Oh, you'll see why I chose this picture later.

Christmas Ghost Stories: A Christmas Story, by Sarban

Oh, you'll see why I chose this picture later.

Oh, you’ll see why I chose this picture later.

This, the last in our series, is THE Christmas Ghost Story. Sure, it’s just called “A Christmas Story” but that’s because, like the Olympic gold medalist who says, “I’m a student” when asked who she is, it’s just being humble. Trust me, this is THE Christmas story.

And there aren’t even any sheep or any “quote unquote” ghosts. There is snow. There is the cold hand of the Lord Frost. There is dashing pilot Igor Palyevsky, whom I would marry in a heartbeat. There are colourful ethnic people from all over Europe, fantastic scenes on the shores of distant Siberia, and there is a remarkable, drunken party in Saudi Arabia featuring esoteric garb, an esoteric liquor, and even more esoteric conversation.

We are indeed a long way from the traditional cosy country house of the hospitable British squire. Pour yourself of some comforting spirits and prepare to commune with some restless ones indeed in this exotic, and all-too-forgotten tale by Sarban, aka British diplomat John William Wall.

A Note: The story is, of course, still under copyright, as I found out previously on this blog. I’ve taken down all instances of it from everywhere I CAN reach, and the only place it exists online still is on this blog, to which I no longer have access, and which will surely go offline at some point. So enjoy this while you can, and if you do enjoy it, consider purchasing his books, available at Amazon.

To read the story, follow this link to my ancient food/booze blog and either skip the preamble or savour it, depending on whether or not it is to your taste. The story begins about three hundred words down, where you’ll see the title. Enjoy!

Oh, and while I have your attention, I’m just going to mention there’s less than a week left for my medical fundraiser, to cover the costs of my physio. We met our original goal within 24 hours, thanks to amazing generosity including one old friend who donated a thousand dollars! But after seeing my surgeon and consulting with the physiologist, the cost of physio has significantly more than doubled, and I do need a few more hundred dollars, at least until I am back at work. Thanks to all who have contributed, and if you’re skint, I feel ya. A FB or Twitter share is worth its weight in gold, so share away!

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Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance by M.R. James

It’s not every author who gets two kicks at the can in our advent collection of Christmas Ghost Stories, but M.R. James is a special case. Indeed, he, more even than Dickens, popularized the phenomenon of the Christmas ghost story, and he wrote some real creepers, as we’ve seen from the previously-featured Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. In fact, compared to Dickens, whom I find unspooky and quaint, he’s practically Lucio Fulci with his quotidian ash trees and crumpled linens transformed suddenly and irrevocably into things of horror.

I won’t walk under an ash tree, even now. Thank god I live in the piney wastes, eh?

This, The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, is truly one of his most memorable, even if one can never remember the damn title. And one of his most seasonal, too, as it not only takes place over Christmas, but also features a Punch and Judy show.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Punch and Judy show, but they’re hella creepy. I don’t know who first put those things together and thought that would be a suitable entertainment for children, but a) they clearly hated children b) I guess the history of LSD goes back farther than we expected.

Oh, and since we were out late with family yesterday and skipped posting a story then, we’ll get you a bonus story before midnight. And then, tomorrow, The Big One You’ve All Been Waiting For! Which isn’t A Christmas Carol. It’s better, I promise.


The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
by M.R. James

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

LETTER I

Great Chrishall, Dec. 22, 1837.
My Dear Robert,—It is with great regret for the enjoyment I am losing, and for a reason which you will deplore equally with myself, that I write to inform you that I am unable to join your circle for this Christmas: but you will agree with me that it is unavoidable when I say that I have within these few hours received a letter from Mrs. Hunt at B——, to the effect that our Uncle Henry has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, and begging me to go down there immediately and join the search that is being made for him. Little as I, or you either, I think, have ever seen of Uncle, I naturally feel that this is not a request that can be regarded lightly, and accordingly I propose to go to B—— by this afternoon’s mail, reaching it late in the evening. I shall not go to the Rectory, but put up at the King’s Head, and to which you may address letters. I enclose a small draft, which you will please make use of for the benefit of the young people. I shall write you daily (supposing me to be detained more than a single day) what goes on, and you may be sure, should the business be cleared up in time to permit of my coming to the Manor after all, I shall present myself. I have but a few minutes at disposal. With cordial greetings to you all, and many regrets, believe me, your affectionate Bro.,

W. R.

LETTER II

King’s Head, Dec. 23, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—In the first place, there is as yet no news of Uncle H., and I think you may finally dismiss any idea—I won’t say hope—that I might after all “turn up” for Xmas. However, my thoughts will be with you, and you have my best wishes for a really festive day. Mind that none of my nephews or nieces expend any fraction of their guineas on presents for me.

Since I got here I have been blaming myself for taking this affair of Uncle H. too easily. From what people here say, I gather that there is very little hope that he can still be alive; but whether it is accident or design that carried him off I cannot judge. The facts are these. On Friday the 19th, he went as usual shortly before five o’clock to read evening prayers at the Church; and when they were over the clerk brought him a message, in response to which he set off to pay a visit to a sick person at an outlying cottage the better part of two miles away. He paid the visit, and started on his return journey at about half-past six. This is the last that is known of him. The people here are very much grieved at his loss; he had been here many years, as you know, and though, as you also know, he was not the most genial of men, and had more than a little of the martinet in his composition, he seems to have been active in good works, and unsparing of trouble to himself.

Poor Mrs. Hunt, who has been his housekeeper ever since she left Woodley, is quite overcome: it seems like the end of the world to her. I am glad that I did not entertain the idea of taking quarters at the Rectory; and I have declined several kindly offers of hospitality from people in the place, preferring as I do to be independent, and finding myself very comfortable here.

You will, of course, wish to know what has been done in the way of inquiry and search. First, nothing was to be expected from investigation at the Rectory; and to be brief, nothing has transpired. I asked Mrs. Hunt—as others had done before—whether there was either any unfavourable symptom in her master such as might portend a sudden stroke, or attack of illness, or whether he had ever had reason to apprehend any such thing: but both she, and also his medical man, were clear that this was not the case. He was quite in his usual health. In the second place, naturally, ponds and streams have been dragged, and fields in the neighbourhood which he is known to have visited last, have been searched—without result. I have myself talked to the parish clerk and—more important—have been to the house where he paid his visit.

There can be no question of any foul play on these people’s part. The one man in the house is ill in bed and very weak: the wife and the children of course could do nothing themselves, nor is there the shadow of a probability that they or any of them should have agreed to decoy poor Uncle H. out in order that he might be attacked on the way back. They had told what they knew to several other inquirers already, but the woman repeated it to me. The Rector was looking just as usual: he wasn’t very long with the sick man—”He ain’t,” she said, “like some what has a gift in prayer; but there, if we was all that way, ‘owever would the chapel people get their living?” He left some money when he went away, and one of the children saw him cross the stile into the next field. He was dressed as he always was: wore his bands—I gather he is nearly the last man remaining who does so—at any rate in this district.

You see I am putting down everything. The fact is that I have nothing else to do, having brought no business papers with me; and, moreover, it serves to clear my own mind, and may suggest points which have been overlooked. So I shall continue to write all that passes, even to conversations if need be—you may read or not as you please, but pray keep the letters. I have another reason for writing so fully, but it is not a very tangible one.

You may ask if I have myself made any search in the fields near the cottage. Something—a good deal—has been done by others, as I mentioned; but I hope to go over the ground to-morrow. Bow Street has now been informed, and will send down by to-night’s coach, but I do not think they will make much of the job. There is no snow, which might have helped us. The fields are all grass. Of course I was on the qui vive for any indication to-day both going and returning; but there was a thick mist on the way back, and I was not in trim for wandering about unknown pastures, especially on an evening when bushes looked like men, and a cow lowing in the distance might have been the last trump. I assure you, if Uncle Henry had stepped out from among the trees in a little copse which borders the path at one place, carrying his head under his arm, I should have been very little more uncomfortable than I was. To tell you the truth, I was rather expecting something of the kind. But I must drop my pen for the moment: Mr. Lucas, the curate, is announced.

Later. Mr. Lucas has been, and gone, and there is not much beyond the decencies of ordinary sentiment to be got from him. I can see that he has given up any idea that the Rector can be alive, and that, so far as he can be, he is truly sorry. I can also discern that even in a more emotional person than Mr. Lucas, Uncle Henry was not likely to inspire strong attachment.

Besides Mr. Lucas, I have had another visitor in the shape of my Boniface—mine host of the “King’s Head”—who came to see whether I had everything I wished, and who really requires the pen of a Boz to do him justice. He was very solemn and weighty at first. “Well, sir,” he said, “I suppose we must bow our ‘ead beneath the blow, as my poor wife had used to say. So far as I can gather there’s been neither hide nor yet hair of our late respected incumbent scented out as yet; not that he was what the Scripture terms a hairy man in any sense of the word.”

I said—as well as I could—that I supposed not, but could not help adding that I had heard he was sometimes a little difficult to deal with. Mr. Bowman looked at me sharply for a moment, and then passed in a flash from solemn sympathy to impassioned declamation. “When I think,” he said, “of the language that man see fit to employ to me in this here parlour over no more a matter than a cask of beer—such a thing as I told him might happen any day of the week to a man with a family—though as it turned out he was quite under a mistake, and that I knew at the time, only I was that shocked to hear him I couldn’t lay my tongue to the right expression.”

He stopped abruptly and eyed me with some embarrassment. I only said, “Dear me, I’m sorry to hear you had any little differences: I suppose my uncle will be a good deal missed in the parish?” Mr. Bowman drew a long breath. “Ah, yes!” he said; “your uncle! You’ll understand me when I say that for the moment it had slipped my remembrance that he was a relative; and natural enough, I must say, as it should, for as to you bearing any resemblance to—to him, the notion of any such a thing is clean ridiculous. All the same, ‘ad I ‘ave bore it in my mind, you’ll be among the first to feel, I’m sure, as I should have abstained my lips, or rather I should not have abstained my lips with no such reflections.”

I assured him that I quite understood, and was going to have asked him some further questions, but he was called away to see after some business. By the way, you need not take it into your head that he has anything to fear from the inquiry into poor Uncle Henry’s disappearance—though, no doubt, in the watches of the night it will occur to him that I think he has, and I may expect explanations to-morrow.

I must close this letter: it has to go by the late coach.

LETTER III

Dec. 25, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—This is a curious letter to be writing on Christmas Day, and yet after all there is nothing much in it. Or there may be—you shall be the judge. At least, nothing decisive. The Bow Street men practically say that they have no clue. The length of time and the weather conditions have made all tracks so faint as to be quite useless: nothing that belonged to the dead man—I’m afraid no other word will do—has been picked up.

As I expected, Mr. Bowman was uneasy in his mind this morning; quite early I heard him holding forth in a very distinct voice—purposely so, I thought—to the Bow Street officers in the bar, as to the loss that the town had sustained in their Rector, and as to the necessity of leaving no stone unturned (he was very great on this phrase) in order to come at the truth. I suspect him of being an orator of repute at convivial meetings.

When I was at breakfast he came to wait on me, and took an opportunity when handing a muffin to say in a low tone, “I ‘ope, sir, you reconize as my feelings towards your relative is not actuated by any taint of what you may call melignity—you can leave the room, Elizar, I will see the gentleman ‘as all he requires with my own hands—I ask your pardon, sir, but you must be well aware a man is not always master of himself: and when that man has been ‘urt in his mind by the application of expressions which I will go so far as to say ‘ad not ought to have been made use of (his voice was rising all this time and his face growing redder); no, sir; and ‘ere, if you will permit of it, I should like to explain to you in a very few words the exact state of the bone of contention. This cask—I might more truly call it a firkin—of beer——”

I felt it was time to interpose, and said that I did not see that it would help us very much to go into that matter in detail. Mr. Bowman acquiesced, and resumed more calmly:

“Well, sir, I bow to your ruling, and as you say, be that here or be it there, it don’t contribute a great deal, perhaps, to the present question. All I wish you to understand is that I am as prepared as you are yourself to lend every hand to the business we have afore us, and—as I took the opportunity to say as much to the Orficers not three-quarters of an hour ago—to leave no stone unturned as may throw even a spark of light on this painful matter.”

In fact, Mr. Bowman did accompany us on our exploration, but though I am sure his genuine wish was to be helpful, I am afraid he did not contribute to the serious side of it. He appeared to be under the impression that we were likely to meet either Uncle Henry or the person responsible for his disappearance, walking about the fields, and did a great deal of shading his eyes with his hand and calling our attention, by pointing with his stick, to distant cattle and labourers. He held several long conversations with old women whom we met, and was very strict and severe in his manner, but on each occasion returned to our party saying, “Well, I find she don’t seem to ‘ave no connexion with this sad affair. I think you may take it from me, sir, as there’s little or no light to be looked for from that quarter; not without she’s keeping somethink back intentional.”

We gained no appreciable result, as I told you at starting; the Bow Street men have left the town, whether for London or not I am not sure.

This evening I had company in the shape of a bagman, a smartish fellow. He knew what was going forward, but though he has been on the roads for some days about here, he had nothing to tell of suspicious characters—tramps, wandering sailors or gipsies. He was very full of a capital Punch and Judy Show he had seen this same day at W——, and asked if it had been here yet, and advised me by no means to miss it if it does come. The best Punch and the best Toby dog, he said, he had ever come across. Toby dogs, you know, are the last new thing in the shows. I have only seen one myself, but before long all the men will have them.

Now why, you will want to know, do I trouble to write all this to you? I am obliged to do it, because it has something to do with another absurd trifle (as you will inevitably say), which in my present state of rather unquiet fancy—nothing more, perhaps—I have to put down. It is a dream, sir, which I am going to record, and I must say it is one of the oddest I have had. Is there anything in it beyond what the bagman’s talk and Uncle Henry’s disappearance could have suggested? You, I repeat, shall judge: I am not in a sufficiently cool and judicial frame to do so.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether indoors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light. I was “strung up” to a high degree of expectation and looked every moment to hear the pan-pipes and the Roo-too-too-it. Instead of that there came suddenly an enormous—I can use no other word—an enormous single toll of a bell, I don’t know from how far off—somewhere behind. The little curtain flew up and the drama began.

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch. To others he was polite and carneying—particularly to the unfortunate alien who can only say Shallabalah—though what Punch said I never could catch. But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the footboard and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.

There was one long, loud, shuddering scream, and I awoke to find myself looking straight into the face of—what in all the world do you think? but—a large owl, which was seated on my window-sill immediately opposite my bed-foot, holding up its wings like two shrouded arms. I caught the fierce glance of its yellow eyes, and then it was gone. I heard the single enormous bell again—very likely, as you are saying to yourself, the church clock; but I do not think so—and then I was broad awake.

All this, I may say, happened within the last half-hour. There was no probability of my getting to sleep again, so I got up, put on clothes enough to keep me warm, and am writing this rigmarole in the first hours of Christmas Day. Have I left out anything? Yes; there was no Toby dog, and the names over the front of the Punch and Judy booth were Kidman and Gallop, which were certainly not what the bagman told me to look out for.
By this time, I feel a little more as if I could sleep, so this shall be sealed and wafered.

LETTER IV

Dec. 26, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—All is over. The body has been found. I do not make excuses for not having sent off my news by last night’s mail, for the simple reason that I was incapable of putting pen to paper. The events that attended the discovery bewildered me so completely that I needed what I could get of a night’s rest to enable me to face the situation at all. Now I can give you my journal of the day, certainly the strangest Christmas Day that ever I spent or am likely to spend.

The first incident was not very serious. Mr. Bowman had, I think, been keeping Christmas Eve, and was a little inclined to be captious: at least, he was not on foot very early, and to judge from what I could hear, neither men or maids could do anything to please him. The latter were certainly reduced to tears; nor am I sure that Mr. Bowman succeeded in preserving a manly composure. At any rate, when I came downstairs, it was in a broken voice that he wished me the compliments of the season, and a little later on, when he paid his visit of ceremony at breakfast, he was far from cheerful: even Byronic, I might almost say, in his outlook on life.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if you think with me, sir; but every Christmas as comes round the world seems a hollerer thing to me. Why, take an example now from what lays under my own eye. There’s my servant Eliza—been with me now for going on fifteen years. I thought I could have placed my confidence in Elizar, and yet this very morning—Christmas morning too, of all the blessed days in the year—with the bells a ringing and—and—all like that—I say, this very morning, had it not have been for Providence watching over us all, that girl would have put—indeed I may go so far to say, ‘ad put the cheese on your breakfast-table——” He saw I was about to speak, and waved his hand at me. “It’s all very well for you to say, ‘Yes, Mr. Bowman, but you took away the cheese and locked it up in the cupboard,’ which I did, and have the key here, or if not the actual key, one very much about the same size. That’s true enough, sir, but what do you think is the effect of that action on me? Why, it’s no exaggeration for me to say that the ground is cut from under my feet. And yet when I said as much to Eliza, not nasty, mind you, but just firm-like, what was my return? ‘Oh,’ she says: ‘well,’ she says, ‘there wasn’t no bones broke, I suppose.’ Well, sir, it ‘urt me, that’s all I can say: it ‘urt me, and I don’t like to think of it now.”

There was an ominous pause here, in which I ventured to say something like, “Yes, very trying,” and then asked at what hour the church service was to be. “Eleven o’clock,” Mr. Bowman said with a heavy sigh. “Ah, you won’t have no such discourse from poor Mr. Lucas as what you would have done from our late Rector. Him and me may have had our little differences, and did do, more’s the pity.”

I could see that a powerful effort was needed to keep him off the vexed question of the cask of beer, but he made it. “But I will say this, that a better preacher, nor yet one to stand faster by his rights, or what he considered to be his rights—however, that’s not the question now—I for one, never set under. Some might say, ‘Was he a eloquent man?’ and to that my answer would be: ‘Well, there you’ve a better right per’aps to speak of your own uncle than what I have.’ Others might ask, ‘Did he keep a hold of his congregation?’ and there again I should reply, ‘That depends.’ But as I say—yes, Eliza, my girl, I’m coming—eleven o’clock, sir, and you inquire for the King’s Head pew.” I believe Eliza had been very near the door, and shall consider it in my vail.

The next episode was church: I felt Mr. Lucas had a difficult task in doing justice to Christmas sentiments, and also to the feeling of disquiet and regret which, whatever Mr. Bowman might say, was clearly prevalent. I do not think he rose to the occasion. I was uncomfortable. The organ wolved—you know what I mean: the wind died—twice in the Christmas Hymn, and the tenor bell, I suppose owing to some negligence on the part of the ringers, kept sounding faintly about once in a minute during the sermon. The clerk sent up a man to see to it, but he seemed unable to do much. I was glad when it was over. There was an odd incident, too, before the service. I went in rather early, and came upon two men carrying the parish bier back to its place under the tower. From what I overheard them saying, it appeared that it had been put out by mistake, by someone who was not there. I also saw the clerk busy folding up a moth-eaten velvet pall—not a sight for Christmas Day.

I dined soon after this, and then, feeling disinclined to go out, took my seat by the fire in the parlour, with the last number of Pickwick, which I had been saving up for some days. I thought I could be sure of keeping awake over this, but I turned out as bad as our friend Smith. I suppose it was half-past two when I was roused by a piercing whistle and laughing and talking voices outside in the market-place. It was a Punch and Judy—I had no doubt the one that my bagman had seen at W——. I was half delighted, half not—the latter because my unpleasant dream came back to me so vividly; but, anyhow, I determined to see it through, and I sent Eliza out with a crown-piece to the performers and a request that they would face my window if they could manage it.

The show was a very smart new one; the names of the proprietors, I need hardly tell you, were Italian, Foresta and Calpigi. The Toby dog was there, as I had been led to expect. All B—— turned out, but did not obstruct my view, for I was at the large first-floor window and not ten yards away.

The play began on the stroke of a quarter to three by the church clock. Certainly it was very good; and I was soon relieved to find that the disgust my dream had given me for Punch’s onslaughts on his ill-starred visitors was only transient. I laughed at the demise of the Turncock, the Foreigner, the Beadle, and even the baby. The only drawback was the Toby dog’s developing a tendency to howl in the wrong place. Something had occurred, I suppose, to upset him, and something considerable: for, I forget exactly at what point, he gave a most lamentable cry, leapt off the footboard, and shot away across the market-place and down a side street. There was a stage-wait, but only a brief one. I suppose the men decided that it was no good going after him, and that he was likely to turn up again at night.

We went on. Punch dealt faithfully with Judy, and in fact with all comers; and then came the moment when the gallows was erected, and the great scene with Mr. Ketch was to be enacted. It was now that something happened of which I can certainly not yet see the import fully. You have witnessed an execution, and know what the criminal’s head looks like with the cap on. If you are like me, you never wish to think of it again, and I do not willingly remind you of it. It was just such a head as that, that I, from my somewhat higher post, saw in the inside of the showbox ; but at first the audience did not see it. I expected it to emerge into their view, but instead of that there slowly rose for a few seconds an uncovered face, with an expression of terror upon it, of which I have never imagined the like. It seemed as if the man, whoever he was, was being forcibly lifted, with his arms somehow pinioned or held back, towards the little gibbet on the stage. I could just see the nightcapped head behind him. Then there was a cry and a crash. The whole showbox fell over backwards; kicking legs were seen among the ruins, and then two figures—as some said; I can only answer for one—were visible running at top speed across the square and disappearing in a lane which leads to the fields.

Of course everybody gave chase. I followed; but the pace was killing, and very few were in, literally, at the death. It happened in a chalk pit: the man went over the edge quite blindly and broke his neck. They searched everywhere for the other, until it occurred to me to ask whether he had ever left the market-place. At first everyone was sure that he had; but when we came to look, he was there, under the showbox, dead too.

But in the chalk pit it was that poor Uncle Henry’s body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I forgot to say the men’s real names were Kidman and Gallop. I feel sure I have heard them, but no one here seems to know anything about them.

I am coming to you as soon as I can after the funeral. I must tell you when we meet what I think of it all.

Ghost in Old Room by DivvuartRome

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen

Tonight’s featured Christmas Ghost Story is simply one of the best. Not particularly Christmasy, it’s true; this tale focuses more on the seeping damp, the eerie winds, the endless fens, and the sheer dreariness of wintertime in an isolated house on the English coast. The Woman in Black is another variety of this type of tale, which tends to favour long-simmering mysterious ghosts, far less personable than the jolly baronesses or lecherous footpads common elsewhere.

If you like gore and shock, this is not your thing. If you like fine china, slow creeps, polite but nervous starts, and feisty if somewhat dim spinsters, you will love The Crown Derby Plate! It’s one of my favourites; in fact, it’s not Christmas without it!


The Crown Derby Plate
by Marjorie Bowen

Ghost in Old Room by  DivvuartRome

Ghost in Old Room by DivvuartRome

Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, “particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.”

“I don’t suppose you ever will,” replied her cousin Mabel comfortably, while her cousin Clara shuddered and said that she hoped they would change the subject for she disliked even to think of such things.

The three elderly, cheerful women sat round a big fire, cosy and content after a day of pleasant activities; Martha was the guest of the other two, who owned the handsome, convenient country house; she always came to spend her Christmas with the Wyntons and found the leisurely country life delightful after the bustling round of London, for Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a succession of delightful days.

The other two, Mabel and Clara, led quieter but none the less agreeable lives; they had more money and fewer interests, but nevertheless enjoyed themselves very well.

“Talking of ghosts,” said Mabel, “I wonder how that old woman at ‘Hartleys’ is getting on, for ‘Hartleys,’ you know, is supposed to be haunted.”

“Yes, I know,” smiled Miss Pym, “but all the years that we have known of the place we have never heard anything definite, have we?”

“No,” put in Clara; “but there is that persistent rumour that the House is uncanny, and for myself, nothing would induce me to live there!”

“It is certainly very lonely and dreary down there on the marshes,” conceded Mabel. “But as for the ghost—you never hear what it is supposed to be even.”

“Who has taken it?” asked Miss Pym, remembering “Hartleys” as very desolate indeed, and long shut up.

“A Miss Lefain, an eccentric old creature—I think you met her here once, two years ago——”

“I believe that I did, but I don’t recall her at all.”

“We have not seen her since, ‘Hartleys’ is so un-get-at-able and she didn’t seem to want visitors. She collects china, Martha, so really you ought to go and see her and talk ‘shop.'”

With the word “china” some curious associations came into the mind of Martha Pym; she was silent while she strove to put them together, and after a second or two they all fitted together into a very clear picture.

She remembered that thirty years ago—yes, it must be thirty years ago, when, as a young woman, she had put all her capital into the antique business, and had been staying with her cousins (her aunt had then been alive) that she had driven across the marsh to “Hartleys,” where there was an auction sale; all the details of this she had completely forgotten, but she could recall quite clearly purchasing a set of gorgeous china which was still one of her proud delights, a perfect set of Crown Derby save that one plate was missing.

“How odd,” she remarked, “that this Miss Lefain should collect china too, for it was at ‘Hartleys’ that I purchased my dear old Derby service—I’ve never been able to match that plate——”

“A plate was missing? I seem to remember,” said Clara. “Didn’t they say that it must be in the house somewhere and that it should be looked for?”

“I believe they did, but of course I never heard any more and that missing plate has annoyed me ever since. Who had ‘Hartleys’?”

“An old connoisseur, Sir James Sewell; I believe he was some relation to this Miss Lefain, but I don’t know——”

“I wonder if she has found the plate,” mused Miss Pym. “I expect she has turned out and ransacked the whole place——”

“Why not trot over and ask?” suggested Mabel. “It’s not much use to her, if she has found it, one odd plate.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Clara. “Fancy going over the marshes, this weather, to ask about a plate missed all those years ago. I’m sure Martha wouldn’t think of it——”

But Martha did think of it; she was rather fascinated by the idea; how queer and pleasant it would be if, after all these years, nearly a lifetime, she should find the Crown Derby plate, the loss of which had always irked her! And this hope did not seem so altogether fantastical, it was quite likely that old Miss Lefain, poking about in the ancient house, had found the missing piece.

And, of course, if she had, being a fellow-collector, she would be quite willing to part with it to complete the set.

Her cousin endeavoured to dissuade her; Miss Lefain, she declared, was a recluse, an odd creature who might greatly resent such a visit and such a request.

“Well, if she does I can but come away again,” smiled Miss Pym. “I suppose she can’t bite my head off, and I rather like meeting these curious types—we’ve got a love for old china in common, anyhow.”

“It seems so silly to think of it—after all these years—a plate!”

“A Crown Derby plate,” corrected Miss Pym. “It is certainly strange that I didn’t think of it before, but now that I have got it into my head I can’t get it out. Besides,” she added hopefully, “I might see the ghost.”

So full, however, were the days with pleasant local engagements that Miss Pym had no immediate chance of putting her scheme into practice; but she did not relinquish it, and she asked several different people what they knew about “Hartleys” and Miss Lefain.

And no one knew anything save that the house was supposed to be haunted and the owner “cracky.”

“Is there a story?” asked Miss Pym, who associated ghosts with neat tales into which they fitted as exactly as nuts into shells.

But she was always told: “Oh, no, there isn’t a story, no one knows anything about the place, don’t know how the idea got about; old Sewcll was half-crazy, I believe, he was buried in the garden and that gives a house a nasty name——”

“Very unpleasant,” said Martha Pym, undisturbed.

This ghost seemed too elusive for her to track down; she would have to be content if she could recover the Crown Derby plate; for that at least she was determined to make a try and also to satisfy that faint tingling of curiosity roused in her by this talk about “Hartleys” and the remembrance of that day, so long ago, when she had gone to the auction sale at the lonely old house.

So the first free afternoon, while Mabel and Clara were comfortably taking their afternoon repose, Martha Pym, who was of a more lively habit, got out her little governess cart and dashed away across the Essex flats.

She had taken minute directions with her, but she had soon lost her way.

Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon, the olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost; the air was cold but not keen, everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes; the flooded fields were haunted by black birds and white birds, gulls and crows, whining above the long ditch grass and wintry wastes.

Miss Pym stopped the little horse and surveyed this spectral scene, which had a certain relish about it to one sure to return to a homely village, a cheerful house and good company.

A withered and bleached old man, in colour like the dun landscape, came along the road between the sparse alders.

Miss Pym, buttoning up her coat, asked the way to “Hartley” as he passed her; he told her, straight on, and she proceeded, straight indeed across the road that went with undeviating length across the marshes.

“Of course,” thought Miss Pym, “if you live in a place like this, you are bound to invent ghosts.”

The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall that the perpetual damp had overrun with lichen, blue, green, white colours of decay.

“Hartleys,” no doubt, there was no other residence of human being in sight in all the wide expanse; besides, she could remember it, surely, after all this time, the sharp rising out of the marsh, the colony of tall trees, but then fields and trees had been green and bright—there had been no water on the flats, it had been summer-time.

“She certainly,” thought Miss Pym, “must be crazy to live here. And I rather doubt if I shall get my plate.”

She fastened up the good little horse by the garden gate which stood negligently ajar and entered; the garden itself was so neglected that it was quite surprising to see a trim appearance in the house, curtains at the window and a polish on the brass door knocker, which must have been recently rubbed there, considering the taint in the sea damp which rusted and rotted everything.

It was a square-built, substantial house with “nothing wrong with it but the situation,” Miss Pym decided, though it was not very attractive, being built of that drab plastered stone so popular a hundred years ago, with flat windows and door, while one side was gloomily shaded by a large evergreen tree of the cypress variety which gave a blackish tinge to that portion of the garden.

There was no pretence at flower-beds nor any manner of cultivation in this garden where a few rank weeds and straggling bushes matted together above the dead grass; on the enclosing wall which appeared to have been built high as protection against the ceaseless winds that swung along the flats were the remains of fruit trees; their crucified branches, rotting under the great nails that held them up, looked like the skeletons of those who had died in torment.

Miss Pym took in these noxious details as she knocked firmly at the door; they did not depress her; she merely felt extremely sorry for anyone who could live in such a place.

She noticed, at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the sodden colourless grass, and remembered what she had been told about the old antiquary being buried there, in the grounds of “Hartleys.”

As the knock had no effect she stepped back and looked at the house; it was certainly inhabited—with those neat windows, white curtains and drab blinds all pulled to precisely the same level.

And when she brought her glance back to the door she saw that it had been opened and that someone, considerably obscured by the darkness of the passage, was looking at her intently.

“Good afternoon,” said Miss Pym cheerfully. “I just thought that I would call to see Miss Lefain—it is Miss Lefain, isn’t it?”

“It’s my house,” was the querulous reply.

Martha Pym had hardly expected to find any servants here, though the old lady must, she thought, work pretty hard to keep the house so clean and tidy as it appeared to be.

“Of course,” she replied. “May I come in? I’m Martha Pym, staying with the Wyntons, I met you there——”

“Do come in,” was the faint reply. “I get so few people to visit me, I’m really very lonely.”

“I don’t wonder,” thought Miss Pym; but she had resolved to take no notice of any eccentricity on the part of her hostess, and so she entered the house with her usual agreeable candour and courtesy.

The passage was badly lit, but she was able to get a fair idea of Miss Lefain; her first impression was that this poor creature was most dreadfully old, older than any human being had the right to be, why, she felt young in comparison—so faded, feeble, and pallid was Miss Lefain.

She was also monstrously fat; her gross, flaccid figure was shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp where Miss Pym supposed she had been doing futile gardening; this gown was doubtless designed to disguise her stoutness, but had been so carelessly pulled about that it only added to it, being rucked and rolled “all over the place” as Miss Pym put it to herself.

Another ridiculous touch about the appearance of the poor old lady was her short hair; decrepit as she was, and lonely as she lived she had actually had her scanty relics of white hair cropped round her shaking head.

“Dear me, dear me,” she said in her thin treble voice. “How very kind of you to come. I suppose you prefer the parlour? I generally sit in the garden.”

“The garden? But not in this weather?”

“I get used to the weather. You’ve no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully. “You don’t live here quite alone, do you?”

“Quite alone, lately. I had a little company, but she was taken away, I’m sure I don’t know where. I haven’t been able to find a trace of her anywhere,” replied the old lady peevishly.

“Some wretched companion that couldn’t stick it, I suppose,” thought Miss Pym. “Well, I don’t wonder—but someone ought to be here to look after her.”

They went into the parlour, which, the visitor was dismayed to see, was without a fire but otherwise well kept.

And there, on dozens of shelves was a choice array of china at which Martha Pym’s eyes glistened.

“Aha!” cried Miss Lefain. “I see you’ve noticed my treasures! Don’t you envy me? Don’t you wish that you had some of those pieces?”

Martha Pym certainly did and she looked eagerly and greedily round the walls, tables, and cabinets while the old woman followed her with little thin squeals of pleasure.

It was a beautiful little collection, most choicely and elegantly arranged, and Martha thought it marvellous that this feeble ancient creature should be able to keep it in such precise order as well as doing her own housework.

“Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?” she asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss Lefain’s energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did.

“There was someone,” answered Miss Lefain cunningly, “but I had to send her away. I told you she’s gone, I can’t find her, and I am so glad. Of course,” she added wistfully, “it leaves me very lonely, but then I couldn’t stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was her house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!”

“How very disagreeable,” said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women had been crazy. “But hadn’t you better get someone else.”

“Oh, no,” was the jealous answer. “I would rather be alone with my things, I daren’t leave the house for fear someone takes them away—there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held here——”

“Were you here then?” asked Miss Pym; but indeed she looked old enough to have been anywhere.

“Yes, of course,” Miss Lefain replied rather peevishly and Miss Pym decided that she must be a relation of old Sir James Sewell. Clara and Mabel had been very foggy about it all. “I was very busy hiding all the china—but one set they got—a Crown Derby tea service——”

“With one plate missing!” cried Martha Pym. “I bought it, and do you know, I was wondering if you’d found it——”

“I hid it,” piped Miss Lefain.

“Oh, you did, did you? Well, that’s rather funny behaviour. Why did you hide the stuff away instead of buying it?”

“How could I buy what was mine?”

“Old Sir James left it to you, then?” asked Martha Pym, feeling very muddled.

She bought a lot more,” squeaked Miss Lefain, but Martha Pym tried to keep her to the point.

“If you’ve got the plate,” she insisted, “you might let me have it—I’ll pay quite handsomely, it would be so pleasant to have it after all these years.”

“Money is no use to me,” said Miss Lefain mournfully. “Not a bit of use. I can’t leave the house or the garden.”

“Well, you have to live, I suppose,” replied Martha Pym cheerfully. “And, do you know, I’m afraid you are getting rather morbid and dull, living here all alone—you really ought to have a fire—why, it’s just on Christmas and very damp.”

“I haven’t felt the cold for a long time,” replied the other; she seated herself with a sigh on one of the horsehair chairs and Miss Pym noticed with a start that her feet were covered only by a pair of white stockings; “one of those nasty health fiends,” thought Miss Pym, “but she doesn’t look too well for all that.”

“So you don’t think that you could let me have the plate?” she asked briskly, walking up and down, for the dark, neat, clean parlour was very cold indeed, and she thought that she couldn’t stand this much longer; as there seemed no sign of tea or anything pleasant and comfortable she had really better go.

“I might let you have it,” sighed Miss Lefain, “since you’ve been so kind as to pay me a visit. After all, one plate isn’t much use, is it?”

“Of course not, I wonder you troubled to hide it——”

“I couldn’t bear,” wailed the other, “to see the things going out of the house!”

Martha Pym couldn’t stop to go into all this; it was quite clear that the old lady was very eccentric indeed and that nothing very much could be done with her; no wonder that she had “dropped out” of everything and that no one ever saw her or knew anything about her, though Miss Pym felt that some effort ought really to be made to save her from herself.

“Wouldn’t you like a run in my little governess cart?” she suggested. “We might go to tea with the Wyntons on the way back, they’d be delighted to see you, and I really think that you do want taking out of yourself.”

“I was taken out of myself some time ago,” replied Miss Lefain. “I really was, and I couldn’t leave my things—though,” she added with pathetic gratitude, “it is very, very kind of you——”

“Your things would be quite safe, I’m sure,” said Martha Pym, humouring her. “Who ever would come up here, this hour of a winter’s day?”

“They do, oh, they do! And she might come back, prying and nosing and saying that it was all hers, all my beautiful china, hers!”

Miss Lefain squealed in her agitation and rising up, ran round the wall fingering with flaccid yellow hands the brilliant glossy pieces on the shelves.

“Well, then, I’m afraid that I must go, they’ll be expecting me, and it’s quite a long ride; perhaps some other time you’ll come and see us?

“Oh, must you go?” quavered Miss Lefain dolefully. “I do like a little company now and then and I trusted you from the first—the others, when they do come, are always after my things and I have to frighten them away!”

“Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult, people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

Miss Pym suddenly remembered that “Hartleys” had the reputation of being haunted—perhaps the queer old thing played on that; the lonely house with the grave in the garden was dreary enough around which to create a legend.

“I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly. “I’d rather like to see one, you know——”

“There is no one here but myself,” said Miss Lefain.

“So you’ve never seen anything? I thought it must be all nonsense. Still, I do think it rather melancholy for you to live here all alone——”

Miss Lefain sighed:

“Yes, it’s very lonely. Do stay and talk to me a little longer.” Her whistling voice dropped cunningly. “And I’ll give you the Crown Derby plate!”

“Are you sure you’ve really got it?” Miss Pym asked.

“I’ll show you.”

Fat and waddling as she was, she seemed to move very lightly as she slipped in front of Miss Pym and conducted her from the room, going slowly up the stairs—such a gross odd figure in that clumsy dress with the fringe of white hair hanging on to her shoulders.

The upstairs of the house was as neat as the parlour, everything well in its place; but there was no sign of occupancy; the beds were covered with dust sheets, there were no lamps or fires set ready. “I suppose,” said Miss Pym to herself, “she doesn’t care to show me where she reeally lives.”

But as they passed from one room to another, she could not help saying:

“Where do you live, Miss Lefain?”

“Mostly in the garden,” said the other.

Miss Pym thought of those horrible health huts that some people indulged in.

“Well, sooner you than I,” she replied cheerfully.

In the most distant room of all, a dark, tiny closet, Miss Lefain opened a deep cupboard and brought out a Crown Derby plate which her guest received with a spasm of joy, for it was actually that missing from her cherished set.

“It’s very good of you,” she said in delight. “Won’t you take something for it, or let me do something for you?”

“You might come and see me again,” replied Miss Lefain wistfully.

“Oh, yes, of course I should like to come and see you again.”

But now that she had got what she had really come for, the plate, Martha Pym wanted to be gone; it was really very dismal and depressing in the house and she began to notice a fearful smell—the place had been shut up too long, there was something damp rotting somewhere, in this horrid little dark closet no doubt.

“I really must be going,” she said hurriedly.

Miss Lefain turned as if to cling to her, but Martha Pym moved quickly away.

“Dear me,” wailed the old lady. “Why are you in such haste?”

“There’s—a smell,” murmured Miss Pym rather faintly.

She found herself hastening down the stairs, with Miss Lefain complaining behind her.

“How peculiar people are—she used to talk of a smell——”

“Well, you must notice it yourself.”

Miss Pym was in the hall; the old woman had not followed her, but stood in the semi-darkness at the head of the stairs, a pale shapeless figure.

Martha Pym hated to be rude and ungrateful but she could not stay another moment; she hurried away and was in her cart in a moment—really—that smell——

“Good-bye!” she called out with false cheerfulness, “and thank you so much!”

There was no answer from the house.

Miss Pym drove on; she was rather upset and took another way than that by which she had come, a way that led past a little house raised above the marsh; she was glad to think that the poor old creature at “Hartleys” had such near neighbours, and she reined up the horse, dubious as to whether she should call someone and tell them that poor old Miss Lefain really wanted a little looking after, alone in a house like that, and plainly not quite right in her head.

A young woman, attracted by the sound of the governess cart, came to the door of the house and seeing Miss Pym called out, asking if she wanted the keys of the house?

“What house?” asked Miss Pym.

“‘Hartleys,’ mum, they don’t put a board out, as no one is likely to pass, but it’s to be sold. Miss Lefain wants to sell or let it——”

“I’ve just been up to see her——”

“Oh, no, mum—she’s been away a year, abroad somewhere, couldn’t stand the place, it’s been empty since then, I just run in every day and keep things tidy——”

Loquacious and curious the young woman had come to the fence; Miss Pym had stopped her horse.

“Miss Lefain is there now,” she said. “She must have just come back——”

“She wasn’t there this morning, mum, ’tisn’t likely she’d come, either—fair scared she was, mum, fair chased away, didn’t dare move her china. Can’t say I’ve noticed anything myself, but I never stay long—and there’s a smell——”

“Yes,” murmured Martha Pym faintly, “there’s a smell. What—what—chased her away?”

The young woman, even in that lonely place, lowered her voice.

“Well, as you aren’t thinking of taking the place, she got an idea in her head that old Sir James—well, he couldn’t bear to leave ‘Hartleys,’ mum, he’s buried in the garden, and she thought he was after her, chasing round them bits of china——”

“Oh!” cried Miss Pym.

“Some of it used to be his, she found a lot stuffed away, he said they were to be left in ‘Hartleys,’ but Miss Lefain would have the things sold, I believe—that’s years ago——”

“Yes, yes,” said Miss Pym with a sick look. “You don’t know what he was like, do you?”

“No, mum—but I’ve heard tell he was very stout and very old—I wonder who it was you saw up at ‘Hartleys’?”

Miss Pym took a Crown Derby plate from her bag.

“You might take that back when you go,” she whispered. “I shan’t want it, after all——”

Before the astonished young woman could answer Miss Pym had darted off across the marsh; that short hair, that earth-stained robe, the white socks, “I generally live in the garden——”

Miss Pym drove away, breakneck speed, frantically resolving to mention to no one that she had paid a visit to “Hartleys,” nor lightly again to bring up the subject of ghosts.

She shook and shuddered in the damp, trying to get out of her clothes and her nostrils—that indescribable smell.

The haunted stable lane

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Dead Sexton, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

I am thrilled to introduce The Dead Sexton as the latest in our series of Christmas Ghost Stories, by the first-rate Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu. This sublimely sinister Christmas chiller features nary a ghost in sight. It does, however feature a demonic black stallion, a conniving ex-con, a churchy mystery, many strong drinks in a cosy neighborhood pub, and colourful and colloquial local characters.

In short, a basic Saturday night, chez moi.


The haunted stable lane

The haunted stable lane

The sunsets were red, the nights were long, and the weather pleasantly frosty; and Christmas, the glorious herald of the New Year, was at hand, when an event—still recounted by winter firesides, with a horror made delightful by the mellowing influence of years—occurred in the beautiful little town of Golden Friars, and signalized, as the scene of its catastrophe, the old inn known throughout a wide region of the Northumbrian counties as the George and Dragon.

Toby Crooke, the sexton, was lying dead in the old coach-house in the inn yard. The body had been discovered, only half an hour before this story begins, under strange circumstances, and in a place where it might have lain the better part of a week undisturbed; and a dreadful suspicion astounded the village of Golden Friars.

A wintry sunset was glaring through a gorge of the western mountains, turning into fire the twigs of the leafless elms, and all the tiny blades of grass on the green by which the quaint little town is surrounded. It is built of light, grey stone, with steep gables and slender chimneys rising with airy lightness from the level sward by the margin of the beautiful lake, and backed by the grand amphitheatre of the fells at the other side, whose snowy peaks show faintly against the sky, tinged with the vaporous red of the western light. As you descend towards the margin of the lake, and see Golden Friars, its taper chimneys and slender gables, its curious old inn and gorgeous sign, and over all the graceful tower and spire of the ancient church, at this hour or by moonlight, in the solemn grandeur and stillness of the natural scenery that surrounds it, it stands before you like a fairy town.

Toby Crooke, the lank sexton, now fifty or upwards, had passed an hour or two with some village cronies, over a solemn pot of purl, in the kitchen of that cosy hostelry, the night before. He generally turned in there at about seven o’clock, and heard the news. This contented him: for he talked little, and looked always surly.

Many things are now raked up and talked over about him.

In early youth, he had been a bit of a scamp. He broke his indentures, and ran away from his master, the tanner of Bryemere; he had got into fifty bad scrapes and out again; and, just as the little world of Golden Friars had come to the conclusion that it would be well for all parties—except, perhaps, himself—and a happy riddance for his afflicted mother, if he were sunk, with a gross of quart pots about his neck, in the bottom of the lake in which the grey gables, the elms, and the towering fells of Golden Friars are mirrored, he suddenly returned, a reformed man at the ripe age of forty.

For twelve years he had disappeared, and no one knew what had become of him. Then, suddenly, as I say, he reappeared at Golden Friars—a very black and silent man, sedate and orderly. His mother was dead and buried; but the “prodigal son” was received good-naturedly. The good vicar, Doctor Jenner, reported to his wife:

“His hard heart has been softened, dear Dolly. I saw him dry his eyes, poor fellow, at the sermon yesterday.”

“I don’t wonder, Hugh darling. I know the part—’There is joy in Heaven.’ I am sure it was—wasn’t it? It was quite beautiful. I almost cried myself.”

The Vicar laughed gently, and stooped over her chair and kissed her, and patted her cheek fondly.

“You think too well of your old man’s sermons,” he said. “I preach, you see, Dolly, very much to the poor. If they understand me, I am pretty sure everyone else must; and I think that my simple style goes more home to both feelings and conscience—”

“You ought to have told me of his crying before. You are so eloquent,” exclaimed Dolly Jenner. “No one preaches like my man. I have never heard such sermons.”

Not many, we may be sure; for the good lady had not heard more than six from any other divine for the last twenty years.

The personages of Golden Friars talked Toby Crooke over on his return. Doctor Lincote said:

“He must have led a hard life; he had dried in so, and got a good deal of hard muscle; and he rather fancied he had been soldiering—he stood like a soldier; and the mark over his right eye looked like a gunshot.”

People might wonder how he could have survived a gunshot over the eye; but was not Lincote a doctor—and an army doctor to boot—when he was young; and who, in Golden Friars, could dispute with him on points of surgery? And I believe the truth is, that this mark had been really made by a pistol bullet.

Mr. Jarlcot, the attorney, would “go bail” he had picked up some sense in his travels; and honest Turnbull, the host of the George and Dragon, said heartily:

“We must look out something for him to put his hand to. Now’s the time to make a man of him.”

The end of it was that he became, among other things, the sexton of Golden Friars.

He was a punctual sexton. He meddled with no other person’s business; but he was a silent man, and by no means popular. He was reserved in company; and he used to walk alone by the shore of the lake, while other fellows played at fives or skittles; and when he visited the kitchen of the George, he had his liquor to himself, and in the midst of the general talk was a saturnine listener. There was something sinister in this man’s face; and when things went wrong with him, he could look dangerous enough.

There were whispered stories in Golden Friars about Toby Crooke. Nobody could say how they got there. Nothing is more mysterious than the spread of rumour. It is like a vial poured on the air. It travels, like an epidemic, on the sightless currents of the atmosphere, or by the laws of a telluric influence equally intangible. These stories treated, though darkly, of the long period of his absence from his native village; but they took no well-defined shape, and no one could refer them to any authentic source.

The Vicar’s charity was of the kind that thinketh no evil; and in such cases he always insisted on proof. Crooke was, of course, undisturbed in his office.

On the evening before the tragedy came to light—trifles are always remembered after the catastrophe—a boy, returning along the margin of the mere, passed him by seated on a prostrate trunk of a tree, under the “bield” of a rock, counting silver money. His lean body and limbs were bent together, his knees were up to his chin, and his long fingers were telling the coins over hurriedly in the hollow of his other hand. He glanced at the boy, as the old English saying is, like “the devil looking over Lincoln.” But a black and sour look from Mr. Crooke, who never had a smile for a child nor a greeting for a wayfarer, was nothing strange.

Toby Crooke lived in the grey stone house, cold and narrow, that stands near the church porch, with the window of its staircase looking out into the churchyard, where so much of his labour, for many a day, had been expended. The greater part of this house was untenanted.

The old woman who was in charge of it slept in a settle-bed, among broken stools, old sacks, rotten chests and other rattle-traps, in the small room at the rear of the house, floored with tiles.

At what time of the night she could not tell, she awoke, and saw a man, with his hat on, in her room. He had a candle in his hand, which he shaded with his coat from her eye; his back was towards her, and he was rummaging in the drawer in which she usually kept her money.

Having got her quarter’s pension of two pounds that day, however, she had placed it, folded in a rag, in the corner of her tea caddy, and locked it up in the “eat-malison” or cupboard.

She was frightened when she saw the figure in her room, and she could not tell whether her visitor might not have made his entrance from the contiguous churchyard. So, sitting bolt upright in her bed, her grey hair almost lifting her kerchief off her head, and all over in “a fit o’ t’ creepins,” as she expressed it, she demanded:

“In God’s name, what want ye thar?”

“Whar’s the peppermint ye used to hev by ye, woman? I’m bad wi’ an inward pain.”

“It’s all gane a month sin’,” she answered; and offered to make him a “het” drink if he’d get to his room.

But he said:

“Never mind, I’ll try a mouthful o’ gin.”

And, turning on his heel, he left her.

In the morning the sexton was gone. Not only in his lodging was there no account of him, but, when inquiry began to be extended, nowhere in the village of Golden Friars could he be found.

Still he might have gone off, on business of his own, to some distant village, before the town was stirring; and the sexton had no near kindred to trouble their heads about him. People, therefore, were willing to wait, and take his return ultimately for granted.

At three o’clock the good Vicar, standing at his hall door, looking across the lake towards the noble fells that rise, steep and furrowed, from that beautiful mere, saw two men approaching across the green, in a straight line, from a boat that was moored at the water’s edge. They were carrying between them something which, though not very large, seemed ponderous.

“Ye’ll ken this, sir,” said one of the boatmen as they set down, almost at his feet, a small church bell, such as in old-fashioned chimes yields the treble notes.

“This won’t be less nor five stean. I ween it’s fra’ the church steeple yon.”

“What! one of our church bells?” ejaculated the Vicar—for a moment lost in horrible amazement. “Oh, no!—no, that can’t possibly be! Where did you find it?”

He had found the boat, in the morning, moored about fifty yards from her moorings where he had left it the night before, and could not think how that came to pass; and now, as he and his partner were about to take their oars, they discovered this bell in the bottom of the boat, under a bit of canvas, also the sexton’s pick and spade—”tom-spey’ad,” they termed that peculiar, broad-bladed implement.

“Very extraordinary! We must try whether there is a bell missing from the tower,” said the Vicar, getting into a fuss. “Has Crooke come back yet? Does anyone know where he is?”

The sexton had not yet turned up.

“That’s odd—that’s provoking,” said the Vicar. “However, my key will let us in. Place the bell in the hall while I get it; and then we can see what all this means.”

To the church, accordingly, they went, the Vicar leading the way, with his own key in his hand. He turned it in the lock, and stood in the shadow of the ground porch, and shut the door.

A sack, half full, lay on the ground, with open mouth, a piece of cord lying beside it. Something clanked within it as one of the men shoved it aside with his clumsy shoe.

The Vicar opened the church door and peeped in. The dusky glow from the western sky, entering through a narrow window, illuminated the shafts and arches, the old oak carvings, and the discoloured monuments, with the melancholy glare of a dying fire.

The Vicar withdrew his head and closed the door. The gloom of the porch was deeper than ever as, stooping, he entered the narrow door that opened at the foot of the winding stair that leads to the first loft; from which a rude ladder-stair of wood, some five and twenty feet in height, mounts through a trap to the ringers’ loft.

Up the narrow stairs the Vicar climbed, followed by his attendants, to the first loft. It was very dark: a narrow bow-slit in the thick wall admitted the only light they had to guide them. The ivy leaves, seen from the deep shadow, flashed and flickered redly, and the sparrows twittered among them.

“Will one of you be so good as to go up and count the bells, and see if they are all right?” said the Vicar. “There should be—”

“Agoy! what’s that?” exclaimed one of the men, recoiling from the foot of the ladder.

“By Jen!” ejaculated the other, in equal surprise.

“Good gracious!” gasped the Vicar, who, seeing indistinctly a dark mass lying on the floor, had stooped to examine it, and placed his hand upon a cold, dead face.

The men drew the body into the streak of light that traversed the floor.

It was the corpse of Toby Crooke! There was a frightful scar across his forehead.

The alarm was given. Doctor Lincote, and Mr. Jarlcot, and Turnbull, of the George and Dragon, were on the spot immediately; and many curious and horrified spectators of minor importance.

The first thing ascertained was that the man must have been many hours dead. The next was that his skull was fractured, across the forehead, by an awful blow. The next was that his neck was broken.

His hat was found on the floor, where he had probably laid it, with his handkerchief in it.

The mystery now began to clear a little; for a bell—one of the chime hung in the tower—was found where it had rolled to, against the wall, with blood and hair on the rim of it, which corresponded with the grizzly fracture across the front of his head.

The sack that lay in the vestibule was examined, and found to contain all the church plate; a silver salver that had disappeared, about a month before, from Dr. Lincote’s store of valuables; the Vicar’s gold pencil-case, which he thought he had forgot in the vestry book; silver spoons, and various other contributions, levied from time to time off a dozen different households, the mysterious disappearance of which spoils had, of late years, begun to make the honest little community uncomfortable. Two bells had been taken down from the chime; and now the shrewd part of the assemblage, putting things together, began to comprehend the nefarious plans of the sexton, who lay mangled and dead on the floor of the tower, where only two days ago he had tolled the holy bell to call the good Christians of Golden Friars to worship.

The body was carried into the yard of the George and Dragon and laid in the old coach-house; and the townsfolk came grouping in to have a peep at the corpse, and stood round, looking darkly, and talking as low as if they were in a church.

The Vicar, in gaiters and slightly shovel hat, stood erect, as one in a little circle of notables—the doctor, the attorney, Sir Geoffrey Mardykes, who happened to be in the town, and Turnbull, the host—in the centre of the paved yard, they having made an inspection of the body, at which troops of the village stragglers, to-ing and fro-ing, were gaping and frowning as they whispered their horrible conjectures.

“What d’ye think o’ that?” said Tom Scales, the old hostler of the George, looking pale, with a stern, faint smile on his lips, as he and Dick Linklin sauntered out of the coach-house together.

“The deaul will hev his ain noo,” answered Dick, in his friend’s ear. “T’ sexton’s got a craigthraw like he gav’ the lass over the clints of Scarsdale; ye mind what the ald soger telt us when he hid his face in the kitchen of the George here? By Jen! I’ll ne’er forget that story.”

“I ween ’twas all true enough,” replied the hostler; “and the sizzup he gav’ the sleepin’ man wi’ t’ poker across the forehead. See whar the edge o’ t’ bell took him, and smashed his ain, the self-same lids. By ma sang, I wonder the deaul did na carry awa’ his corpse i’ the night, as he did wi’ Tam Lunder’s at Mooltern Mill.”

“Hout, man, who ever sid t’ deaul inside o’ a church?”

“The corpse is ill-faur’d enew to scare Satan himsel’, for that matter; though it’s true what you say. Ay, ye’re reet tul a trippet, thar; for Beelzebub dar’n’t show his snout inside the church, not the length o’ the black o’ my nail.”

While this discussion was going on, the gentlefolk who were talking the matter over in the centre of the yard had dispatched a message for the coroner all the way to the town of Hextan.

The last tint of sunset was fading from the sky by this time; so, of course, there was no thought of an inquest earlier than next day.

In the meantime it was horribly clear that the sexton had intended to rob the church of its plate, and had lost his life in the attempt to carry the second bell, as we have seen, down the worn ladder of the tower. He had tumbled backwards and broken his neck upon the floor of the loft; and the heavy bell, in its fall, descended with its edge across his forehead.

Never was a man more completely killed by a double catastrophe, in a moment.

The bells and the contents of the sack, it was surmised, he meant to have conveyed across the lake that night, and with the help of his spade and pick to have buried them in Clousted Forest, and returned, after an absence of but a few hours—as he easily might—before morning, unmissed and unobserved. He would no doubt, having secured his booty, have made such arrangements as would have made it appear that the church had been broken into. He would, of course, have taken all measures to divert suspicion from himself, and have watched a suitable opportunity to repossess himself of the buried treasure and dispose of it in safety.

<i>It was the corpse of Toby Crooke</i>!And now came out, into sharp relief, all the stories that had, one way or other, stolen after him into the town. Old Mrs. Pullen fainted when she saw him, and told Doctor Lincote, after, that she thought he was the highwayman who fired the shot that killed the coachman the night they were robbed on Hounslow Heath. There were the stories also told by the wayfaring old soldier with the wooden leg, and fifty others, up to this more than half disregarded, but which now seized on the popular belief with a startling grasp.

The fleeting light soon expired, and twilight was succeeded by the early night.

The inn yard gradually became quiet; and the dead sexton lay alone, in the dark, on his back, locked up in the old coach-house, the key of which was safe in the pocket of Tom Scales, the trusty old hostler of the George.

It was about eight o’clock, and the hostler, standing alone on the road in the front of the open door of the George and Dragon, had just smoked his pipe out. A bright moon hung in the frosty sky. The fells rose from the opposite edge of the lake like phantom mountains. The air was stirless. Through the boughs and sprays of the leafless elms no sigh or motion, however hushed, was audible. Not a ripple glimmered on the lake, which at one point only reflected the brilliant moon from its dark blue expanse like burnished steel. The road that runs by the inn door, along the margin of the lake, shone dazzlingly white.

White as ghosts, among the dark holly and juniper, stood the tall piers of the Vicar’s gate, and their great stone balls, like heads, overlooking the same road, a few hundred yards up the lake, to the left. The early little town of Golden Friars was quiet by this time. Except for the townsfolk who were now collected in the kitchen of the inn itself, no inhabitant was now outside his own threshold.

Tom Scales was thinking of turning in. He was beginning to fell a little queer. He was thinking of the sexton, and could not get the fixed features of the dead man out of his head, when he heard the sharp though distant ring of a horse’s hoof upon the frozen road. Tom’s instinct apprized him of the approach of a guest to the George and Dragon. His experienced ear told him that the horseman was approaching by the Dardale road, which, after crossing that wide and dismal moss, passes the southern fells by Dunner Cleugh and finally enters the town of Golden Friars by joining the Mardykes road, at the edge of the lake, close to the gate of the Vicar’s house.

A clump of tall trees stood at this point; but the moon shone full upon the road and cast their shadow backward.

The hoofs were plainly coming at a gallop, with a hollow rattle. The horseman was a long time in appearing. Tom wondered how he had heard the sound—so sharply frosty as the air was—so very far away.

He was right in his guess. The visitor was coming over the mountainous road from Dardale Moss; and he now saw a horseman, who must have turned the corner of the Vicar’s house at the moment when his eye was wearied; for when he saw him for the first time he was advancing, in the hazy moonlight, like the shadow of a cavalier, at a gallop, upon the level strip of road that skirts the margin of the mere, between the George and the Vicar’s piers.

The hostler had not long to wonder why the rider pushed his beast at so furious a pace, and how he came to have heard him, as he now calculated, at least three miles away. A very few moments sufficed to bring horse and rider to the inn door.

It was a powerful black horse, something like the great Irish hunter that figured a hundred years ago, and would carry sixteen stone with ease across country. It would have made a grand charger. Not a hair turned. It snorted, it pawed, it arched its neck; then threw back its ears and down its head, and looked ready to lash, and then to rear; and seemed impatient to be off again, and incapable of standing quiet for a moment.

The rider got down

    As light as shadow falls.

But he was a tall, sinewy figure. He wore a cape or short mantle, a cocked hat, and a pair of jack-boots, such as held their ground in some primitive corners of England almost to the close of the last century.

“Take him, lad,” said he to old Scales. “You need not walk or wisp him—he never sweats or tires. Give him his oats, and let him take his own time to eat them. House!” cried the stranger—in the old-fashioned form of summons which still lingered, at that time, in out-of-the-way places—in a deep and piercing voice.

As Tom Scales led the horse away to the stables it turned its head towards its master with a short, shill neigh.

“About your business, old gentleman—we must not go too fast,” the stranger cried back again to his horse, with a laugh as harsh and piercing; and he strode into the house.

The hostler led this horse into the inn yard. In passing, it sidled up to the coach-house gate, within which lay the dead sexton—snorted, pawed and lowered its head suddenly, with ear close to the plank, as if listening for a sound from within; then uttered again the same short, piercing neigh.

The hostler was chilled at this mysterious coquetry with the dead. He liked the brute less and less every minute.

In the meantime, its master had proceeded.

“I’ll go to the inn kitchen,” he said, in his startling bass, to the drawer who met him in the passage.

And on he went, as if he had known the place all his days: not seeming to hurry himself—stepping leisurely, the servant thought—but gliding on at such a rate, nevertheless, that he had passed his guide and was in the kitchen of the George before the drawer had got much more than half-way to it.

A roaring fire of dry wood, peat and coal lighted up this snug but spacious apartment—flashing on pots and pans, and dressers high-piled with pewter plates and dishes; and making the uncertain shadows of the long “hanks” of onions and many a flitch and ham, depending from the ceiling, dance on its glowing surface.

The doctor and the attorney, even Sir Geoffrey Mardykes, did not disdain on this occasion to take chairs and smoke their pipes by the kitchen fire, where they were in the thick of the gossip and discussion excited by the terrible event.

The tall stranger entered uninvited.

He looked like a gaunt, athletic Spaniard of forty, burned half black in the sun, with a bony, flattened nose. A pair of fierce black eyes were just visible under the edge of his hat; and his mouth seemed divided, beneath the moustache, by the deep scar of a hare-lip.

Sir Geoffrey Mardykes and the host of the George, aided by the doctor and the attorney, were discussing and arranging, for the third or fourth time, their theories about the death and the probable plans of Toby Crooke, when the stranger entered.

The new-comer lifted his hat, with a sort of smile, for a moment from his black head.

“What do you call this place, gentlemen?” asked the stranger.

“The town of Golden Friars, sir,” answered the doctor politely.

“The George and Dragon, sir: Anthony Turnbull, at your service,” answered mine host, with a solemn bow, at the same moment—so that the two voices went together, as if the doctor and the innkeeper were singing a catch.

“The George and the Dragon,” repeated the horseman, expanding his long hands over the fire which he had approached. “Saint George, King George, the Dragon, the Devil: it is a very grand idol, that outside your door, sir. You catch all sorts of worshippers—courtiers, fanatics, scamps: all’s fish, eh? Everybody welcome, provided he drinks like one. Suppose you brew a bowl or two of punch. I’ll stand it. How many are we? Here—count, and let us have enough. Gentlemen, I mean to spend the night here, and my horse is in the stable. What holiday, fun, or fair has got so many pleasant faces together? When I last called here—for, now I bethink me, I have seen the place before—you all looked sad. It was on a Sunday, that dismalest of holidays; and it would have been positively melancholy only that your sexton—that saint upon earth—Mr. Crooke, was here.” He was looking round, over his shoulder, and added: “Ha! don’t I see him there?”

Frightened a good deal were some of the company. All gaped in the direction in which, with a nod, he turned his eyes.

“He’s not thar—he can’t be thar—we see he’s not thar,” said Turnbull, as dogmatically as old Joe Willet might have delivered himself—for he did not care that the George should earn the reputation of a haunted house. “He’s met an accident, sir: he’s dead—he’s elsewhere—and therefore can’t be here.”

Upon this the company entertained the stranger with the narrative—which they made easy by a division of labour, two or three generally speaking at a time, and no one being permitted to finish a second sentence without finding himself corrected and supplanted.

“The man’s in Heaven, so sure as you’re not,” said the traveller so soon as the story was ended. “What! he was fiddling with the church bell, was he, and d——d for that—eh? Landlord, get us some drink. A sexton d——d for pulling down a church bell he has been pulling at for ten years!”

“You came, sir, by the Dardale-road, I believe?” said the doctor (village folk are curious). “A dismal moss is Dardale Moss, sir; and a bleak clim’ up the fells on t’ other side.”

“I say ‘Yes’ to all—from Dardale Moss, as black as pitch and as rotten as the grave, up that zigzag wall you call a road, that looks like chalk in the moonlight, through Dunner Cleugh, as dark as a coal-pit, and down here to the George and the Dragon, where you have a roaring fire, wise men, good punch—here it is—and a corpse in your coach-house. Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. Come, landlord, ladle out the nectar. Drink, gentlemen—drink, all. Brew another bowl at the bar. How divinely it stinks of alcohol! I hope you like it, gentlemen: it smells all over of spices, like a mummy. Drink, friends. Ladle, landlord. Drink, all. Serve it out.”

The guest fumbled in his pocket, and produced three guineas, which he slipped into Turnbull’s fat palm.

“Let punch flow till that’s out. I’m an old friend of the house. I call here, back and forward. I know you well, Turnbull, though you don’t recognize me.”

“You have the advantage of me, sir,” said Mr. Turnbull, looking hard on that dark and sinister countenance—which, or the like of which, he could have sworn he had never seen before in his life. But he liked the weight and colour of his guineas, as he dropped them into his pocket. “I hope you will find yourself comfortable while you stay.”

“You have given me a bedroom?”

“Yes, sir—the cedar chamber.”

“I know it—the very thing. No—no punch for me. By and by, perhaps.”

The talk went on, but the stranger had grown silent. He had seated himself on an oak bench by the fire, towards which he extended his feet and hands with seeming enjoyment; his cocked hat being, however, a little over his face.

Gradually the company began to thin. Sir Geoffrey Mardykes was the first to go; then some of the humbler townsfolk. The last bowl of punch was on its last legs. The stranger walked into the passage and said to the drawer:

“Fetch me a lantern. I must see my nag. Light it—hey! That will do. No—you need not come.”

The gaunt traveller took it from the man’s hand and strode along the passage to the door of the stableyard, which he opened and passed out.

Tom Scales, standing on the pavement, was looking through the stable window at the horses when the stranger plucked his shirtsleeve. With an inward shock the hostler found himself alone in presence of the very person he had been thinking of.

“I say—they tell me you have something to look at in there”—he pointed with his thumb at the old coach-house door. “Let us have a peep.”

Tom Scales happened to be at that moment in a state of mind highly favourable to anyone in search of a submissive instrument. He was in great perplexity, and even perturbation. He suffered the stranger to lead him to the coach-house gate.

“You must come in and hold the lantern,” said he. “I’ll pay you handsomely.”

The old hostler applied his key and removed the padlock.

“What are you afraid of? Step in and throw the light on his face,” said the stranger grimly. “Throw open the lantern: stand there. Stoop over him a little—he won’t bite you. Steady, or you may pass the night with him!”

In the meantime the company at the George had dispersed; and, shortly after, Anthony Turnbull—who, like a good landlord, was always last in bed, and first up, in his house—was taking, alone, his last look round the kitchen before making his final visit to the stable-yard, when Tom Scales tottered into the kitchen, looking like death, his hair standing upright; and he sat down on an oak chair, all in a tremble, wiped his forehead with his hand, and, instead of speaking, heaved a great sigh or two.

It was not till after he had swallowed a dram of brandy that he found his voice, and said:

“We’ve the deaul himsel’ in t’ house! By Jen! ye’d best send fo t’ sir” (the clergyman). “Happen he’ll tak him in hand wi’ holy writ, and send him elsewhidder deftly. Lord atween us and harm! I’m a sinfu’ man. I tell ye, Mr. Turnbull, I dar’ n’t stop in t’ George to-night under the same roof wi’ him.”

“Ye mean the ra-beyoned, black-feyaced lad, wi’ the brocken neb? Why, that’s a gentleman wi’ a pocket ful o’ guineas, man, and a horse worth fifty pounds!”

“That horse is no better nor his rider. The nags that were in the stable wi’ him, they all tuk the creepins, and sweated like rain down a thack. I tuk them all out o’ that, away from him, into the hack-stable, and I thocht I cud never get them past him. But that’s not all. When I was keekin inta t’ winda at the nags, he comes behint me and claps his claw on ma shouther, and he gars me gang wi’ him, and open the aad coach-house door, and haad the cannle for him, till he pearked into the deed man’t feyace; and, as God’s my judge, I sid the corpse open its eyes and wark its mouth, like a man smoorin’ and strivin’ to talk. I cudna move or say a word, though I felt my hair rising on my heed; but at lang-last I gev a yelloch, and say I, ‘La! what is that?’ And he himsel’ looked round on me, like the devil he is; and, wi’ a skirl o’ a laugh, he strikes the lantern out o’ my hand. When I cum to myself we were outside the coach-house door. The moon was shinin’ in, ad I cud see the corpse stretched on the table whar we left it; and he kicked the door to wi’ a purr o’ his foot. ‘Lock it,’ says he; and so I did. And here’s the key for ye—tak it yoursel’, sir. He offer’d me money: he said he’d mak me a rich man if I’d sell him the corpse, and help him awa’ wi’ it.”

“Hout, man! What cud he want o’ t’ corpse? He’s not doctor, to do a’ that lids. He was takin’ a rise out o’ ye, lad,” said Turnbull.

“Na, na—he wants the corpse. There’s summat you a’ me can’t tell he wants to do wi’ ‘t; and he’d liefer get it wi’ sin and thievin’, and the damage of my soul. He’s one of them freytens a boo or a dobbies off Dardale Moss, that’s always astir wi’ the like after nightfall; unless—Lord save us!—he be the deaul himsel.'”

“Whar is he noo?” asked the landlord, who was growing uncomfortable.

“He spang’d up the back stair to his room. I wonder you didn’t hear him trampin’ like a wild horse; and he clapt his door that the house shook again—but Lord knows whar he is noo. Let us gang awa’s up to the Vicar’s, and gan him come down, and talk wi’ him.”

“Hoity toity, man—you’re too easy scared,” said the landlord, pale enough by this time. “‘Twould be a fine thing, truly, to send abroad that the house was haunted by the deaul himsel’! Why, ‘twould be the ruin o’ the George. You’re sure ye locked the door on the corpse?”

“Aye, sir—sartain.”

“Come wi’ me, Tom—we’ll gi’ a last look round the yard.”

So, side by side, with many a jealous look right and left, and over their shoulders, they went in silence. On entering the old-fashioned quadrangle, surrounded by stables and other offices—built in the antique cagework fashion—they stopped for a while under the shadow of the inn gable, and looked round the yard, and listened. All was silent—nothing stirring.

The stable lantern was lighted; and with it in his hand Tony Turnbull, holding Tom Scales by the shoulder, advanced. He hauled Tom after him for a step or two; then stood still and shoved him before him for a step or two more; and thus cautiously—as a pair of skirmishers under fire—they approached the coach-house door.

“There, ye see—all safe,” whispered Tom, pointing to the lock, which hung—distinct in the moonlight—in its place. “Cum back, I say!”

“Cum on, say I!” retorted the landlord valorously. “It would never do to allow any tricks to be played with the chap in there”—he pointed to the coachhouse door.

“The coroner here in the morning, and never a corpse to sit on!” He unlocked the padlock with these words, having handed the lantern to Tom. “Here, keck in, Tom,” he continued; “ye hev the lantern—and see if all’s as ye left it.”

“Not me—na, not for the George and a’ that’s in it!” said Tom, with a shudder, sternly, as he took a step backward.

“What the—what are ye afraid on? Gi’ me the lantern—it is all one: I will.”

And cautiously, little by little, he opened the door; and, holding the lantern over his head in the narrow slit, he peeped in—frowning and pale—with one eye, as if he expected something to fly in his face. He closed the door without speaking, and locked it again.

“As safe as a thief in a mill,” he whispered with a nod to his companion. And at that moment a harsh laugh overhead broke the silence startlingly, and set all the poultry in the yard gabbling.

“Thar he be!” said Tom, clutching the landlord’s arm—”in the winda—see!”

The window of the cedar-room, up two pair of stairs, was open; and in the shadow a darker outline was visible of a man, with his elbows on the window-stone, looking down upon them.

“Look at his eyes—like two live coals!” gasped Tom.

The landlord could not see all this so sharply, being confused, and not so long-sighted as Tom.

“Time, sir,” called Tony Turnbull, turning cold as he thought he saw a pair of eyes shining down redly at him—”time for honest folk to be in their beds, and asleep!”

“As sound as your sexton!” said the jeering voice from above.

“Come out of this,” whispered the landlord fiercely to his hostler, plucking him hard by the sleeve.

They got into the house, and shut the door.

“I wish we were shot of him,” said the landlord, with something like a groan, as he leaned against the wall of the passage. “I’ll sit up, anyhow—and, Tom, you’ll sit wi’ me. Cum into the gun-room. No one shall steal the dead man out of my yard while I can draw a trigger.”

The gun-room in the George is about twelve feet square. It projects into the stable-yard and commands a full view of the old coach-house; and, through a narrow side window, a flanking view of the back door of the inn, through which the yard is reached.

Tony Turnbull took down the blunderbuss—which was the great ordnance of the house—and loaded it with a stiff charge of pistol bullets.

He put on a great-coat which hung there, and was his covering when he went out at night, to shoot wild ducks. Tom made himself comfortable likewise. They then sat down at the window, which was open, looking into the yard, the opposite side of which was white in the brilliant moonlight.

The landlord laid the blunderbuss across his knees, and stared into the yard. His comrade stared also. The door of the gun-room was locked; so they felt tolerably secure.

An hour passed; nothing had occurred. Another. The clock struck one. The shadows had shifted a little; but still the moon shone full on the old coach-house, and the stable where the guest’s horse stood.

Turnbull thought he heard a step on the back-stair. Tom was watching the back-door through the side window, with eyes glazing with the intensity of his stare. Anthony Turnbull, holding his breath, listened at the room door. It was a false alarm.

When he came back to the window looking into the yard:

“Hish! Look thar!” said he in a vehement whisper.

From the shadow at the left they saw the figure of the gaunt horseman, in short cloak and jack-boots, emerge. He pushed open the stable door, and led out his powerful black horse. He walked it across the front of the building till he reached the old coach-house door; and there, with its bridle on its neck, he left it standing, while he stalked to the yard gate; and, dealing it a kick with his heel, it sprang back with the rebound, shaking from top to bottom, and stood open. The stranger returned to the side of his horse; and the door which secured the corpse of the dead sexton seemed to swing slowly open of itself as he entered, and returned with the corpse in his arms, and swung it across the shoulders of the horse, and instantly sprang into the saddle.

“Fire!” shouted Tom, and bang went the blunderbuss with a stunning crack. A thousand sparrows’ wings winnowed through the air from the thick ivy. The watch-dog yelled a furious bark. There was a strange ring and whistle in the air. The blunderbuss had burst to shivers right down to the very breech. The recoil rolled the inn-keeper upon his back on the floor, and Tom Scales was flung against the side of the recess of the window, which had saved him from a tumble as violent. In this position they heard the searing laugh of the departing horseman, and saw him ride out of the gate with his ghastly burden.


Perhaps some of my readers, like myself, have heard this story told by Roger Turnbull, now host of the George and Dragon, the grandson of the very Tony who then swayed the spigot and keys of that inn, in the identical kitchen of which the fiend treated so many of the neighbours to punch.


What infernal object was subserved by the possession of the dead villain’s body, I have not learned. But a very curious story, in which a vampire resuscitation of Crooke the sexton figures, may throw a light upon this part of the tale.

The result of Turnbull’s shot at the disappearing fiend certainly justifies old Andrew Moreton’s dictum, which is thus expressed in his curious “History of Apparitions”: “I warn rash brands who, pretending not to fear the devil, are for using the ordinary violences with him, which affect one man from another—or with an apparition, in which they may be sure to receive some mischief. I knew one fired a gun at an apparition and the gun burst in a hundred pieces in his hand; another struck at an apparition with a sword, and broke his sword in pieces and wounded his hand grievously; and ’tis next to madness for anyone to go that way to work with any spirit, be it angel or be it devil.”


			
Death comes to the table, by Giovanni Martinelli

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Christmas Banquet, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tonight’s story features no pranks, no rollicking, romantic youths, no jolly country houses with their jolly and picturesque country servants. In fact, it features no ghosts, not in the classic sense. No, this story is quite Other indeed: it is not even English. This horror, The Christmas Banquet, comes (creeping, slowly, just over your left shoulder) from the United States, and specifically the pen of the mighty Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Would you call this Christmas ghost story existential? Certainly bittersweet. A sort of anti-Greek tragedy, and very American in that sense, that we are doomed and damned not by our ancestors but by our very nature.

Enjoy?


The Christmas Banquet
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Death comes to the table, by Giovanni Martinelli

Death comes to the table, by Giovanni Martinelli

“I HAVE HERE attempted,” said Roderick, unfolding a few sheets of manuscript, as he sat with Rosina and the sculptor in the summer-house–“I have attempted to seize hold of a personage who glides past me, occasionally, in my walk through life. My former sad experience, as you know, has gifted me with some degree of insight into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart, through which I have wandered like one astray in a dark cavern, with his torch fast flickering to extinction. But this man–this class of men–is a hopeless puzzle.”

“Well, but propound him,” said the sculptor. “Let us have an idea of him, to begin with.”

“Why, indeed,” replied Roderick, “he is such a being as I could conceive you to carve out of marble, and some yet unrealized perfection of human science to endow with an exquisite mockery of intellect; but still there lacks the last inestimable touch of a divine Creator. He looks like a man, and, perchance, like a better specimen of man than you ordinarily meet. You might esteem him wise–he is capable of cultivation and refinement, and has at least an external conscience–but the demands that spirit makes upon spirit, are precisely those to which he cannot respond. When, at last, you come close to him, you find him chill and unsubstantial–a mere vapor.”

“I believe,” said Rosina, “I have a glimmering idea of what you mean.”

“Then be thankful,” answered her husband, smiling; “but do not anticipate any further illumination from what I am about to read. I have here imagined such a man to be–what, probably, he never is–conscious of the deficiency in his spiritual organization. Methinks the result would be a sense of cold unreality, wherewith he would go shivering through the world, longing to exchange his load of ice for any burthen of real grief that fate could fling upon a human being.”

Contenting himself with this preface, Roderick began to read.

In a certain old gentleman’s last will and testament, there appeared a bequest, which, as his final thought and deed, was singularly in keeping with a long life of melancholy eccentricity. He devised a considerable sum for establishing a fund, the interest of which was to be expended, annually forever, in preparing a Christmas Banquet for ten of the most miserable persons that could be found. It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half-a-score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up. And he desired, likewise, to perpetuate his own remonstrance against the earthly course of Providence, and his sad and sour dissent from those systems of religion or philosophy which either find sunshine in the world, or draw it down from heaven.

The task of inviting the guests, or of selecting among such as might advance their claims to partake of this dismal hospitality, was confided to the two trustees or stewards of the fund. These gentlemen, like their deceased friend, were sombre humorists, who made it their principal occupation to number the sable threads in the web of human life, and drop all the golden ones out of the reckoning. They performed their present office with integrity and judgment. The aspect of the assembled company, on the day of the first festival, might not, it is true, have satisfied every beholder that these were especially the individuals, chosen forth from all the world, whose griefs were worthy to stand as indicators of the mass of human suffering. Yet, after due consideration, it could not be disputed that here was a variety of hopeless discomfort, which, if it sometimes arose from causes apparently inadequate, was thereby only the shrewder imputation against the nature and mechanism of life.

The arrangements and decorations of the banquet were probably intended to signify that death-in-life which had been the testator’s definition of existence. The hall, illuminated by torches, was hung round with curtains of deep and dusky purple, and adorned with branches of cypress and wreaths of artificial flowers, imitative of such as used to be strewn over the dead. A sprig of parsley was laid by every plate. The main reservoir of wine was a sepulchral urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards–if it were their taste that arranged these details–forgotten the fantasy of the old Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death’s-head. Such a fearful guest, shrouded in a black mantle, sat now at the head of the table. It was whispered, I know not with what truth, that the testator himself had once walked the visible world with the machinery of that same skeleton, and that it was one of the stipulations of his will, that he should thus be permitted to sit, from year to year, at the banquet which he had instituted. If so, it was perhaps covertly implied that he had cherished no hopes of bliss beyond the grave to compensate for the evils which he felt or imagined here. And if, in their bewildered conjectures as to the purpose of earthly existence, the banqueters should throw aside the veil, and cast an inquiring glance at this figure of death, as seeking thence the solution otherwise unattainable, the only reply would be a stare of the vacant eye-caverns, and a grin of the skeleton-jaws. Such was the response that the dead man had fancied himself to receive, when he asked of Death to solve the riddle of his life; and it was his desire to repeat it when the guests of his dismal hospitality should find themselves perplexed with the same question.

“What means that wreath?” asked several of the company, while viewing the decorations of the table.

They alluded to a wreath of cypress, which was held on high by a skeleton-arm, protruding from within the black mantle.

“It is a crown,” said one of the stewards, “not for the worthiest, but for the wofullest, when he shall prove his claim to it.”

The guest earliest bidden to the festival, vvas a man of soft and gentle character, who had not energy to struggle against the heavy despondency to which his temperament rendered him liable; and therefore, with nothing outwardly to excuse him from happiness, he had spent a life of quiet misery, that made his blood torpid, and weighed upon his breath, and sat like a ponderous night-fiend upon every throb of his unresisting heart. His wretchedness seemed as deep as his original nature, if not identical with it. It was the misfortune of a second guest to cherish within his bosom a diseased heart, which had become so wretchedly sore, that the continual and unavoidable rubs of the world, the blow of an enemy, the careless jostle of a stranger, and even the faithful and loving touch of a friend, alike made ulcers in it. As is the habit of people thus afflicted, he found his chief employment in exhibiting these miserable sores to any who would give themselves the pain of viewing them. A third guest was a hypochondriac, whose imagination wrought necromancy in his outward and inward world, and caused him to see monstrous faces in the household fire, and dragons in the clouds of sunset, and fiends in the guise of beautiful women, and something ugly or wicked beneath all the pleasant surfaces of nature. His neighbor at table was one who, in his early youth, had trusted mankind too much, and hoped too highly in their behalf, and, in meeting with many disappointments, had become desperately soured. For several years back, this misanthrope had employed himself in accumulating motives for hating and despising his race–such as murder, lust, treachery, ingratitude, faithlessness of trusted friends, instinctive vices of children, impurity of women, hidden guilt in men of saint-like aspect–and, in short, all manner of black realities that sought to decorate themselves with outward grace or glory. But, at every atrocious fact that was added to his catalogue–at every increase of the sad knowledge which he spent his life to collect–the native impulses of the poor man’s loving and confiding heart made him groan with anguish. Next, with his heavy brow bent downward, there stole into the hall a man naturally earnest and impassioned, who, from his immemorial infancy, had felt the consciousness of a high message to the world, but, essaying to deliver it, had found either no voice or form of speech, or else no ears to listen. Therefore his whole life was a bitter questioning of himself–“Why have not men acknowledged my mission? Am I not a self-deluding fool? What business have I on earth? Where is my grave?” Throughout the festival, he quaffed frequent draughts from the sepulchral urn of wine, hoping thus to quench the celestial fire that tortured his own breast, and could not benefit his race.

Then there entered–having flung away a ticket for a ball–a gay gallant of yesterday, who had found four or five wrinkles in his brow, and more grey hairs than he could well number, on his head. Endowed with sense and feeling, he had nevertheless spent his youth in folly, but had reached at last that dreary point in life, where Folly quits us of her own accord, leaving us to make friends with Wisdom if we can. Thus, cold and desolate, he had come to seek Wisdom at the banquet, and wondered if the skeleton were she. To eke out the company, the stewards had invited a distressed poet from his home in the alms-house, and a melancholy idiot from the street corner. The latter had just the glimmering of sense that was sufficient to make him conscious of a vacancy, which the poor fellow, all his life long, had mistily sought to fill up with intelligence, wandering up and down the streets, and groaning miserably, because his attempts were ineffectual.. The only lady in the hall was one who had fallen short of absolute and perfect beauty, merely by the trifling defect of a slight cast in her left eye. But this blemish, minute as it was, so shocked the pure ideal of her soul, rather than her vanity, that she passed her life in solitude, and veiled her countenance even from her own gaze. So the skeleton sat shrouded at one end of the table, and this poor lady at the other.

One other guest remains to be described. He was a young man of smooth brow, fair cheek, and fashionable mien. So far as his exterior developed him, he might much more suitably have found a place at some merry Christmas table, than have been numbered among the blighted, fate-stricken, fancy-tortured set of ill-starred banqueters. Murmurs arose among the guests, as they noted the glance of general scrutiny which the intruder threw over his companions. What had he to do among them; Why did not the skeleton of the dead founder of the feast unbend its rattling joints, arise, and motion the unwelcome stranger from the board? “Shameful!” said the morbid man, while a new ulcer broke out in his heart. “He comes to mock us!–we shall be the jest of his tavern friends!–he will make a farce of our miseries, and bring it out upon the stage!”

“Oh, never mind him!” said the hypochondriac, smiling sourly. “He shall feast from yonder tureen of viper soup, and if there is a fricassee of scorpions on the table, pray let him have his share of it. For the dessert, he shall taste the apples of Sodom. Then, if he like our Christmas fare, let him return again next year!”

“Trouble him not,” murmured the melancholy man, with gentleness. “What matters it whether the consciousness of misery come a few years sooner or later; If this youth deem himself happy now, yet let him sit with us, for the sake of the wretchedness to come.”

The poor idiot approached the young man, with that mournful aspect of vacant inquiry which his face continually wore, and which caused people to say that he was always in search of his missing wits. After no little examination, he touched the stranger’s hand, but immediately drew back his own, shaking his head and shivering.

“Cold, cold, cold!” muttered the idiot.

The young man shivered too–and smiled.

“Gentlemen–and you, madam,”–said one of the stewards of the festival, “do not conceive so ill, either of our caution or judgment, as to imagine that we have admitted this young stranger–Gervayse Hastings by name–without a full investigation and thoughtful balance of his claims. Trust me, not a guest at the table is better entitled to his seat.”

The steward’s guarantee was perforce satisfactory. The company, therefore, took their places, and addressed themselves to the serious business of the feast, but were soon disturbed by the hypochondriac, who thrust back his chair, complaining that a dish of stewed toads and vipers was set before him, and that there was green ditch-water in his cup of wine. This mistake being amended, he quietly resumed his seat. The wine, as it flowed freely from the sepulchral urn, seemed to come imbued with all gloomy inspirations; so that its influence was not to cheer, but either to sink the revellers into a deeper melancholy, or elevate their spirits to an enthusiasm of wretchedness. The conversation was various. They told sad stories about people who might have been worthy guests at such a festival as the present. They talked of grisly incidents in human history; of strange crimes, which, if truly considered, were but convulsions of agony; of some lives that had been altogether wretched, and of others, which, wearing a general semblance of happiness, had yet been deformed, sooner or later, by misfortune, as by the intrusion of a grim face at a banquet; of death-bed scenes, and what dark intimations might be gathered from the words of dying men; of suicide, and whether the more eligible mode were by halter, knife, poison, drowning, gradual starvation, or the fumes of charcoal. The majority of the guests, as is the custom with people thoroughly and profoundly sick at heart, were anxious to make their own woes the theme of discussion, and prove themselves most excellent in anguish. The misanthropist went deep into the philosophy of evil, and wandered about in the darkness, with now and then a gleam of discolored light hovering on ghastly shapes and horrid scenery. Many a miserable thought, such as men have stumbled upon from age to age, did he now rake up again, and gloat over it as an inestimable gem, a diamond, a treasure far preferable to those bright, spiritual revelations of a better world, which are like precious stones from heaven’s pavement. And then, amid his lore of wretchedness, he hid his face and wept.

It was a festival at which the woful man of Uz might suitably have been a guest, together with all, in each succeeding age, who have tasted deepest of the bitterness of life. And be it said, too, that every son or daughter of woman, however favored with happy fortune, might, at one sad moment or another, have claimed the privilege of a stricken heart, to sit down at this table. But, throughout the feast, it was remarked that the young stranger, Gervayse Hastings, was unsuccessful in his attempts to catch its pervading spirit. At any deep, strong thought that found utterance, and which was torn out, as it were, from the saddest recesses of human consciousness, he looked mystified and bewildered; even more than the poor idiot, who seemed to grasp at such things with his earnest heart, and thus occasionally to comprehend them. The young man’s conversation was of a colder and lighter kind, often brilliant, but lacking the powerful characteristics of a nature that had been developed by suffering.

“Sir,” said the misanthropist, bluntly, in reply to some observation by Gervayse Hastings, “pray do not address me again. We have no right to talk together. Our minds have nothing in common. By what claim you appear at this banquet, I cannot guess; but methinks, to a man who could say what you have just now said, my companions and myself must seem no more than shadows, flickering on the wall. And precisely such a shadow are you to us!”

The young man smiled and bowed, but drawing himself back in his chair, he buttoned his coat over his breast, as if the banqueting-hall were growing chill. Again the idiot fixed his melancholy stare upon the youth, and murmured–“Cold! cold! cold!”

The banquet drew to its conclusion, and the guests departed. Scarcely had they stepped across the threshold of the hall, when the scene that had there passed seemed like the vision of a sick fancy, or an exhalation from a stagnant heart. Now and then, however, during the year that ensued, these melancholy people caught glimpses of one another, transient, indeed, but enough to prove that they walked the earth with the ordinary allotment of reality. Sometimes, a pair of them came face to face, while stealing through the evening twilight, enveloped in their sable cloaks. Sometimes, they casually met in church-yards. Once, also, it happened, that two of the dismal banqueters mutually started, at recognizing each other in the noon-day sunshine of a crowded street, stalking there like ghosts astray. Doubtless, they wondered why the skeleton did not come abroad at noonday, too!

But, whenever the necessity of their affairs compelled these Christmas guests into the bustling world, they were sure to encounter the young man, who had so unaccountably been admitted to the festival. They saw him among the gay and fortunate; they caught the sunny sparkle of his eye; they heard the light and careless tones of his voice–and muttered to themselves, with such indignation as only the aristocracy of wretchedness could kindle:–“The traitor! The vile impostor! Providence, in its own good time, may give him a right to feast among us!” But the young man’s unabashed eye dwelt upon their gloomy figures, as they passed him, seeming to say, perchance with somewhat of a sneer–“First, know my secret!–then, measure your claims with mine!”

The step of Time stole onward, and soon brought merry Christmas round again, with glad and solemn worship in the churches, and sports, games, festivals, and everywhere the bright face of Joy beside the household fire. Again, likewise, the hall, with its curtains of dusky purple, was illuminated by the death-torches, gleaming on the sepulchral decorations of the banquet. The veiled skeleton sat in state, lifting the cypress wreath above its head, as the guerdon of some guest, illustrious in the qualifications which there claimed precedence. As the stewards deemed the world inexhaustible in misery, and were desirous of recognizing it in all its forms, they had not seen fit to re-assemble the company of the former year. New faces now threw their gloom across the table.

There was a man of nice conscience, who bore a bloodstain in his heart–the death of a fellow-creature–which, for his more exquisite torture, had chanced with such a peculiarity of circumstances, that he could not absolutely determine whether his will had entered into the deed, or not. Therefore, his whole life was spent in the agony of an inward trial for murder, with a continual sifting of the details of his terrible calamity, until his mind had no longer any thought, nor his soul any emotion, disconnected with it. There was a mother, too–a mother once, but a desolation now–who, many years before, had gone out on a pleasure-party, and, returning, found her infant smothered in its little bed. And ever since she had been tortured with the fantasy, that her buried baby lay smothering in its coffin. Then there was an aged lady, who had lived from time immemorial with a constant tremor quivering through her frame. It was terrible to discern her dark shadow tremulous upon the wall; her lips, likewise, were tremulous; and the expression of her eyes seemed to indicate that her soul was trembling too. Owing to the bewilderment and confusion which made almost a chaos of her intellect, it was impossible to discover what dire misfortune had thus shaken her nature to its depths; so that the stewards had admitted her to the table, not from any acquaintance with her history, but on the safe testimony of her miserable aspect. Some surprise was expressed at the presence of a bluff, red-faced gentleman, a certain Mr. Smith, who had evidently the fat of many a rich feast within him, and the habitual twinkle of whose eye betrayed a disposition to break forth into uproarious laughter, for little cause or none. It turned out, however, that, with the best possible flow of spirits, our poor friend was afflicted with a physical disease of the heart, which threatened instant death on the slightest cachinnatory indulgence, or even that titillation of the bodily frame, produced by merry thoughts. In this dilemma, he had sought admittance to the banquet, on the ostensible plea of his irksome and miserable state, but, in reality, with the hope of imbibing a life-preserving melancholy.

A married couple had been invited, from a motive of bitter humor; it being well understood, that they rendered each other unutterably miserable whenever they chanced to meet, and therefore must necessarily be fit associates at the festival. In contrast with these, was another couple, still unmarried, who had interchanged their hearts in early life, but had been divided by circumstances as impalpable as morning mist, and kept apart so long, that their spirits now found it impossible to meet. Therefore, yearning for communion, yet shrinking from one another, and choosing none beside, they felt themselves companionless in life, and looked upon eternity as a boundless desert. Next to the skeleton sat a mere son of earth–a haunter of the Exchange–a gatherer of shining dust–a man whose life’s record was in his leger, and whose soul’s prison-house, the vaults of the bank where he kept his deposits. This person had been greatly perplexed at his invitation, deeming himself one of the most fortunate men in the city; but the stewards persisted in demanding his presence, assuring him that he had no conception how miserable he was.

And now appeared a figure, which we must acknowledge as our acquaintance of the former festival. It was Gervayse Hastings, whose presence had then caused so much question and criticism, and who now took his place with the composure of one vvhose claims were satisfactory to himself, and must needs be allowed by others. Yet his easy and unruffled face betrayed no sorrow. The well-skilled beholders gazed a moment into his eyes, and shook their heads, to miss the unuttered sympathy–the countersign, never to be falsified–of those whose hearts are cavern-mouths, through which they descend into a region of illimitable wo, and recognize other wanderers there.

“Who is this youth?” asked the man with a blood-stain on his conscience. “Surely he has never gone down into the depths! I know all the aspects of those who have passed through the dark valley. By what right is he among us?”

“Ah, it is a sinful thing to come hither without a sorrow,” murmured the aged lady, in accents that partook of the eternal tremor which pervaded her whole being. “Depart, young man! Your soul has never been shaken; and therefore I tremble so much the more to look at you.”

“His soul shaken! No; I’ll answer for it,” said bluff Mr. Smith, pressing his hand upon his heart, and making himself as melancholy as he could, for fear of a fatal explosion of laughter. “I know the lad well; he has as fair prospects as any young man about town, and has no more right among us, miserable creatures, than the child unborn. He never was miserable, and probably never will be!”

“Our honored guests,” interposed the stewards, “pray have patience with us, and believe, at least, that our deep veneration for the sacredness of this solemnity would preclude any wilful violation of it. Receive this young man to your table. It may not be too much to say, that no guest here would exchange his own heart for the one that beats within that youthful bosom!”

“I’d call it a bargain, and gladly too,” muttered Mr. Smith, with a perplexing mixture of sadness and mirthful conceit. “A plague upon their nonsense! My own heart is the only really miserable one in the company–it will certainly be the death of me at last!”

Nevertheless, as on the former occasion, the judgment of the stewards being without appeal, the company sat down. The obnoxious guest made no more attempt to obtrude his conversation on those about him, but appeared to listen to the table-talk with peculiar assiduity, as if some inestimable secret, otherwise beyond his reach, might be conveyed in a casual word. And, in tmth, to those who could understand and value it, there was rich matter in the upgushings and outpourings of these initiated souls, to whom sorrow had been a talisman, admitting them into spiritual depths which no other spell can open. Sometimes, out of the midst of densest gloom, there flashed a momentary radiance, pure as crystal, bright as the flame of stars, and shedding such a glow upon the mystery of life, that the guests were ready to exclaim, “Surely the riddle is on the point of being solved!” At such illuminated intervals, the saddest mourners felt it to be revealed, that mortal griefs are but shadowy and external; no more than the sable robes, voluminously shrouding a certain divine reality, and thus indicating what might otherwise be altogether invisible to mortal eye.

“Just now,” remarked the trembling old woman, “I seemed to see beyond the outside. And then my everlasting tremor passed away!”

“Would that I could dwell always in these momentary gleams of light!” said the man of stricken conscience. “Then the blood-stain in my heart would be washed clean away.”

This strain of conversation appeared so unintelligibly absurd to good Mr. Smith, that he burst into precisely the fit of laughter which his physicians had warned him against, as likely to prove instantaneously fatal. In effect, he fell back in his chair, a corpse with a broad grin upon his face; while his ghost, perchance, remained beside it, bewildered at its unpremeditated exit. This catastrophe, of course, broke up the festival.

“How is this? You do not tremble?” observed the tremulous old woman to Gervayse Hastings, who was gazing at the dead man with singular intentness. “Is it not awful to see him so suddenly vanish out of the midst of life–this man of flesh and blood, whose earthly nature was so warm and strong? There is a never-ending tremor in my soul; but it trembles afresh at this! And you are calm!”

“Would that he could teach me somewhat!” said Gervayse Hastings, drawing a long breath. “Men pass before me like shadows on the wall–their actions, passions, feelings, are flickering of the light–and then they vanish! Neither the corpse, nor yonder skeleton, nor this old woman’s everlasting tremor, can give me what I seek.”

And then the company departed.

We cannot linger to narrate, in such detail, more circumstances of these singular festivals, which, in accordance with the founder’s will, continued to be kept with the regularity of an established institution. In process of time, the stewards adopted the custom of inviting, from far and near, those individuals whose misfortunes were prominent above other men’s, and whose mental and moral development might, therefore, be supposed to possess a corresponding interest. The exiled noble of the French Revolution, and the broken soldier of the Empire, were alike represented at the table. Fallen monarchs, wandering about the earth, have found places at that forlorn and miserable feast. The statesman, when his party flung him off, might, if he chose it, be once more a great man for the space of a single banquet. Aaron Burr’s name appears on the record, at a period when his ruin–the profoundest and most striking, with more of moral circumstance in it than that of almost any other man–was complete, in his lonely age. Stephen Girard, when his wealth weighed upon him like a mountain, once sought admittance of his own accord. It is not probable, however, that these men had any lessons to teach in the lore of discontent and misery, which might not equally well have been studied in the common walks of life. Illustrious unfortunates attract a wider sympathy, not because their griefs are more intense, but because, being set on lofty pedestals, they the better serve mankind as instances and by-words of calamity.

It concerns our present purpose to say that, at each successive festival, Gervayse Hastings showed his face, gradually changing from the smooth beauty of his youth to the thoughtful comeliness of manhood, and thence to the bald, impressive dignity of age. He was the only individual invariably present. Yet, on every occasion, there were murmurs, both from those who knew his character and position, and from them whose hearts shrank back, as denying his companionship in their mystic fraternity.

“Who is this impassive man?” had been asked a hundred times. “Has he suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then wherefore is he here?”

“You must inquire of the stewards, or of himself,” was the constant reply. “We seem to know him well, here in our city, and know nothing of him but what is creditable and fortunate. Yet hither he comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton–perhaps that may solve the riddle!”

It was, in truth, a wonder. The life of Gervayse Hastings was not merely a prosperous, but a brilliant one. Everything had gone well with him. He was wealthy, far beyond the expenditure that was required by habits of magnificence, a taste of rare purity and cultivation, a love of travel, a scholar’s instinct to collect a splendid library, and, moreover, what seemed a munificent liberality to the distressed. He had sought domestic happiness, and not vainly, if a lovely and tender wife, and children of fair promise, could insure it. He had, besides, ascended above the limit which separates the obscure from the distinguished, and had won a stainless reputation in affairs of the widest public importance. Not that he was a popular character, or had within him the mysterious attributes which are essential to that species of success. To the public, he was a cold abstraction, wholly destitute of those rich hues of personality, that living warmth, and the peculiar faculty of stamping his own heart’s impression on a multitude of hearts, by which the people recognize their favorites. And it must be owned that, after his most intimate associates had done their best to know him thoroughly, and love him warmly, they were startled to find how little hold he had upon their affections. They approved–they admired–but still, in those moments when the human spirit most craves reality, they shrank back from Gervayse Hastings, as powerless to give them what they sought. It was the feeling of distrustful regret, with which we should draw back the hand, after extending it, in an illusive twilight, to grasp the hand of a shadow upon the wall.

As the superficial fervency of youth decayed, this peculiar effect of Gervayse Hastings’ character grew more perceptible. His children, when he extended his arms, came coldly to his knees, but never climbed them of their own accord. His wife wept secretly, and almost adjudged herself a criminal, because she shivered in the chill of his bosom. He, too, occasionally appeared not unconscious of the chillness of his moral atmosphere, and willing, if it might be so, to warm himself at a kindly fire. But age stole onward, and benumbed him more and more. As the hoar-frost began to gather on him, his wife went to her grave, and was doubtless warmer there; his children either died, or were scattered to different homes of their own; and old Gervayse Hastings, unscathed by grief–alone, but needing no companionship–continued his steady walk through life, and still, on every Christmas-day, attended at the dismal banquet. His privilege as a guest had become prescriptive now. Had he claimed the head of the table, even the skeleton would have been ejected from its seat.

Finally, at the merry Christmas-tide, when he had numbered four-score years complete, this pale, high-browed, marble-featured old man once more entered the long-frequented hall, with the same impassive aspect that had called forth so much dissatisfied remark at his first attendance. Time, except in matters merely external, had done nothing for him, either of good or evil. As he took his place, he threw a calm, inquiring glance around the table, as if to ascertain whether any guest had yet appeared, after so many unsuccessful banquets, who might impart to him the mystery–the deep, warm secret–the life within the life–which, whether manifested in joy or sorrow, is what gives substance to a world of shadows.

“My friends,” said Gervayse Hastings, assuming a position which his long conversance with the festival caused to appear natural, “you are welcome! I drink to you all in this cup of sepulchral wine.”

The guests replied courteously, but still in a manner that proved them unable to receive the old man as a member of their sad fraternity. It may be well to give the reader an idea of the present company at the banquet.

One was formerly a clergyman, enthusiastic in his profession, and apparently of the genuine dynasty of those old Puritan divines whose faith in their calling, and stern exercise of it, had placed them among the mighty of the earth. But, yielding to the speculative tendency of the age, he had gone astray from the firm foundation of an ancient faith, and wandered into a cloud region, where everything was misty and deceptive, ever mocking him with a semblance of reality, but still dissolving when he flung himself upon it for support and rest. His instinct and early training demanded something steadfast; but, looking forward, he beheld vapors piled on vapors, and, behind him, an impassable gulf between the man of yesterday and to-day; on the borders of which he paced to and fro, sometimes wringing his hands in agony, and often making his own wo a theme of scornful merriment. This, surely, was a miserable man. Next, there was a theorist–one of a numerous tribe, although he deemed himself unique since the creation–a theorist, who had conceived a plan by which all the wretchedness of earth, moral and physical, might be done away, and the bliss of the millennium at once accomplished. But, the incredulity of mankind debarring him from action, he was smitten with as much grief as if the whole mass of wo which he was denied the opportunity to remedy, were crowded into his own bosom. A plain old man in black attracted much of the company’s notice, on the supposition tht he was no other than Father Miller, who, it seemed, had given himself up to despair at the tedious delay of the final conflagration. Then there was a man distinguished for native pride and obstinacy, who, a little while before, had possessed immense wealth, and held the control of a vast moneyed interest, which he had wielded in the same spirit as a despotic monarch would wield the power of his empire, carrying on a tremendous moral warfare, the roar and tremor of which was felt at every fireside in the land. At length came a crushing ruin–a total overthrow of fortune, power, and character–the effect of which on his imperious, and, in many respects, noble and lofty nature, might have entitled him to a place, not merely at our festival, but among the peers of Pandemonium.

There was a modern philanthropist, who had become so deeply sensible of the calamities of thousands and millions of his fellow creatures, and of the impracticableness of any general measures for their relief, that he had no heart to do what little good lay immediately within his power, but contented himself with being miserable for sympathy. Near him sat a gentleman in a predicament hitherto unprecedented, but of which the present epoch, probably, affords numerous examples. Ever since he was of capacity to read a newspaper, this person had prided himself on his consistent adherence to one political party, but, in the confusion of these latter days, had got bewildered, and knew not whereabouts his party was. This wretched condition, so morally desolate and disheartening to a man who has long accustomed himself to merge his individuality in the mass of a great body, can only be conceived by such as have experienced it. His next companion was a popular orator who had lost his voice, and–as it was pretty much all that he had to lose–had fallen into a state of hopeless melancholy. The table was likewise graced by two of the gentler sex–one, a half-starved, consumptive seamstress, the representative of thousands just as wretched; the other, a woman of unemployed energy, who found herself in the world with nothing to achieve, nothing to enjoy, and nothing even to suffer. She had, therefore, driven herself to the verge of madness by dark broodings over the wrongs of her sex, and its exclusion from a proper field of action. The roll of guests being thus complete, a side-table had been set for three or four disappointed office-seekers with hearts as sick as death, whom the stewards had admitted, partly because their calamities really entitled them to entrance here, and partly that they were in especial need of a good dinner. There was likewise a homeless dog, with his tail between his legs, licking up the crumbs and gnawing the fragments of the feast–such a melancholy cur as one sometimes sees about the streets, without a master, and willing to follow the first that will accept his service.

In their own way, these were as wretched a set of people as ever had assembled at the festival. There they sat, with the veiled skeleton of the founder, holding aloft the cypress wreath, at one end of the table; and at the other, wrapt in furs, the withered figure of Gervayse Hastings, stately, calm, and cold, impressing the company with awe, yet so little interesting their sympathy, that he might have vanished into thin air, without their once exclaiming–“Whither is he gone?”

“Sir,” said the philanthropist, addressing the old man, “you have been so long a guest at this annual festival, and have thus been conversant with so many varieties of human affliction, that, not improbably, you have thence derived some great and important lessons. How blessed were your lot, could you reveal a secret by which all this mass of wo might be removed!”

“I know of but one misfortune,” answered Gervayse Hastings, quietly, “and that is my own.”

“Your own!” rejoined the philanthropist. “And, looking back on your serene and prosperous life, how can you claim to be the sole unfortunate of the human race?”

“You will not understand it,” replied Gervayse Hastings, feebly, and with a singular inefficiency of pronunciation, and sometimes putting one word for another. “None have understood it–not even those who experience the like. It is a chillness–a want of earnestness–a feeling as if what should be my heart were a thing of vapor–a haunting perception of unreality! Thus, seeming to possess all that other men have–all that men aim at–I have really possessed nothing, neither joys nor griefs. All things–all persons–as was truly said to me at this table long and long ago–have been like shadows flickering on the wall. It was so with my wife and children– with those who seemed my friends: it is so with yourselves, whom I see now before me. Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow like the rest!”

“And how is it with your views of a future life?” inquired the speculative clergyman.

“Worse than with you,” said the old man, in a hollow and feeble tone; “for I cannot conceive it earnestly enough to feel either hope or fear. Mine–mine is the wretchedness! This cold heart–this unreal life! Ah! it grows colder still.”

It so chanced, that at this juncture the decayed ligaments of the skeleton gave way, and the dry bones fell together in a heap, thus causing the dusty wreath of cypress to drop upon the table. The attention of the company being thus diverted, for a single instant, from Gervayse Hastings, they perceived, on turning again towards him, that the old man had undergone a change. His shadow had ceased to flicker on the wall.

“Well, Rosina, what is your criticism?” asked Roderick, as he rolled up the manuscript.

“Frankly, your success is by no means complete,” replied she. “It is true, I have an idea of the character you endeavor to describe; but it is rather by dint of my own thought than your expression.”

“That is unavoidable,” observed the sculptor, “because the characteristics are all negative. If Gervayse Hastings could have imbibed one human grief at the gloomy banquet, the task of describing him would have been infinitely easier. Of such persons–and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then–it is difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an attempt to comprehend them within its grasp.”