heavens, sir, don’t torture her like this!” I
cried, as he was silent. “Speak out!”

“You mean well, Augustus,” he said, “but the time for deceiving her
has gone by; she must know the worst. Yes, my poor child,” he
continued to Chlorine, whose eyes were wide with terror–though I
fancy mine were even wider–“unhappily, though our beloved Augustus is
not a Catafalque himself, he has of his own free will brought himself
within the influence of the Curse, and he, too, at the appointed hour,
must keep the awful assignation, and brave all that the most fiendish
malevolence can do to shake his resolution.”

I could not say a single word; the horror of the idea was altogether
too much for me, and I fell back on my chair in a state of speechless
collapse.

“You see,” Sir Paul went on explaining, “it is not only all new
baronets, but every one who would seek an alliance with the females of
our race, who must, by the terms of that strange bequest, also undergo
this trial. It may be in some degree owing to this necessity that,
ever since Humfrey de Catafalque’s diabolical testament first took
effect, every maiden of our House has died a spinster.” (Here Chlorine
hid her face with a low wail.) “In 1770, it is true, one solitary
suitor was emboldened by love and daring to face the ordeal. He went
calmly and resolutely to the chamber where the Curse was then lodged,
and the next morning they found him outside the door–a gibbering
maniac!”

I writhed on my chair. “Augustus!” cried Chlorine wildly, “promise me
you will not permit the Curse to turn you into a gibbering maniac. I
think if I saw you gibber I should die!”

I was on the verge of gibbering then; I dared not trust myself to
speak.

“Nay, Chlorine,” said Sir Paul more cheerfully “there is no cause for
alarm; all has been made smooth for Augustus.” (I began to brighten a
little at this.) “His Aunt Petronia had made a special study of the
old-world science of incantation, and had undoubtedly succeeded at
last in discovering the master-word which, employed according to her
directions, would almost certainly break the unhallowed spell. In her
compassionate attachment to us, she formed the design of persuading a
youth of blameless life and antecedents to present himself as our
champion, and the reports she had been given of our dear Augustus’s
irreproachable character led her to select him as a likely instrument.
And her confidence in his generosity and courage was indeed well-
founded, for he responded at once to the appeal of his departed aunt,
and, with her instructions for his safeguard, and the consciousness of
his virtue as an additional protection, there is hope, my child,
strong hope, that, though the struggle may be a long and bitter one,
yet Augustus will emerge a victor!”

I saw very little ground for expecting to emerge as anything of the
kind, or for that matter to emerge at all, except in installments–for
the master-word which was to abash the demon was probably inside the
packet of instructions, and that was certainly somewhere at the bottom
of the sea, outside Melbourne, fathoms below the surface.

I could bear no more. “It’s simply astonishing to me,” I said, “that
in the nineteenth century, hardly six miles from Charing Cross, you
can calmly allow this hideous ‘Curse,’ or whatever you call it, to
have things all its own way like this.”

“What can I do, Augustus?” he asked helplessly.

“Do? Anything!” I retorted wildly (for I scarcely knew what I said).
“Take it out for an airing (it must want an airing by this time); take
it out–and lose it! Or get both the archbishops to step in and lay it
for you. Sell the house, and make the purchaser take it at a
valuation, with the other fixtures. I certainly would not live under
the same roof with it. And I want you to understand one thing–I was
never told all this; I have been kept in the dark about it. Of course
I knew there was some kind of a curse in the family–but I never
dreamed of anything so bad as this, and I never had any intention of
being boxed up alone with it either. I shall not go near the Gray
Chamber!”

“Not go near it!” they all cried aghast.

“Not on any account,” I said, for I felt firmer and easier now that I
had taken up this position.

“If the Curse has any business with me, let it come down and settle it
here before you all in a plain straightforward manner. Let us go about
it in a businesslike way. On second thoughts,” I added, fearing lest
they should find means of carrying out this suggestion, “I won’t meet
it anywhere!”

“And why–why won’t you meet it?” they asked breathlessly.

“Because,” I explained desperately, “because I’m–I’m a materialist.”
(I had not been previously aware that I had any decided opinions on
the question, but I could not stay then to consider the point.) “How
can I have any dealings with a preposterous supernatural something
which my reason forbids me to believe in? You see my difficulty? It
would be inconsistent, to begin with, and–and extremely painful to
both sides.”

“No more of this ribaldry,” said Sir Paul sternly. “It may be terribly
remembered against you when the hour comes. Keep a guard over your
tongue, for all our sakes, and more especially your own. Recollect
that the Curse knows all that passes beneath this roof. And do not
forget, too, that you are pledged–irrevocably pledged. You must
confront the Curse!”

Only a short hour ago, and I had counted Chlorine’s fortune and
Chlorine as virtually mine; and now I saw my golden dreams roughly
shattered forever! And, oh, what a wrench it was to tear myself from
them! What it cost me to speak the words that barred my Paradise to me
forever!

But if I wished to avoid confronting the Curse–and I did wish this
very much–I had no other course. “I had no right to pledge myself,” I
said, with quivering lips, “under all the circumstances.”

“Why not,” they demanded again; “what circumstances?”

“Well, in the first place,” I assured them earnestly, “I’m a base
impostor. I am indeed. I’m not Augustus McFadden at all. My real name
is of no consequence–but it’s a prettier one than that.

“As for McFadden, he, I regret to say, is now no more.”

Why on earth I could not have told the plain truth here has always
been a mystery to me. I suppose I had been lying so long that it was
difficult to break myself of this occasionally inconvenient trick at
so short a notice, but I certainly mixed things up to a hopeless
extent.

“Yes,” I continued mournfully, “McFadden is dead; I will tell you how
he died if you would care to know. During his voyage here he fell
overboard, and was almost instantly appropriated by a gigantic shark,
when, as I happened to be present, I enjoyed the melancholy privilege
of seeing him pass away. For one brief moment I beheld him between the
jaws of the creature, so pale but so composed (I refer to McFadden,
you understand–not the shark), he threw just one glance up at me, and
with a smile, the sad sweetness of which I shall never forget (it was
McFadden’s smile, I mean, of course–not the shark’s), he, courteous
and considerate to the last, requested me to break the news and
remember him very kindly to you all. And, in the same instant, he
abruptly vanished within the monster–and I saw neither of them
again!”

Of course in bringing the shark in at all I was acting directly
contrary to my instructions, but I quite forgot them in my anxiety to
escape the acquaintance of the Curse of the Catafalques.

“If this is true, sir,” said the baronet haughtily when I had
finished, “you have indeed deceived us basely.”

“That,” I replied, “is what I was endeavoring to bring out. You see,
it puts it quite out of my power to meet your family Curse. I should
not feel justified in intruding upon it. So, if you will kindly let
some one fetch a fly or a cab in half an hour–”

“Stop!” cried Chlorine. “Augustus, as I will call you still, you must
not go like this. If you have stooped to deceit, it was for love of
me, and–and Mr. McFadden is dead. If he had been alive, I should have
felt it my duty to allow him an opportunity of winning my affection,
but he is lying in his silent tomb, and–and I have learnt to love
you. Stay, then; stay and brave the Curse; we may yet be happy!”

I saw how foolish I had been not to tell the truth at first, and I
hastened to repair this error.

“When I described McFadden as dead,” I said hoarsely, “it was a loose
way of putting the facts–because, to be quite accurate, he isn’t
dead. We found out afterwards that it was another fellow the shark had
swallowed, and, in fact, another shark altogether. So he is alive and
well now, at Melbourne, but when he came to know about the Curse, he
was too much frightened to come across, and he asked me to call and
make his excuses. I have now done so, and will trespass no further on
your kindness–if you will tell somebody to bring a vehicle of any
sort in a quarter of an hour.”

“Pardon me,” said the baronet, “but we cannot part in this way. I
feared when first I saw you that your resolution might give way under
the strain; it is only natural, I admit. But you deceive yourself if
you think we cannot see that these extraordinary and utterly
contradictory stories are prompted by sudden panic. I quite understand
it, Augustus; I cannot blame you; but to allow you to withdraw now
would be worse than weakness on my part. The panic will pass, you will
forget these fears tomorrow, you must forget them; remember, you have
promised. For your own sake, I shall take care that you do not forfeit
that solemn bond, for I dare not let you run the danger of exciting
the Curse by a deliberate insult.”

I saw clearly that his conduct was dictated by a deliberate and most
repulsive selfishness; he did not entirely believe me, but he was
determined that if there was any chance that I, whoever I might be,
could free him from his present thraldom, he would not let it escape
him.

I raved, I protested, I implored–all in vain; they would not believe
a single word I said, they positively refused to release me, and
insisted upon my performing my engagement.

And at last Chlorine and her mother left the room, with a little
contempt for my unworthiness mingled with their evident compassion;
and a little later Sir Paul conducted me to my room, and locked me in
“till,” as he said, “I had returned to my senses.”

Chapter IV

What a night I passed, as I tossed sleeplessly from side to side under
the canopy of my old-fashioned bedstead, torturing my fevered brain
with vain speculations as to the fate the morrow was to bring me.

I felt myself perfectly helpless; I saw no way out of it; they seemed
bent upon offering me up as a sacrifice to this private Moloch of
theirs. The baronet was quite capable of keeping me locked up all the
next day and pushing me into the Gray Chamber to take my chance when
the hour came.

If I had only some idea what the Curse was like to look at, I thought
I might not feel quite so afraid of it; the vague and impalpable
awfulness of the thing was intolerable, and the very thought of it
caused me to fling myself about in an ecstasy of horror.

By degrees, however, as daybreak came near, I grew calmer–until at
length I arrived at a decision. It seemed evident to me that, as I
could not avoid my fate, the wisest course was to go forth to meet it
with as good a grace as possible. Then, should I by some fortunate
accident come well out of it, my fortune was ensured.

But if I went on repudiating my assumed self to the very last, I
should surely arouse a suspicion which the most signal rout of the
Curse would not serve to dispel.

And after all, as I began to think, the whole thing had probably been
much exaggerated; if I could only keep my head, and exercise all my
powers of cool impudence, I might contrive to hoodwink this formidable
relic of medieval days, which must have fallen rather behind the age
by this time. It might even turn out to be (although I was hardly
sanguine as to this) as big a humbug as I was myself, and we should
meet with confidential winks, like the two augurs.

But, at all events, I resolved to see this mysterious affair out, and
trust to my customary good luck to bring me safely through, and so,
having found the door unlocked, I came down to breakfast something
like my usual self, and set myself to remove the unfavorable
impression I had made on the previous night.

They did it from consideration for me, but still it was mistaken
kindness for them all to leave me entirely to my own thoughts during
the whole of the day, for I was driven to mope alone about the gloom-
laden building, until by dinnertime I was very low indeed from nervous
depression.

We dined in almost unbroken silence; now and then, as Sir Paul saw my
hand approaching a decanter, he would open his lips to observe that I
should need the clearest head and the firmest nerve ere long, and warn
me solemnly against the brown sherry; from time to time, too, Chlorine
and her mother stole apprehensive glances at me, and sighed heavily
between every course. I never remember eating a dinner with so little
enjoyment.

The meal came to an end at last; the ladies rose, and Sir Paul and I
were left to brood over the dessert. I fancy both of us felt a
delicacy in starting a conversation, and before I could hit upon a
safe remark, Lady Catafalque and her daughter returned, dressed, to my
unspeakable horror, in readiness to go out. Worse than that even, Sir
Paul apparently intended to accompany them, for he rose at their
entrance.

“It is now time for us to bid you a solemn farewell, Augustus,” he
said, in his hollow old voice.

“You have three hours before you yet, and if you are wise, you will
spend them in earnest self-preparation.

“At midnight, punctually, for you must not dare to delay, you will go
to the Gray Chamber–the way thither you know, and you will find the
Curse prepared for you. Good-bye, then, brave and devoted boy; stand
firm, and no harm can befall you!”

“You are going away, all of you!” I cried. They were not what you
might call a gay family to sit up with, but even their society was
better than my own.

“Upon these dread occasions,” he explained, “it is absolutely
forbidden for any human being but one to remain in the house. All the
servants have already left, and we are about to take our departure for
a private hotel near the Strand. We shall just have time, if we start
at once, to inspect the Soane Museum on our way thither, which will
serve as some distraction from the terrible anxiety we shall be
feeling.”

At this I believe I positively howled with terror; all my old panic
came back with a rush.

“Don’t leave me all alone with It!” I cried; “I shall go mad if you
do!”

Sir Paul simply turned on his heel in silent contempt, and his wife
followed him; but Chlorine remained behind for one instant, and
somehow, as she gazed at me with a yearning pity in her sad eyes, I
thought I had never seen her looking so pretty before.

“Augustus,” she said, “get up.” (I suppose I must have been on the
floor somewhere.) “Be a man; show us we were not mistaken in you. You
know I would spare you this if I could; but we are powerless. Oh, be
brave, or I shall lose you forever!”

Her appeal did seem to put a little courage into me; I staggered up
and kissed her slender hand and vowed sincerely to be worthy of her.

And then she too passed out, and the heavy hall door slammed behind
the three, and the rusty old gate screeched like a banshee as it swung
back and closed with a clang.

I heard the carriage-wheels grind the slush, and the next moment I
knew that I was shut up on Christmas eve in that somber mansion–with
the Curse of the Catafalques as my sole companion.

I don’t think the generous ardor with which Chlorine’s last words had
inspired me lasted very long, for I caught myself shivering before the
clock struck nine, and, drawing up a clumsy leathern armchair close to
the fire, I piled on the logs and tried to get rid of a certain
horrible sensation of internal vacancy which was beginning to afflict
me.

I tried to look my situation fairly in the face; whatever reason and
common sense had to say about it, there seemed no possible doubt that
something of a supernatural order was shut up in that great chamber
down the corridor, and also that, if I meant to win Chlorine, I must
go up and have some kind of an interview with it. Once more I wished I
had some definite idea to go upon; what description of being should I
find this Curse? Would it be aggressively ugly, like the bogie of my
infancy, or should I see a lank and unsubstantial shape, draped in
clinging black, with nothing visible beneath it but a pair of burning
hollow eyes and one long pale bony hand? Really I could not decide
which would be the more trying of the two.

By and by I began to recollect unwillingly all the frightful stories I
had ever read; one in particular came back to me–the adventure of a
foreign marshal who, after much industry, succeeded in invoking an
evil spirit, which came bouncing into the room shaped like a gigantic
ball, with, I think, a hideous face in the middle of it, and would not
be got rid of until the horrified marshal had spent hours in hard
praying and persistent exorcism!

What should I do if the Curse was a globular one and came rolling all
round the room after me?

Then there was another appalling tale I had read in some magazine–a
tale of a secret chamber, too, and in some respects a very similar
case to my own, for there the heir of some great house had to go in
and meet a mysterious aged person with strange eyes and an evil smile,
who kept attempting to shake hands with him.

Nothing should induce me to shake hands with the Curse of the
Catafalques, however apparently friendly I might find it.

But it was not very likely to be friendly, for it was one of those
mystic powers of darkness which know nearly everything–it would
detect me as an impostor directly, and what would become of me? I
declare I almost resolved to confess all and sob out my deceit upon
its bosom, and the only thing which made me pause was the reflection
that probably the Curse did not possess a bosom.

By this time I had worked myself up to such a pitch of terror that I
found it absolutely necessary to brace my nerves, and I did brace
them. I emptied all the three decanters, but as Sir Paul’s cellar was
none of the best, the only result was that, while my courage and
daring were not perceptibly heightened, I was conscious of feeling
exceedingly unwell.

Tobacco, no doubt, would have calmed and soothed me, but I did not
dare to smoke. For the Curse, being old-fashioned, might object to the
smell of it, and I was anxious to avoid exciting its prejudices
unnecessarily.

And so I simply sat in my chair and shook. Every now and then I heard
steps on the frosty path outside: sometimes a rapid tread, as of some
happy person bound to scenes of Christmas revelry, and little dreaming
of the miserable wretch he was passing; sometimes the slow creaking
tramp of the Fulham policeman on his beat.

What if I called him in and gave the Curse into custody—either for
putting me in bodily fear (as it was undeniably doing), or for being
found on the premises under suspicious circumstances?

There was a certain audacity about this means of cutting the knot that
fascinated me at first, but still I did not venture to adopt it,
thinking it most probable that the stolid constable would decline to
interfere as soon as he knew the facts; and even if he did, it would
certainly annoy Sir Paul extremely to hear of his Family Curse
spending its Christmas in a police cell, and I felt instinctively that
he would consider it a piece of unpardonable bad taste on my part.

So one hour passed. A few minutes after ten I heard more footsteps and
voices in low consultation, as if a band of men had collected outside
the railings. Could there be any indication without of the horrors
these walls contained?

But no; the gaunt housefront kept its secret too well; they were
merely the waits. They saluted me with the old carol, “God rest you,
merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay!” which should have encouraged
me, but it didn’t and they followed that up by a wheezy but pathetic
rendering of “The Mistletoe Bough.”

For a time I did not object to them; while they were scraping and
blowing outside I felt less abandoned and cut off from human help, and
then they might arouse softer sentiments in the Curse upstairs by
their seasonable strains: these things do happen at Christmas
sometimes. But their performance was really so infernally bad that it
was calculated rather to irritate than subdue any evil spirit, and
very soon I rushed to the window and beckoned to them furiously to go
away.

Unhappily, they thought I was inviting them indoors for refreshment,
and came round to the gate, when they knocked and rang incessantly for
a quarter of an hour.

This must have stirred the Curse up quite enough, but when they had
gone, there came a man with a barrel organ, which was suffering from
some complicated internal disorder, causing it to play its whole
repertory at once, in maddening discords. Even the grinder himself
seemed dimly aware that his instrument was not doing itself justice,
for he would stop occasionally, as if to ponder or examine it. But he
was evidently a sanguine person and had hopes of bringing it round by
a little perseverance; so, as Parson’s Green was well-suited by its
quiet for this mode of treatment, he remained there till he must have
reduced the Curse to a rampant and rabid condition.

He went at last, and then the silence that followed began to my
excited fancy (for I certainly saw nothing) to be invaded by strange
sounds that echoed about the old house. I heard sharp reports from the
furniture, sighing moans in the draughty passages, doors opening and
shutting, and–worse still–stealthy padding footsteps, both above and
in the ghostly hall outside!

I sat there in an ice-cold perspiration, until my nerves required more
bracing, to effect which I had recourse to the spirit-case.

And after a short time my fears began to melt away rapidly. What a
ridiculous bugbear I was making of this thing after all! Was I not too
hasty in setting it down as ugly and hostile before I had seen it…
how did I know it was anything which deserved my horror?

Here a gush of sentiment came over me at the thought that it might be
that for long centuries the poor Curse had been cruelly
misunderstood–that it might be a blessing in disguise.

I was so affected by the thought that I resolved to go up at once and
wish it a merry Christmas through the keyhole, just to show that I
came in no unfriendly spirit.

But would not that seem as if I was afraid of it? I scorned the idea
of being afraid. Why, for two straws, I would go straight in and pull
its nose for it–if it had a nose! I went out with this object, not
very steadily, but before I had reached the top of the dim and misty
staircase, I had given up all ideas of defiance, and merely intended
to go as far as the corridor by way of a preliminary canter.

The coffin-lid door stood open, and I looked apprehensively down the
corridor; the grim metal fittings on the massive door of the Gray
Chamber were gleaming with a mysterious pale light, something between
the phenomena obtained by electricity and the peculiar phosphorescence
observable in a decayed shellfish; under the door I saw the reflection
of a sullen red glow, and within I could hear sounds like the roar of
a mighty wind, above which peals of fiendish mirth rang out at
intervals, and were followed by a hideous dull clanking.

It seemed only too evident that the Curse was getting up the steam for
our interview. I did not stay there long, because I was afraid that it
might dart out suddenly and catch me eavesdropping, which would be a
hopelessly bad beginning. I got back to the dining room, somehow; the
fire had taken advantage of my short absence to go out, and I was
surprised to find by the light of the fast-dimming lamp that it was a
quarter to twelve already.

Only fifteen more fleeting minutes and then–unless I gave tip
Chlorine and her fortune forever–I must go up and knock at that awful
door, and enter the presence of the frightful mystic Thing that was
roaring and laughing and clanking on the other side!

Stupidly I sat and stared at the clock; in five minutes, now, I should
be beginning my desperate duel with one of the powers of darkness–a
thought which gave me sickening qualms.

I was clinging to the thought that I had still two precious minutes
left–perhaps my last moments of safety and sanity—when the lamp
expired with a gurgling sob, and left me in the dark.

I was afraid of sitting there all alone any longer, and besides, if I
lingered, the Curse might come down and fetch me. The horror of this
idea made me resolve to go up at once, especially as scrupulous
punctuality might propitiate it.

Groping my way to the door, I reached the hall and stood there,
swaying under the old stained-glass lantern. And then I made a
terrible discovery. I was not in a condition to transact any business;
I had disregarded Sir Paul’s well-meant warning at dinner; I was not
my own master. I was lost!

The clock in the adjoining room tolled twelve, and from without the
distant steeples proclaimed in faint peals and chimes that it was
Christmas morn. My hour had come!

Why did I not mount those stairs? I tried again and again, and fell
down every time, and at each attempt I knew the Curse would be getting
more and more impatient.

I was quite five minutes late, and yet, with all my eagerness to be
punctual, I could not get up that staircase. It was a horrible
situation, but it was not at its worst even then, for I heard a
jarring sound above, as if heavy rusty bolts were being withdrawn.

The Curse was coming down to see what had become of me! I should have
to confess my inability to go upstairs without assistance, and so
place myself wholly at its mercy!

I made one more desperate effort, and then–and then, upon my word, I
don’t know how it was exactly–but, as I looked wildly about, I caught
sight of my hat on the hat-rack below, and the thoughts it roused in
me proved too strong for resistance. Perhaps it was weak of me, but I
venture to think that very few men in my position would have behaved
any better.

I renounced my ingenious and elaborate scheme forever, the door
(fortunately for me) was neither locked nor bolted, and the next
moment I was running for my life along the road to Chelsea, urged on
by the fancy that the Curse itself was in hot pursuit.

For weeks after that I lay in hiding, starting at every sound, so
fearful was I that the outraged Curse might track me down at last; all
my worldly possessions were at Parson’s Green, and I could not bring
myself to write or call for them, nor indeed have I seen any of the
Catafalques since that awful Christmas eve.

I wish to have nothing more to do with them, for I feel naturally that
they took a cruel advantage of my youth and inexperience, and I shall
always resent the deception and constraint to which I so nearly fell a
victim.

But it occurs to me that those who may have followed my strange story
with any curiosity and interest may be slightly disappointed at its
conclusion, which I cannot deny is a lame and unsatisfactory one.

They expected, no doubt, to be told what the Curse’s personal
appearance is, and how it comports itself in that ghastly Gray
Chamber, what it said to me, and what I said to it, and what happened
after that.

This information, as will be easily understood, I cannot pretend to
give, and, for myself, I have long ceased to feel the slightest
curiosity on any of these points. But for the benefit of such as are
less indifferent, I may suggest that almost any eligible bachelor
would easily obtain the opportunities I failed to enjoy by simply
calling at the old mansion at Parson’s Green, and presenting himself
to the baronet as a suitor for his daughter’s hand.

I shall be most happy to allow my name to be used as a reference.

THE END