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!

Winter Snow, by Winter Capricorn on Tumblr

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Snow, by Hugh Walpole

The only thing better than a good, creepy Christmas ghost story is one with ice-cold revenge at its heart. This, my friends, this is such a story. Relentless, unyielding, implacable, and cold, as cold as the ninth circle of Hell. What makes it weird, rather than predictable, is that the victim isn’t particularly evil. She’s just ordinary. And that, for the First Wife, is the whole problem. You may think you’ve heard this story before, but you haven’t!

Enjoy The Snow, by Hugh Walpole.


Winter Snow, by Winter Capricorn on Tumblr

Winter Snow, by Winter Capricorn on Tumblr

The second Mrs. Ryder was a young woman not easily frightened, but
now she stood in the dusk of the passage leaning back against the
wall, her hand on her heart, looking at the grey-faced window
beyond which the snow was steadily falling against the lamplight.

The passage where she was led from the study to the dining-room,
and the window looked out on to the little paved path that ran at
the edge of the Cathedral green. As she stared down the passage
she couldn’t be sure whether the woman were there or no. How
absurd of her! She knew the woman was not there. But if the woman
was not, how was it that she could discern so clearly the old-
fashioned grey cloak, the untidy grey hair and the sharp outline of
the pale cheek and pointed chin? Yes, and more than that, the long
sweep of the grey dress, falling in folds to the ground, the flash
of a gold ring on the white hand. No. No. NO. This was madness.
There was no one and nothing there. Hallucination . . .

Very faintly a voice seemed to come to her: ‘I warned you. This
is for the last time. . . .’

The nonsense! How far now was her imagination to carry her? Tiny
sounds about the house, the running of a tap somewhere, a faint
voice from the kitchen, these and something more had translated
themselves into an imagined voice. ‘The last time . . .’

But her terror was real. She was not normally frightened by
anything. She was young and healthy and bold, fond of sport,
hunting, shooting, taking any risk. Now she was truly STIFFENED
with terror–she could not move, could not advance down the passage
as she wanted to and find light, warmth, safety in the dining-room.
All the time the snow fell steadily, stealthily, with its own
secret purpose, maliciously, beyond the window in the pale glow of
the lamplight.

Then unexpectedly there was noise from the hall, opening of doors,
a rush of feet, a pause and then in clear beautiful voices the well-
known strains of ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ It was the Cathedral choir
boys on their regular Christmas round. This was Christmas Eve.
They always came just at this hour on Christmas Eve.

With an intense, almost incredible relief she turned back into the
hall. At the same moment her husband came out of the study. They
stood together smiling at the little group of mufflered, becoated
boys who were singing, heart and soul in the job, so that the old
house simply rang with their melody.

Reassured by the warmth and human company, she lost her terror. It
had been her imagination. Of late she had been none too well.
That was why she had been so irritable. Old Doctor Bernard was no
good: he didn’t understand her case at all. After Christmas she
would go to London and have the very best advice . . .

Had she been well she could not, half an hour ago, have shown such
miserable temper over nothing. She knew that it was over nothing
and yet that knowledge did not make it any easier for her to
restrain herself. After every bout of temper she told herself that
there should never be another–and then Herbert said something
irritating, one of his silly muddle-headed stupidities, and she was
off again!

She could see now as she stood beside him at the bottom of the
staircase, that he was still feeling it. She had certainly half an
hour ago said some abominably rude personal things–things that she
had not at all meant–and he had taken them in his meek, quiet way.
Were he not so meek and quiet, did he only pay her back in her own
coin, she would never lose her temper. Of that she was sure. But
who wouldn’t be irritated by that meekness and by the only
reproachful thing that he ever said to her: ‘Elinor understood me
better, my dear ‘? To throw the first wife up against the second!
Wasn’t that the most tactless thing that a man could possibly do?
And Elinor, that worn elderly woman, the very opposite of her own
gay, bright, amusing self? That was why Herbert had loved her,
because she was gay and bright and young. It was true that Elinor
had been devoted, that she had been so utterly wrapped up in
Herbert that she lived only for him. People were always recalling
her devotion, which was sufficiently rude and tactless of them.

Well, she could not give anyone that kind of old-fashioned sugary
devotion; it wasn’t in her, and Herbert knew it by this time.

Nevertheless she loved Herbert in her own way, as he must know,
know it so well that he ought to pay no attention to the bursts of
temper. She wasn’t well. She would see a doctor in London . . .

The little boys finished their carols, were properly rewarded, and
tumbled like feathery birds out into the snow again. They went
into the study, the two of them, and stood beside the big open log-
fire. She put her hand up and stroked his thin beautiful cheek.

‘I’m so sorry to have been cross just now, Bertie. I didn’t mean
half I said, you know.’

But he didn’t, as he usually did, kiss her and tell her that it
didn’t matter. Looking straight in front of him, he answered:

‘Well, Alice, I do wish you wouldn’t. It hurts, horribly. It
upsets me more than you think. And it’s growing on you. You make
me miserable. I don’t know what to do about it. And it’s all
about nothing.’

Irritated at not receiving the usual commendation for her sweetness
in making it up again, she withdrew a little and answered:

‘Oh, all right. I’ve said I’m sorry. I can’t do any more.’

‘But tell me,’ he insisted, ‘I want to know. What makes you so
angry, so suddenly?–and about nothing at all.’

She was about to let her anger rise, her anger at his obtuseness,
obstinacy, when some fear checked her, a strange unanalysed fear,
as though someone had whispered to her, ‘Look out! This is the
last time!’

‘It’s not altogether my own fault,’ she answered, and left the
room.

She stood in the cold hall, wondering where to go. She could feel
the snow falling outside the house and shivered. She hated the
snow, she hated the winter, this beastly, cold dark English winter
that went on and on, only at last to change into a damp, soggy
English spring.

It had been snowing all day. In Polchester it was unusual to have
so heavy a snowfall. This was the hardest winter that they had
known for many years.

When she urged Herbert to winter abroad–which he could quite
easily do–he answered her impatiently; he had the strongest
affection for this poky dead-and-alive Cathedral town. The
Cathedral seemed to be precious to him; he wasn’t happy if he
didn’t go and see it every day! She wouldn’t wonder if he didn’t
think more of the Cathedral than he did of herself. Elinor had
been the same; she had even written a little book about the
Cathedral, about the Black Bishop’s Tomb and the stained glass and
the rest . . .

What was the Cathedral after all? Only a building!

She was standing in the drawing-room looking out over the dusky
ghostly snow to the great hulk of the Cathedral that Herbert said
was like a flying ship, but to herself was more like a crouching
beast licking its lips over the miserable sinners that it was for
ever devouring.

As she looked and shivered, feeling that in spite of herself her
temper and misery were rising so that they threatened to choke her,
it seemed to her that her bright and cheerful fire-lit drawing-room
was suddenly open to the snow. It was exactly as though cracks had
appeared everywhere, in the ceiling, the walls, the windows, and
that through these cracks the snow was filtering, dribbling in
little tracks of wet down the walls, already perhaps making pools
of water on the carpet.

This was of course imagination, but it was a fact that the room was
most dreadfully cold although a great fire was burning and it was
the cosiest room in the house.

Then, turning, she saw the figure standing by the door. This time
there could be no mistake. It was a grey shadow, and yet a shadow
with form and outline–the untidy grey hair, the pale face like a
moon-lit leaf, the long grey clothes, and something obstinate,
vindictive, terribly menacing in its pose.

She moved and the figure was gone; there was nothing there and the
room was warm again, quite hot in fact. But young Mrs. Ryder, who
had never feared anything in all her life save the vanishing of her
youth, was trembling so that she had to sit down, and even then her
trembling did not cease. Her hand shook on the arm of her chair.

She had created this thing out of her imagination of Elinor’s
hatred of her and her own hatred of Elinor. It was true that they
had never met, but who knew but that the spiritualists were right,
and Elinor’s spirit, jealous of Herbert’s love for her, had been
there driving them apart, forcing her to lose her temper and then
hating her for losing it? Such things might be! But she had not
much time for speculation. She was preoccupied with her fear. It
was a definite, positive fear, the kind of fear that one has just
before one goes under an operation. Someone or something was
threatening her. She clung to her chair as though to leave it were
to plunge into disaster. She looked around her everywhere; all the
familiar things, the pictures, the books, the little tables, the
piano were different now, isolated, strange, hostile, as though
they had been won over by some enemy power.

She longed for Herbert to come and protect her; she felt most
kindly to him. She would never lose her temper with him again–and
at that same moment some cold voice seemed to whisper in her ear:
‘You had better not. It will be for the last time.’

At length she found courage to rise, cross the room and go up to
dress for dinner. In her bedroom courage came to her once more.
It was certainly very cold, and the snow, as she could see when she
looked between her curtains, was falling more heavily than ever,
but she had a warm bath, sat in front of her fire and was sensible
again.

For many months this odd sense that she was watched and accompanied
by someone hostile to her had been growing. It was the stronger
perhaps because of the things that Herbert told her about Elinor;
she was the kind of woman, he said, who, once she loved anyone,
would never relinquish her grasp; she was utterly faithful. He
implied that her tenacious fidelity had been at times a little
difficult.

‘She always said,’ he added once, ‘that she would watch over me
until I rejoined her in the next world. Poor Elinor!’ he sighed.
‘She had a fine religious faith, stronger than mine, I fear.’

It was always after one of her tantrums that young Mrs. Ryder had
been most conscious of this hallucination, this dreadful discomfort
of feeling that someone was near you who hated you–but it was only
during the last week that she began to fancy that she actually saw
anyone, and with every day her sense of this figure had grown
stronger.

It was, of course, only nerves, but it was one of those nervous
afflictions that became tiresome indeed if you did not rid yourself
of it. Mrs. Ryder, secure now in the warmth and intimacy of her
bedroom, determined that henceforth everything should be sweetness
and light. No more tempers! Those were the things that did her
harm.

Even though Herbert were a little trying, was not that the case
with every husband in the world? And was it not Christmas time?
Peace and Good Will to men! Peace and Good Will to Herbert!

They sat down opposite to one another in the pretty little dining-
room hung with Chinese woodcuts, the table gleaming and the amber
curtains richly dark in the firelight.

But Herbert was not himself. He was still brooding, she supposed,
over their quarrel of the afternoon. Weren’t men children?
Incredible the children that they were!

So when the maid was out of the room she went over to him, bent
down and kissed his forehead.

‘Darling . . . you’re still cross, I can see you are. You mustn’t
be. Really you mustn’t. It’s Christmas time and, if I forgive
you, you must forgive me.’

‘You forgive me?’ he asked, looking at her in his most aggravating
way. ‘What have you to forgive me for?’

Well, that was really too much. When she had taken all the steps,
humbled her pride.

She went back to her seat, but for a while could not answer him
because the maid was there. When they were alone again she said,
summoning all her patience:

‘Bertie dear, do you really think that there’s anything to be
gained by sulking like this? It isn’t worthy of you. It isn’t
really.’

He answered her quietly.

‘Sulking? No, that’s not the right word. But I’ve got to keep
quiet. If I don’t I shall say something I’m sorry for.’ Then,
after a pause, in a low voice, as though to himself: ‘These
constant rows are awful.’

Her temper was rising again; another self that had nothing to do
with her real self, a stranger to her and yet a very old familiar
friend.

‘Don’t be so self-righteous,’ she answered, her voice trembling a
little. ‘These quarrels are entirely my own fault, aren’t they?’

‘Elinor and I never quarrelled,’ he said, so softly that she
scarcely heard him.

‘No! Because Elinor thought you perfect. She adored you. You’ve
often told me. I don’t think you perfect. I’m not perfect either.
But we’ve both got faults. I’m not the only one to blame.’

‘We’d better separate,’ he said, suddenly looking up. ‘We don’t
get on now. We used to. I don’t know what’s changed everything.
But, as things are, we’d better separate.’

She looked at him and knew that she loved him more than ever, but
because she loved him so much she wanted to hurt him, and because
he had said that he thought he could get on without her she was so
angry that she forgot all caution. Her love and her anger helped
one another. The more angry she became the more she loved him.

‘I know why you want to separate,’ she said. ‘It’s because you’re
in love with someone else. (‘How funny,’ something inside her
said. ‘You don’t mean a word of this.’) You’ve treated me as you
have, and then you leave me.’

‘I’m not in love with anyone else,’ he answered her steadily, ‘and
you know it. But we are so unhappy together that it’s silly to go
on . . . silly. . . . The whole thing has failed.’

There was so much unhappiness, so much bitterness, in his voice
that she realised that at last she had truly gone too far. She had
lost him.

She had not meant this. She was frightened and her fear made her
so angry that she went across to him.

‘Very well then . . . I’ll tell everyone . . . what you’ve been.
How you’ve treated me.’

‘Not another scene,’ he answered wearily. ‘I can’t stand any more.
Let’s wait. Tomorrow is Christmas Day . . .’

He was so unhappy that her anger with herself maddened her. She
couldn’t bear his sad, hopeless disappointment with herself, their
life together, everything.

In a fury of blind temper she struck him; it was as though she were
striking herself. He got up and without a word left the room.
There was a pause, and then she heard the hall door close. He had
left the house.

She stood there, slowly coming to her control again. When she lost
her temper it was as though she sank under water. When it was all
over she came once more to the surface of life, wondering where
she’d been and what she had been doing. Now she stood there,
bewildered, and then at once she was aware of two things, one that
the room was bitterly cold and the other that someone was in the
room with her.

This time she did not need to look around her. She did not turn at
all, but only stared straight at the curtained windows, seeing them
very carefully, as though she were summing them up for some future
analysis, with their thick amber folds, gold rod, white lines–and
beyond them the snow was falling.

She did not need to turn, but, with a shiver of terror, she was
aware that that grey figure who had, all these last weeks, been
approaching ever more closely, was almost at her very elbow. She
heard quite clearly: ‘I warned you. That was the last time.’

At the same moment Onslow the butler came in. Onslow was broad,
fat and rubicund–a good faithful butler with a passion for church
music. He was a bachelor and, it was said, disappointed of women.
He had an old mother in Liverpool to whom he was greatly attached.

In a flash of consciousness she thought of all these things when he
came in. She expected him also to see the grey figure at her side.
But he was undisturbed, his ceremonial complacency clothed him
securely.

‘Mr. Fairfax has gone out,’ she said firmly. Oh, surely he must
see something, feel something.

‘Yes, Madam!’ Then, smiling rather grandly: ‘It’s snowing hard.
Never seen it harder here. Shall I build up the fire in the
drawing-room, Madam?’

‘No, thank you. But Mr. Fairfax’s study . . .’

‘Yes, Madam. I only thought that as this room was so warm you
might find it chilly in the drawing-room.’

This room warm, when she was shivering from head to foot; but
holding herself lest he should see . . . She longed to keep him
there, to implore him to remain; but in a moment he was gone,
softly closing the door behind him.

Then a mad longing for flight seized her, and she could not move.
She was rooted there to the floor, and even as, wildly trying to
cry, to scream, to shriek the house down, she found that only a
little whisper would come, she felt the cold touch of a hand on
hers.

She did not turn her head: her whole personality, all her past
life, her poor little courage, her miserable fortitude were
summoned to meet this sense of approaching death which was as
unmistakable as a certain smell, or the familiar ringing of a gong.
She had dreamt in nightmares of approaching death and it had always
been like this, a fearful constriction of the heart, a paralysis of
the limbs, a choking sense of disaster like an anaesthetic.

‘You were warned,’ something said to her again.

She knew that if she turned she would see Elinor’s face, set,
white, remorseless. The woman had always hated her, been vilely
jealous of her, protecting her wretched Herbert.

A certain vindictiveness seemed to release her. She found that she
could move, her limbs were free.

She passed to the door, ran down the passage, into the hall. Where
would she be safe? She thought of the Cathedral, where to-night
there was a carol service. She opened the hall door and just as
she was, meeting the thick, involving, muffling snow, she ran out.

She started across the green towards the Cathedral door. Her thin
black slippers sank in the snow. Snow was everywhere–in her hair,
her eyes, her nostrils, her mouth, on her bare neck, between her
breasts.

‘Help! Help! Help!’ she wanted to cry, but the snow choked her.
Lights whirled about her. The Cathedral rose like a huge black
eagle and flew towards her.

She fell forward, and even as she fell a hand, far colder than the
snow, caught her neck. She lay struggling in the snow and as she
struggled there two hands of an icy fleshless chill closed about
her throat.

Her last knowledge was of the hard outline of a ring pressing into
her neck. Then she lay still, her face in the snow, and the flakes
eagerly, savagely, covered her.

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.”

Quiz: which classic 80’s fantasy movie should I get next?

With bonus Which Princess Bride Character Are You quiz. Of course I’m Inigo.

I am INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KEEL MY FATHAIR. PREPAIR TO DIE!

I am INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KEEL MY FATHAIR. PREPAIR TO DIE!

You are Inigo Montoya. You have spent your life training in the art of fencing and seeking revenge for the killing of your father. And drinking. Lots of drinking. Now that you have achieved your lifelong quest, you are considering making the move to privateering. Apparently, the market’s pretty good right now.

Yep, pretty much. I literally looked into getting Letters of Marque as a retirement gift for a friend of mine; her son is a ship’s captain, and she founded the national association for social workers, and it would have been hilarious. I should have followed through on it, too. But at least I have all the paperwork ready.

Anyhoodly…I’ve been watching a lot of movies recently, and remembering more. For OpHippie I screened The NeverEnding Story for a room full of people on mushrooms and weed, and succeeded in completely wiping The Da Vinci Code from their minds for the next 48 hours through the awesome power of the Childlike Empress and that stupid, fucking nag Artax. And I have The Princess Bride. Now what do I get?