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 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.
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?”
“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.”