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.”


		
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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.”

A Victorian Skating Party

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Real and the Counterfeit, by Mrs Alfred Baldwin

We’re on a Christmas country house themed roll, kittens, and I see no reason to stop rolling with it as long as the pickin’s are this good. Tonight’s Christmas ghost story comes from the ancient and revered tradition of the pooh-pooher or, more technically known as, “the skeptic.”

The Skeptic doesn’t believe in ghosts. But he’s a regular character in ghost stories, one of the mainstays in fact. Sometimes he lives long enough to get his comeupppance and sometimes he doesn’t, but you know going into it that the deck he refuses to acknowledge is stacked against him.

The Real and the Counterfeit is a story with great heart, and with romance, and strong characters, and pranks and hijinks and japes and ruses and all those other delightfully antiquated words and deeds (nowadays we’d just call it trolling and block them on Facebook) so I hope that you will enjoy tonight’s offering.


The Real and the Counterfeit
by Mrs Alfred Baldwin

A Victorian Skating Party

A Victorian Skating Party

Will Musgrave determined that he would neither keep Christmas alone, nor spend it again with his parents and sisters in the south of France. The Musgrave family annually migrated southward from their home in Northumberland, and Will as regularly followed them to spend a month with them in the Riviera, till he had almost forgotten what Christmas was like in England. He rebelled at having to leave the country at a time when, if the weather was mild, he should be hunting, or if it was severe, skating, and he had no real or imaginary need to winter in the south. His chest was of iron and his lungs of brass. A raking east wind that drove his parents into their thickest furs, and taught them the number of their teeth by enabling them to count a separate and well defined ache for each, only brought a deeper colour into the cheek, and a brighter light into the eye of the weather-proof youth. Decidedly he would not go to Cannes, though it was no use annoying his father and mother, and disappointing his sisters, by telling them beforehand of his determination.

Will knew very well how to write a letter to his mother in which his defection should appear as an event brought about by the over-mastering power of circumstances, to which the sons of Adam must submit. No doubt that a prospect of hunting or skating, as the fates might decree, influenced his decision. But he had also long promised himself the pleasure of a visit from two of his college friends, Hugh Armitage and Horace Lawley, and he asked that they might spend a fortnight with him at Stonecroft, as a little relaxation had been positively ordered for him by his tutor.

‘Bless him,’ said his mother fondly, when she had read his letter, ‘I will write to the dear boy and tell him how pleased I am with his firmness and determination.’ But Mr Musgrave muttered inarticulate sounds as he listened to his wife, expressive of incredulity rather than acquiescence, and when he spoke it was to say, ‘Devil of a row three young fellows will kick up alone at Stonecroft! We shall find the stables full of broken-kneed horses when we go home again.’

Will Musgrave spent Christmas day with the Armitages at their lace near Ripon. And the following night they gave a dance at which he enjoyed himself as only a very young man can do, who has not yet had his fill of dancing, and who would like nothing better than to waltz through life with his arm round his pretty partner’s waist. The following day, Musgrave and Armitage left for Stonecroft, picking up Lawley on the way, and arriving at their destination late in the evening, in the highest spirits and with the keenest appetites. Stonecroft was a delightful haven of refuge at the end of a long journey across country in bitter weather, when the east wind was driving the light dry snow into every nook and cranny. The wide, hospitable front door opened into an oak-panelled hall with a great open fire burning cheerily, and lighted by lamps from overhead that effectually dispelled all gloomy shadows. As soon as Musgrave had entered the house he seized his friends, and before they had time to shake the snow from their coats, kissed them both under the mistletoe bough and set the servants tittering in the background.

‘You’re miserable substitutes for your betters,’ he said, laughing and pushing them from him, ‘but it’s awfully unlucky not to use the mistletoe. Barker, I hope supper’s ready, and that it is something very hot and plenty of it, for we’ve travelled on empty stomachs and brought them with us,’ and he led his guests upstairs to their rooms.

‘What a jolly gallery!’ said Lawley enthusiastically as they entered a long wide corridor, with many doors and several windows in it, and hung with pictures and trophies of arms.

‘Yes, it’s our one distinguishing feature at Stonecroft,’ said Musgrave. ‘It runs the whole length of the house, from the modern end of it to the back, which is very old, and built on the foundations of a Cistercian monastery which once stood on this spot. The gallery’s wide enough to drive a carriage and pair down it, and it’s the main thoroughfare of the house. My mother takes a constitutional here in bad weather, as though it were the open air, and does it with her bonnet on to aid the delusion.’

Armitage’s attention was attracted by the pictures on the walls, and especially by the life-size portrait of a young man in a blue coat, with powdered hair, sitting under a tree with a staghound lying at his feet.

‘An ancestor of yours?’ he said, pointing at the picture.

‘Oh, they’re all one’s ancestors, and a motley crew they are, I must say for them. It may amuse you and Lawley to find from which of them I derive my good looks. That pretty youth whom you seem to admire is my great-great-grandfather. He died at twenty-two, a preposterous age for an ancestor. But come along Armitage, you’ll have plenty of time to do justice to the pictures by daylight, and I want to show you your rooms. I see everything is arranged comfortably, we are close together. Our pleasantest rooms are on the gallery, and here we are nearly at the end of it. Your rooms are opposite to mine, and open into Lawley’s in case you should be nervous in the night and feel lonely so far from home, my dear children.’

And Musgrave bade his friends make haste, and hurried away whistling cheerfully to his own room.

The following morning the friends rose to a white world. Six inches of fine snow, dry as salt, lay everywhere, the sky overhead a leaden lid, and all the signs of a deep fall yet to come.

‘Cheerful this, very,’ said Lawley, as he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking out of the window after breakfast. ‘The snow will have spoilt the ice for skating.’

‘But it won’t prevent wild duck shooting,’ said Armitage, ‘and I say, Musgrave, we’ll rig up a toboggan out there. I see a slope that might have been made on purpose for it. If we get some tobogganing, it may snow day and night for all I care, we shall be masters of the situation any way.’

‘Well thought of, Armitage,’ said Musgrave, jumping at the idea.

‘Yes, but you need two slopes and a little valley between for real good tobogganing,’ objected Lawley, ‘otherwise you only rush down the hillock like you do from the Mount Church to Funchal, and then have to retrace your steps as you do there, carrying your car on your back. Which lessens the fun considerably.’

‘Well, we can only work with the material at hand,’ said Armitage; ‘let’s go and see if we can’t find a better place for our toboggan, and something that will do for a car to slide in.’

‘That’s easily found – empty wine cases are the thing, and stout sticks to steer with,’ and away rushed the young men into the open air, followed by half a dozen dogs barking joyfully.

‘By Jove! if the snow keeps firm, we’ll put runners on strong chairs and walk over to see the Harradines at Garthside, and ask the girls to come out sledging, and we’ll push them,’ shouted Musgrave to Lawley and Armitage, who had outrun him in the vain attempt to keep up with a deer-hound that headed the party. After a long and careful search they found a piece of land exactly suited to their purpose, and it would have amused their friends to see how hard the young men worked under the beguiling name of pleasure. For four hours they worked like navvies making a toboggan slide. They shovelled away the snow, then with pickaxe and spade, levelled the ground, so that when a carpet of fresh snow was spread over it, their improvised car would run down a steep incline and be carried by the impetus up another, till it came to a standstill in a snow drift.

‘If we can only get this bit of engineering done today,’ said Lawley, chucking a spadeful of earth aside as he spoke, ‘the slide will be in perfect order for tomorrow.’

‘Yes, and when once it’s done, it’s done for ever,’ said Armitage, working away cheerfully with his pick where the ground was frozen hard and full of stones, and cleverly keeping his balance on the slope as he did so. ‘Good work lasts no end of time, and posterity will bless us for leaving them this magnificent slide.’

‘Posterity may, my dear fellow, but hardly our progenitors if my father should happen to slip down it,’ said Musgrave.

When their task was finished, and the friends were transformed in appearance from navvies into gentlemen, they set out through thick falling snow to walk to Garthside to call on their neighbours the Harradines. They had earned their pleasant tea and lively talk, their blood was still aglow from their exhilarating work, and their spirits at the highest point. They did not return to Stonecroft till they had compelled the girls to name a time when they would come with their brothers and be launched down the scientifically prepared slide, in wine cases well padded with cushions for the occasion.

Late that night the young men sat smoking and chatting together in the library. They had played billiards till they were tired, and Lawley had sung sentimental songs, accompanying himself on the banjo, till even he was weary, to say nothing of what his listeners might be. Armitage sat leaning his light curly head back in the chair, gently puffing out a cloud of tobacco smoke. And he was the first to break the silence that had fallen on the little company.

‘Musgrave,’ he said suddenly, ‘an old house is not complete unless it is haunted. You ought to have a ghost of your own at Stonecroft.’

Musgrave threw down the yellow-backed novel he had just picked up, and became all attention.

‘So we have, my dear fellow. Only it has not been seen by any of us since my grandfather’s time. It is the desire of my life to become personally acquainted with our family ghost.’

Armitage laughed. But Lawley said, ‘You would not say that if you really believed in ghosts.’

‘I believe in them most devoutly, but I naturally wish to have my faith confirmed by sight. You believe in them too, I can see.’

‘Then you see what does not exist, and so far you are in a fair way to see ghosts. No, my state of mind is this,’ continued Lawley, ‘I neither believe, nor entirely disbelieve in ghosts. I am open to conviction on the subject. Many men of sound judgement believe in them. I merely regard the case of the bogies as not proven. They may or may not exist, but till their existence is plainly demonstrated, I decline to add such an uncomfortable article to my creed as belief in bogies.’

Musgrave did not reply, but Armitage laughed a strident laugh.

‘I’m one against two, I’m in an overwhelming minority,’ he said. ‘Musgrave frankly confesses his belief in ghosts, and you are neutral, neither believing nor disbelieving, but open to conviction. Now I’m a complete unbeliever in the supernatural, root and branch. People’s nerves no doubt play them queer tricks, and will continue to do so to the end of the chapter, and if I were so fortunate as to see Musgrave’s family ghost tonight, I should no more believe in it than I do now. By the way, Musgrave, is the ghost a lady or a gentleman?’ he asked flippantly.

‘I don’t think you deserve to be told.’

‘Don’t you know that a ghost is neither he nor she?’ said Lawley, ‘Like a corpse, it is always it.’

‘That is a piece of very definite information from a man who neither believes nor disbelieves in ghosts. How do you come by it, Lawley?’ asked Armitage.

‘Mayn’t a man be well informed on a subject although he suspends his judgement about it? I think I have the only logical mind among us. Musgrave believes in ghosts though he has never seen one, you don’t believe in them, and say that you would not be convinced if you saw one, which is not wise, it seems to me.’

‘It is not necessary to my peace of mind to have a definite opinion on the subject. After all, it is only a matter of patience, for if ghosts really exist we shall each be one in the course of time, and then, if we’ve nothing better to do, and are allowed to play such unworthy pranks, we may appear again on the scene, and impartially scare our credulous and incredulous surviving friends.’

‘Then I shall try to be beforehand with you, Lawley, and turn bogie first; it would suit me better to scare than to be scared. But, Musgrave, do tell me about your family ghost; I’m really interested in it, and I’m quite respectful now.’

‘Well, mind you are, and I shall have no objection to tell you what I know about it, which is briefly this: Stonecroft, as I told you, is built on the site of an old Cistercian Monastery destroyed at the time of the Reformation. The back part of the house rests on the old foundations, and its walls are built with the stones that were once part and parcel of the monastery. The ghost that has been seen by members of the Musgrave family for three centuries past, is that of a Cistercian monk, dressed in the white habit of his order. Who he was, or why he has haunted the scenes of his earthly life so long, there is no tradition to enlighten us. The ghost has usually been seen once or twice in each generation. But as I said, it has not visited us since my grandfather’s time, so, like a comet, it should be due again presently.’

‘How you must regret that was before your time,’ said Armitage.

‘Of course I do, but I don’t despair of seeing it yet. At least I know where to look for it. It has always made its appearance in the gallery, and I have my bedroom close to the spot where it was last seen, in the hope that if I open my door suddenly some moonlight night I may find the monk standing there.’

‘Standing where?’ asked the incredulous Armitage.

‘In the gallery, to be sure, midway between your two doors and mine, That is where my grandfather last saw it. He was waked in the dead of night by the sound of a heavy door shutting. He ran into the gallery where the noise came from, and, standing opposite the door of the room I occupy, was the white figure of the Cistercian monk. As he looked, it glided the length of the gallery and melted like mist into the wall. The spot where he disappeared is on the old foundations of the monastery, so that he was evidently returning to his own quarters.’

‘And your grandfather believed that he saw a ghost?’ asked Armitage disdainfully.

‘Could he doubt the evidence of his senses? He saw the thing as clearly as we see each other now, and it disappeared like a thin vapour against the wall.’

‘My dear fellow, don’t you think that it sounds more like an anecdote of your grandmother than of your grandfather?’ remarked Armitage. He did not intend to be rude, though he succeeded in being so, as he was instantly aware by the expression of cold reserve that came over Musgrave’s frank face.

‘Forgive me, but I never can take a ghost story seriously,’ he said. ‘But this much I will concede – they may have existed long ago in what were literally the dark ages, when rushlights and spluttering dip candles could not keep the shadows at bay. But in this latter part of the nineteenth century, when gas and the electric light have turned night into day, you have destroyed the very conditions that produce the ghost – or rather the belief in it, which is the same thing. Darkness has always been bad for human nerves. I can’t explain why, but so it is. My mother was in advance of the age on the subject, and always insisted on having a good light burning in the night nursery, so that when as a child I woke from a bad dream I was never frightened by the darkness. And in consequence I have grown up a complete unbeliever in ghosts, spectres, wraiths, apparitions, doppelgänger, and the whole bogie crew of them,’ and Armitage looked round calmly and complacently.

‘Perhaps I might have felt as you do if I had not begun life with the knowledge that our house was haunted,’ replied Musgrave with visible pride in the ancestral ghost. ‘I only wish that I could convince you of the existence of the supernatural from my own personal experience. I always feel it to be the weak point in a ghost story, that it is never told in the first person. It is a friend, or a friend of one’s friend, who was the lucky man, and actually saw the ghosts.’ And Armitage registered registered a vow to himself, that within a week from that time Musgrave should see his family ghost with his own eyes, and ever after be able to speak with his enemy in the gate.

Several ingenious schemes occurred to his inventive mind for producing the desired apparition. But he had to keep them burning in his breast. Lawley was the last man to aid and abet him in playing a practical joke on their host, and he feared he should have to work without an ally. And hough he would have enjoyed his help and sympathy, it struck him that it would be a double triumph achieved, if both his friends should see the Cistercian monk. Musgrave already believed in ghosts, and was prepared to meet one more than half-way, and Lawley, though he pretended to a judicial and impartial mind concerning them, was not unwilling to be convinced of their existence, if it could be visibly demonstrated to him.

Armitage became more cheerful than usual as circumstances favoured his impious plot. The weather was propitious for the attempt he meditated, as the moon rose late and was approaching the full. On consulting the almanac he saw with delight that three nights hence she would rise at 2 a.m., and an hour later the end of the gallery nearest Musgrave’s room would be flooded with her light. Though Armitage could not have an accomplice under the roof, he needed one within reach, who could use needle and thread, to run up a specious imitation of the white robe and hood of a Cistercian monk. And the next day, when they went to the Harradines to take the girls out in their improvised sledges, it fell to his lot to take charge of the youngest Miss Harradine. As he pushed the low chair on runners over the hard snow, nothing was easier than to bend forward and whisper to Kate, ‘I am going to take you as fast as I can, so that no-one can hear what we are saying. I want you to be very kind, and help me to play a perfectly harmless practical joke on Musgrave. Will you promise to keep my secret for a couple of days, when we shall all enjoy a laugh over it together?’

‘Oh yes, I’ll help you with pleasure, but make haste and tell me what your practical joke is to be.’

‘I want to play ancestral ghost to Musgrave, and make him believe that he has seen the Cistercian monk in his white robe and cowl, that was last seen by his respected credulous grandpapa.’

‘What a good idea! I know he is always longing to see the ghost, and takes it as a personal affront that it has never appeared to him. But might it not startle him more than you intend?’ and Kate turned her glowing face towards him, and Armitage involuntarily stopped the little sledge, ‘for it is one thing to wish to see a ghost, you know, and quite another to think that you see it.’

‘Oh, you need not fear for Musgrave! We shall be conferring a positive favour on him, in helping hi to see what he’s so wishful to see. I’m arranging it so that Lawley shall have the benefit of the show as well, and see the ghost at the same time with him. And if two strong men are not a match for one bogie, leave alone a home-made counterfeit one, it’s a pity.’

‘Well, if you think it’s a safe trick to play, no doubt you are right. But how can I help you? With the monk’s habit, I suppose?’

‘Exactly. I shall be so grateful to you if you will run up some sort of garment, that will look passably like a white Cistercian habit to a couple of men, who I don’t think will be in a critical frame of mind during the short time they are allowed to see it. I really wouldn’t trouble you if I were anything of a sempster (is that the masculine of sempstress?) myself, but I’m not. A thimble bothers me very much, and at college, when I have to sew on a button, I push the needle through on one side with a threepenny bit, and pull it out on the other with my teeth, and it’s a laborious process.’

Kate laughed merrily. ‘Oh, I can easily make something or other out of a white dressing-gown, fit for a ghost to wear, and fasten a hood to it.’

Armitage then told her the details of his deeply-laid scheme, how he would go to his room when Musgrave and Lawley went to theirs on the eventful night, and sit up till he was sure that they were fast asleep. Then when the moon had risen, and if her light was obscured by clouds he would be obliged to postpone the entertainment till he could be sure of her aid, he would dress himself as the ghostly monk, put out the candles, softly open the door, and look into the gallery to see that all was ready. ‘Then I shall slam the door with an awful bang, for that was the noise that heralded the ghost’s last appearance, and it will wake Musgrave and Lawley, and bring them both out of their rooms like a shot. Lawley’s door is next to mine, and Musgrave’s opposite, so that each will command a magnificent view of the monk at the same instant, and they can compare notes afterwards at their leisure.’

‘But what shall you do if they find you out at once?’

‘Oh, they won’t do that! The cowl will be drawn over my face, and I shall stand with my back to the moonlight. My private belief is, that in spite of Musgrave’s yearnings after a ghost, he won’t like it when he thinks he sees it. Nor will Lawley, and I expect they’ll dart back into their rooms and lock themselves in as soon as they catch sight of the monk. That would give me time to whip back into my room, turn the key, strip off my finery, hide it, and be roused with difficulty from a deep sleep when they come knocking at my door to tell me what a horrible thing has happened. And one more ghost story will be added to those already in circulation,’ and Armitage laughed aloud in anticipation of the fun.

‘It is to be hoped that everything will happen just as you have planned it, and then we shall all be pleased. And now will you turn the sledge round and let us join the others, we have done conspiring for the present. If we are seen talking so exclusively to each other, they will suspect that we are brewing some mischief together. Oh, how cold the wind is! I like to hear it whistle in my hair!’ said Kate as Armitage deftly swung the little sledge round and drove it quickly before him, facing the keen north wind, as she buried her chin in her warm furs.

Armitage found an opportunity to arrange with Kate, that he would meet her half-way between Stonecroft and her home, on the afternoon of the next day but one, when she would give him a parcel containing the monk’s habit. The Harradines and their house party were coming on Thursday afternoon to try the toboggan slide at Stonecroft. But Kate and Armitage were willing to sacrifice their pleasure to the business they had in hand.

There was no other way but for the conspirators to give their friends the slip for a couple of hours, when the important parcel would be safely given to Armitage, secretly conveyed by him to his own room, and locked up till he should want it in the small hours of the morning.

When the young people arrived at Stonecroft Miss Harradine apologised for her younger sister’s absence – occasioned, she said, by a severe headache. Armitage’s heart beat rapidly when he heard the excuse, and he thought how convenient it was for the inscrutable sex to be able to turn on a headache at will, as one turns on hot or cold water from a tap.

After luncheon, as there were more gentlemen than ladies, and Armitage’s services were not necessary at the toboggan slide, he elected to take the dogs for a walk, and set off in the gayest spirits to keep his appointment with Kate. Much as he enjoyed maturing his ghost plot, he enjoyed still more the confidential talks with Kate that had sprung out of it, and he was sorry that this was to be the last of them. But the moon in heaven could not be stayed for the performance of his little comedy, and her light was necessary to its due performance. The ghost must be seen at three o’clock next morning, at the time and place arranged, when the proper illumination for its display would be forthcoming.

As Armitage walked swiftly over the hard snow, he caught sight of Kate at a distance. She waved her hand gaily and pointed smiling to the rather large parcel she was carrying. The red glow of the winter sun shone full upon her, bringing out the warm tints in her chestnut hair, and filling her brown eyes with soft lustre, and Armitage looked at her with undisguised admiration.

‘It’s awfully good of you to help me so kindly,’ he said as he took the parcel from her, ‘and I shall come round tomorrow to tell you the result of our practical joke. But how is the headache?’ he asked smiling, ‘you look so unlike aches or pains of any kind, I was forgetting to enquire about it.’

‘Thank you, it is better. It was not altogether a made-up headache, though it happened opportunely. I was awake in the night, not in the least repenting that I was helping you, of course, but wishing it was all well over. One has heard of this kind of trick sometimes proving too successful, of people being frightened out of their wits by a make-believe ghost, and I should never forgive myself if Mr Musgrave or Mr Lawley were seriously alarmed.’

‘Really, Miss Harradine, I don’t think that you need give yourself a moment’s anxiety about the nerves of a couple of burley young men. If you are afraid for anyone, let it be for me. If they find me out, they will fall upon me and rend me limb from limb on the spot. I can assure you I am the only one for whom there is anything to fear,’ and the transient gravity passed like a cloud from Kate’s bright face. And she admitted that it was rather absurd to be uneasy about two stalwart young men compounded more of muscle than of nerves. And they parted, Kate hastening home as the early twilight fell, and Armitage, after watching her out of sight, retracing his steps with the precious parcel under his arm.

He entered the house unobserved, and reaching the gallery by a back staircase, felt his way in the dark to his room. He deposited his treasure in the wardrobe, locked it up, and attracted by the sound of laughter, ran downstairs to the drawing-room. Will Musgrave and his friends, after a couple of hours of glowing exercise, had been driven indoors by the darkness, nothing loath to partake of tea and hot cakes, while they talked and laughed over the adventures of the afternoon.

‘Wherever have you been, old fellow?’ said Musgrave as Armitage entered the room. ‘I believe you’ve a private toboggan of your own somewhere that you keep quiet. If only the moon rose at a decent time, instead of some unearthly hour in the night, when it’s not of the slightest use to anyone, we would have gone out looking for you.’

‘You wouldn’t have had far to seek, you’d have met me on the turnpike road.’

‘But why this subdued and chastened taste? Imagine preferring a constitutional on the high road when you might have been tobogganing with us! My poor friend, I’m afraid you are not feeling well!’ said Musgrave with an affectation of sympathy that ended in boyish laughter and a wrestling match between the two young men, in the course of which Lawley more than once saved the tea table from being violently overthrown.

Presently, when the cakes and toast had disappeared before the youthful appetites, lanterns were lighted, and Musgrave and his friends, and the Harradine brothers, set out as a bodyguard to take the young ladies home. Armitage was in riotous spirits, and finding that Musgrave and Lawley had appropriated the two prettiest girls in the company, waltzed untrammelled along the road before them lantern in hand, like a very will-o’-the-wisp.

The young people did not part till they had planned fresh pleasures for the morrow, and Musgrave, Lawley, and Armitage returned to Stonecroft to dinner, making the thin air ring to the jovial songs with which they beguiled the homeward journey.

Late in the evening, when the young men were sitting in the library, Musgrave suddenly exclaimed, as he reached down a book from an upper shelf, ‘Hallo! I’ve come on my grandfather’s diary! Here’s his own account of how he saw the white monk in the gallery. Lawley, you may read it if you like, but it shan’t be wasted on an unbeliever like Armitage. By Jove! what an odd coincidence! It’s forty years this very night, the thirtieth of December, since he saw the ghost,’ and he handed the book to Lawley, who read Mr Musgrave’s narrative with close attention.

‘Is it a case of “almost thou persuadest me”?’ asked Armitage, looking at his intent and knitted brow.

‘I hardly know what to think. Nothing positive either way at any rate.’ And he dropped the subject, for he saw Musgrave did not wish to discuss the family ghost in Armitage’s unsympathetic presence.

They retired late, and the hour that Armitage had so gleefully anticipated drew near. ‘Good night both of you,’ said Musgrave as he entered his room, ‘I shall be asleep in five minutes. All this exercise in the open air makes a man absurdly sleep at night,’ and the young men closed their doors, and silence settled down upon Stonecoft Hall. Armitage and Lawley’s rooms were next to each other, and in less than a quarter of an hour Lawley shouted a cheery goodnight, which was loudly returned by his friend. Then Armitage felt somewhat mean and stealthy. Musgrave and Lawley were both confidently asleep, while he sat up alert and vigilant maturing a mischievous plot that had for its object the awakening and scaring of both the innocent sleepers. He dared not smoke to pass the tedious time, lest the tell-tale fumes should penetrate into the next room through the keyhole, and inform Lawley if he woke for an instant that his friend was awake too, and behaving as though it were high noon.

Armitage spread the monk’s white habit on the bed, and smiled as he touched it to think that Kate’s pretty fingers had been so recently at work upon it. He need not put it on for a couple of hours yet, and to occupy the time he sat down to write. He would have liked to take a nap. But he knew that if he once yielded to sleep, nothing would wake him till he was called at eight o’clock in the morning. As he bent over his desk the big clock in the hall struck one, so suddenly and sharply it was like a blow on the head, and he started violently. ‘What a swinish sleep Lawley must be in that he can’t hear a noise like that!’ he thought, as snoring became audible from the next room. Then he drew the candles nearer to him, and settled once more to his writing, and a pile of letters testified to his industry, when again the clock struck. But this time he expected it, and it did not startle him, only the cold made him shiver. ‘If I hadn’t made up my mind to go through with this confounded piece folly, I’d go to bed now,’ he thought, ‘but I can’t break faith with Kate. She’s made the robe and I’ve got to wear it, worse luck,’ and with a great yawn he threw down his pen, and rose to look out of the window. It was a clear frosty night. At the edge of the dark sky, sprinkled with stars, a faint band of cold light heralded the rising moon. How different from the grey light of dawn, that ushers in the cheerful day, is the solemn rising of the moon in the depth of a winter night. Her light is not to rouse a sleeping world and lead men forth to their labour, it falls on the closed eyes of the weary, and silvers the graves of those whose rest shall be broken no more. Armitage was not easily impressed by the sombre aspect of nature, though he was quick to feel her gay and cheerful influence, but he would be glad when the farce was over, and he no longer obliged to watch the rise and spread of the pale light. solemn as the dawn of the last day.

He turned from the window, and proceeded to make himself into the best imitation of a Cistercian monk that he could contrive. He slipt the white habit over all his clothing, that he might seem of portly size, and marked dark circles round his eyes, and thickly powdered his face a ghostly white.

Armitage silently laughed at his reflection in the glass, and wished that Kate could see him now. Then he softly opened the door and looked into the gallery. The moonlight was shimmering duskily on the end window to the right of his door and Lawley’s. It would soon be where he wanted it, and neither too light nor too dark for the success of his plan. He stepped silently back again to wait, and a feeling as much akin to nervousness as he had ever known came over him. His heart beat rapidly, he started like a timid girl when the silence was suddenly broken by the hooting of an owl. He no longer cared to look at himself in the glass. He had taken fright at the mortal pallor of his powdered face. ‘Hang it all! I wish Lawley hadn’t left off snoring. It was quite companionable to hear him.’ And again he looked into the gallery, and now the moon shed her cold beams where he intended to stand. He put out the light and opened the door wide, and stepping into the gallery threw it to with an echoing slam that only caused Musgrave and Lawley to start and turn on their pillows. Armitage stood dressed as the ghostly monk of Stonecroft, in the pale moonlight in the middle of the gallery, waiting for the door on either side to fly open and reveal the terrified faces of his friends.

He had time to curse the ill-luck that made them sleep so heavily that night of all nights, and to fear lest the servants had heard the noise their master had been deaf to, and would come hurrying to the spot and spoil the sport. But no-one came, and as Armitage stood, the objects in the long gallery became clearer every moment, as his sight accommodated itself to the dim light. ‘I never noticed before that there was a mirror at the end of the gallery! I should not have believed the moonlight was bright enough for me to see my own reflection so far off, only white stands out so in the dark. But is it my own reflection? Confound it all, the thing’s moving and I’m standing still! I know what it is! It’s Musgrave dressed up to try to give me a fright, and Lawley’s helping him. They’ve forestalled me, that’s why they didn’t come out of their rooms when I made a noise fit to wake the dead. Odd we’re both playing the same practical joke at the same moment! Come on, my counterfeit bogie, and we’ll see which of us turns white-livered first!’

But to Armitage’s surprise, that rapidly became terror, the white figure that he believed to be Musgrave disguised, and like himself playing ghost, advanced towards him, slowly gliding over the floor which its feet did not touch. Armitage’s courage was high, and he determined to hold his ground against the something ingeniously contrived by Musgrave and Lawley to terrify him into belief in the supernatural. But a feeling was creeping over the strong young man that he had never known before. He opened his dry mouth as the thing floated towards him, and there issued a hoarse inarticulate cry, that woke Musgrave and Lawley and brought them to their doors in a moment, not knowing by what strange fright they had been startled out of their sleep. Do not think them cowards that they shrank back appalled from the ghostly forms the moonlight revealed to them in the gallery. But as Armitage vehemently repelled the horror that drifted nearer and nearer to him, the cowl slipped from his head, and his friends recognised his white face, distorted by fear and, springing towards him as he staggered, supported him in their arms. The Cistercian monk passed them like a white mist that sank into the wall, and Musgrave and Lawley were alone with the dead body of their friend, whose masquerading dress had become his shroud.

A Christmas Ghost

Christmas Ghost Stories: Smee, by A.M. Burrage

I’ve always wanted to be invited to a big, rambling, haunted, rich (important, for the upkeep. I am very expensive to keep up) English country house for Christmas holidays. Since I don’t actually, you know, live in England, or know many English people and only one that had a house anywhere approaching my requirements, I shall probably end up having to purchase my own.

Hope the cheque clears. Christmas is a time of miracles, isn’t it?

Anyhoodle, in the spirit of grand English country estates and grand English country house parties, here’s a grand example: Smee, by A. M. Burrage, one of the most goosepimpling of stories, and a classic example of the scorpion sting in the tail. At first, it’s all jolly yuletide and hail wassail, but then a hint, just a hint, of something unfresh seeps in. It grows and grows, while you’re still not sure it is any Thing at all. And then…ah, but that would be telling! You’ll never play hide and seek again without thinking about this story, I’d lay odds on it.

Enjoy one of the most famous of all Christmas ghost stories, a good old-fashioned country house creeper!


Smee
by A.M. Burrage

A Christmas Ghost

A Christmas Ghost

No,’ said Jackson with a shy little smile. `I’m sorry. I won’t play hide and seek.’

It was Christmas Eve, and there were fourteen of us in the house. We had had a good dinner, and we were all in the mood for fun and games – all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide and seek, there were loud shouts of agreement. Jackson’s refusal was the only one.

It was not like Jackson to refuse to play a game. `Aren’t you feeling well?’ someone asked.

`I’m perfectly all right, thank you,’ he said. `But,’ he added with a smile that softened his refusal but did not change it, `I’m still not playing hide and seek.’

`Why not?’ someone asked. He hesitated for a moment before replying.

`I sometimes go and stay at a house where a girl was killed. She was playing hide and seek in the dark. She didn’t know the house very well. There was a door that led to the servants’ staircase. When she was chased, she thought the door led to a bedroom. She opened the door and jumped – and landed at the bottom of the stairs. She broke her neck, of course.’

We all looked serious. Mrs Fernley said, `How terrible! And were you there when it happened?’

Jackson shook his head sadly. `No,’ he said, `but I was there when something else happened. Something worse.’

`What could be worse than that?’

`This was,’ said Jackson. He hesitated for a moment, then he said, `I wonder if any of you have ever played a game called “Smee”. It’s much better than hide and seek. The name comes from “It’s me”, of course. Perhaps you’d like to play it instead of hide and seek. Let me tell you the rules of the game.

`Every player is given a sheet of paper. All the sheets except one are blank. On the last sheet of paper is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who “Smee” is except “Smee” himself – or herself. You turn out the lights, and “Smee” goes quietly out of the room and hides. After a time the others go off to search for “Smee” – but of course they don’t know who they are looking for. When one player meets another he challenges him by saying, “Smee”. The other player answers “Smee”, and they continue searching.

`But the real “Smee” doesn’t answer when someone challenges. The second player stays quietly beside him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player. He will challenge and receive no answer, and he will join the first two. This goes on until all the players are in the same place. The last one to find “Smee” has to pay a forfeit. It’s a good, noisy, amusing game. In a big house it often takes a long time for everyone to find “Smee”. Perhaps you’d like to try. I’ll happily pay my forfeit and sit here by the fire while you play.’

`It sounds a good game,’ I remarked. `Have you played it too, Jackson?’

`Yes,’ he answered. `I played it in the house that I was telling you about.’

`And she was there? The girl who broke – .’

`No, no,’ said someone else. `He told us he wasn’t there when she broke her neck.’

Jackson thought for a moment. `I don’t know if she was there or not. I’m afraid she was. I know that there were thirteen of us playing the game, and there were only twelve people in the house. And I didn’t know the dead girl’s name. When I heard that whispered name in the dark, it didn’t worry me. But I tell you, I’m never going to play that kind of game again. It made me quite nervous for a long time.

I prefer to pay my forfeit at once!’

We all stared at him. His words did not make sense at all.

Tim Vouce was the kindest man in the world. He smiled at us all.

`This sounds like an interesting story,’ he said. `Come on, Jackson, you can tell it to us instead of paying a forfeit.’

`Very well,’ said Jackson. And here is his story.

Have you met the Sangstons? They are cousins of mine, and they live in Surrey. Five years ago they invited me to go and spend Christmas with them.
It was an old house, with lots of unnecessary passages and staircases. A stranger could get lost in it quite easily.

Well, I went down for that Christmas. Violet Sangston promised me that I knew most of the other guests. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get away from my job until Christmas Eve. All the other guests had arrived there the previous day. I was the last to arrive, and I was only just in time for dinner. I said `Hullo’ to everyone I knew, and Violet Sangston introduced me to the people I didn’t know. Then it was time to go in to dinner.

That is perhaps why I didn’t hear the name of a tall, darkhaired handsome girl whom I hadn’t met before. Everyone was in rather a hurry and I am always bad at catching people’s names. She looked cold and clever. She didn’t look at all friendly, but she looked interesting, and I wondered who she was. I didn’t ask, because I was sure that someone would speak to her by name during the meal. Unluckily, however, I was a long way from her at table. I was sitting next to Mrs Gorman, and as usual Mrs Gorman was being very bright and amusing. Her conversation is always worth listening to, and I completely forgot to ask the name of the dark, proud girl.

There were twelve of us, including the Sangstons themselves. We were all young – or trying to be young. Jack and Violet Sangston were the oldest, and their seventeen-yearold son Reggie was the youngest. It was Reggie who suggested `Smee’ when the talk turned to games. He told us the rules of the game, just as I’ve described them to you. Jack Sangston warned us all. `If you are going to play games in the dark,’ he said, `please be careful of the back stairs on the first floor. A door leads to them, and I’ve often thought about taking the door off. In the dark a stranger to the house could think they were walking into a room. A girl really did break her neck on those stairs.’

I asked how it happened.

`It was about ten years ago, before we came here. There was a party and they were playing hide and seek. This girl was looking for somewhere to hide. She heard somebody coming, and ran along the passage to get away. She opened the door, thinking it led to a bedroom. She planned to hide in there until the seeker had gone. Unfortunately it was the door that led to the back stairs. She fell straight down to the bottom of the stairs. She was dead when they picked her up.’

We all promised to be careful. Mrs Gorman even made a little joke about living to be ninety. You see, none of us had known the poor girl, and we did not want to feel sad on Christmas Eve.

Well, we all started the game immediately after dinner. Young Reggie Sangston went round making sure all the lights were off, except the ones in the servants’ rooms and in the sitting-room where we were. We then prepared twelve sheets of paper. Eleven of them were blank, and one of them had `Smee’ written on it. Reggie mixed them all up, then we each took one.

The person who got the paper with `Smee’ on it had to hide. I looked at mine and saw that it was blank. A moment later, all the electric lights went out. In the darkness I heard someone moving very quietly to the door.

After a minute somebody blew a whistle, and we all rushed to the door. I had no idea who was `Smee’. For five or ten minutes we were all rushing up and down passages and in and out of rooms, challenging each other and answering, `Smee? – Smee!’ .

After a while, the noise died down, and I guessed that someone had found `Smee’. After a time I found a group of people all sitting on some narrow stairs. I challenged, and received no answer. So `Smee’ was there. I hurriedly joined the group. Presently two more players arrived. Each one was hurrying to avoid being last. Jack Sangston was last, and was given a forfeit.

`I think we’re all here now, aren’t we?’ he remarked. He lit a match, looked up the staircase and began to count.

. . . Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen,’ he said, and then laughed. `That’s silly – there’s one too many!’

The match went out, and he lit another and began to count. He got as far as twelve, then he looked puzzled.

`There are thirteen people here!’ he said. `I haven’t counted myself yet.’

`Oh, nonsense!’ I laughed. `You probably began with yourself, and now you want to count yourself twice.’

His son took out his electric torch. It gave a better light than the matches, and we all began to count. Of course there were twelve of us. Jack laughed. `Well,’ he said, `I was sure I counted thirteen twice.’

From half way up the stairs Violet Sangston spoke nervously. `I thought there was somebody sitting two steps above me. Have you moved, Captain Ransome?’
The captain said that he hadn’t. `But I thought there was somebody sitting between Mrs Sangston and me.’

Just for a moment there was an uncomfortable something in the air. A cold finger seemed to touch us all. For that moment we all felt that something odd and unpleasant had just happened – and was likely to happen again. Then we laughed at ourselves, and at each other, and we felt normal again. There were only twelve of us, and that was that. Still laughing, we marched back to the sitting-room to begin again.

This time I was `Smee’. Violet Sangston found me while I was searching for a hiding-place. That game didn’t last long. Soon there were twelve people and the game was over. Violet felt cold, and wanted her jacket. Her husband went up to their bedroom to fetch it. As soon as he’d gone, Reggie touched me on the arm. He was looking pale and sick. `Quick!’ he whispered, `I’ve got to talk to you. Something horrible has happened.’

We went into the breakfast-room. `What’s the matter?’ I asked.

`I don’t know. You were “Smee” last time, weren’t you? Well, of course I didn’t know who “Smee” was. While Mother and the others ran to the west side of the house and found you, I went east. There’s a deep clothes cupboard in my bedroom. It looked like a good hiding-place. I thought that perhaps “Smee” might be there. I opened the door in the dark – and touched somebody’s hand. “Smee?” I whispered. There was no answer. I thought I’d found “Smee”.

`Well, I don’t understand it, but I suddenly had a strange, cold feeling. I can’t describe it, but I felt that something was wrong. So I turned on my electric torch and there was nobody there.

Now, I am sure I touched a hand. And nobody could get out of the cupboard, because I was standing in the doorway. What do you think?’

`You imagined that you touched a hand,’ I said.

He gave a short laugh. `I knew you would say that,’ he said. `Of course I imagined it. That’s the only explanation, isn’t it?’

I agreed with him. I could see that he still felt shaken. Together we returned to the sitting-room for another game of `Smee’. The others were all ready and waiting to start again.

Perhaps it was my imagination (although I’m almost sure that it was not). But I had a feeling that nobody was really enjoying the game any more. But everyone was too polite to mention it. All the same, I had the feeling that something was wrong. All the fun had gone out of the game. Something deep inside me was trying to warn me. `Take care,’ it whispered. `Take care’. There was some unnatural, unhealthy influence at work in the house. Why did I have this feeling? Because Jack Sangston had counted thirteen people instead of twelve? Because his son imagined he had touched someone’s hand in an empty cupboard? I tried to laugh at myself, but I did not succeed.

Well, we started again. While we were all chasing the unknown `Smee’ we were all as noisy as ever. But it seemed to me that most of us were just acting. We were no longer enjoying the game. At first I stayed with the others. But for several minutes no `Smee’ was found. I left the main group and started searching on the first floor at the west side of the house. And there, while I was feeling my way along, I bumped into a pair of human knees.

I put out my hand and touched a soft, heavy curtain. Then I knew where I was. There were tall, deep windows with window-seats at the end of the passage. The curtains reached to the ground. Somebody was sitting in a corner of one of the window-seats, behind a curtain.
`Aha!’ I thought, `I’ve caught “Smee”!’ So I pulled the curtain to one side – and touched a woman’s arm.

It was a dark, moonless night outside. I couldn’t see the woman sitting in the corner of the window-seat.

`Smee?’ I whispered.

There was no answer. When `Smee’ is challenged, he – or she – does not answer. So I sat down beside her to wait for the others. Then I whispered, `What’s your name?’

And out of the darkness beside me the whisper came: `Brenda Ford’.

I did not know the name, but I guessed at once who she was. I knew every girl in the house by name except one. And that was the tall, pale, dark girl. So here she was sitting beside me on the window-seat, shut in between a heavy curtain and a window. I was beginning to enjoy the game. I wondered if she was enjoying it too. I whispered one or two rather ordinary questions to her, and received no answer.

`Smee’ is a game of silence. It is a rule of the game that `Smee’ and the person or persons who have found `Smee’ have to keep quiet. This, of course, makes it harder for the others to find them. But there was nobody else about. I wondered, therefore, why she was insisting on silence. I spoke again and got no answer. I began to feel a little annoyed. `Perhaps she is one of those cold, clever girls who have a poor opinion of all men,’ I thought. `She doesn’t like me, and she is using the rules of the game as an excuse for not speaking. Well, if she doesn’t like sitting here with me, I certainly don’t want to sit with her!’ I turned away from her.

`I hope someone finds us soon,’ I thought.

As I sat there, I realized that I disliked sitting beside this girl very much indeed. That was strange. The girl I had seen at dinner had seemed likeable in a cold kind of way. I noticed her and wanted to know more about her. But now I felt really uncomfortable beside her. The feeling of something wrong, something unnatural, was growing. I remembered touching her arm, and I trembled with horror. I wanted to jump up and run away. I prayed that someone else would come along soon.

Just then I heard light footsteps in the passage. Somebody on the other side of the curtain brushed against my knees. The curtain moved to one side, and a woman’s hand touched my shoulder. `Smee?’ whispered a voice that I recognized at once. It was Mrs Gorman. Of course she received no answer. She came and sat down beside me, and at once I felt very much better.

`It’s Tony Jackson, isn’t it?’ she whispered.

`Yes,’ I whispered back.

`You’re not “Smee”, are you?’

`No, she’s on my other side.’

She reached out across me. I heard her finger-nails scratch a woman’s silk dress.

`Hullo, “Smee”. How are you? Who are you? Oh, is it against the rules to talk? Never mind, Tony, we’ll break the rules. Do you know, Tony, this game is beginning to annoy me a little. I hope they aren’t going to play it all evening. I’d like to play a nice quiet game, all together beside a warm fire.’

`Me too,’ I agreed.

`Can’t you suggest something to them? There’s something rather unhealthy about this particular game. I’m sure I’m being very silly. But I can’t get rid of the idea that we’ve got an extra player . . . somebody who ought not to be here at all.’

That was exactly how I felt, but I didn’t say so. However, I felt very much better. Mrs Gorman’s arrival had chased away my fears. We sat talking. `I wonder when the others will find us?’ said Mrs Gorman.

After a time we heard the sound of feet, and young Reggie’s voice shouting, `Hullo, hullo! Is anybody there?’

`Yes,’ I answered.

`Is Mrs Gorman with you?’

`Yes.’

`What happened to you? You’ve both got forfeits. We’ve all been waiting for you for hours.’

`But you haven’t found “Smee” yet,’ I complained. ‘

`You haven’t, you mean. I was “Smee” this time.’

`But “Smee” is here with us!’ I cried.

`Yes,’ agreed Mrs Gorman.

The curtain was pulled back and we sat looking into the eye of Reggie’s electric torch. I looked at Mrs Gorman, and then on my other side. Between me and the wall was an empty place on the window-seat. I stood up at once. Then I sat down again. I was feeling very sick and the world seemed to be going round and round.

`There was somebody there,’ I insisted, `because I touched her.’

`So did I,’ said Mrs Gorman, in a trembling voice. `And I don’t think anyone could leave this window-seat without us knowing.’

Reggie gave a shaky little laugh. I remembered his unpleasant experience earlier that evening. `Someone’s been playing jokes,’ he said. `Are you coming down?’

We were not very popular when we came down to the sitting-room.

`I found the two of them sitting behind a curtain, on a window-seat,’ said Reggie.

I went up to the tall, dark girl.

`So you pretended to be “Smee”, and then went away!’ I accused her.

She shook her head. Afterwards we all played cards in the sitting-room, and I was very glad.

Some time later, Jack Sangston wanted to talk to me. I could see that he was rather cross with me, and soon he told me the reason.

`Tony,’ he said, `I suppose you are in love with Mrs Gorman. That’s your business, but please don’t make love to her in my house, during a game. You kept everyone waiting. It was very rude of you, and I’m ashamed of you.’

`But we were not alone!’ I protested. `There was somebody else there – somebody who was pretending to be “Smee”. I believe it was that tall, dark girl, Miss Ford. She whispered her name to me. Of course, she refused to admit it afterwards.’

Jack Sangston stared at me. `Miss who?’ he breathed.

`Brenda Ford, she said.’

Jack put a hand on my shoulder. `Look here, Tony,’ he said, `I don’t mind a joke, but enough is enough. We don’t want to worry the ladies. Brenda Ford is the name of the girl who broke her neck on the stairs. She was playing hide and seek here ten years ago.’

Markheim, in portrait by the incomparable Lynd Ward

Christmas Ghost Stories: Markheim, by Robert Louis Stephenson

Sorry I missed yesterday: was doing taxes and so engrossed, I plain forgot. You know how that goes; nothing as fascinating as doing back taxes! So we’ve dug out a particularly complex and artful example of the Christmas Ghost Story, Markheim by Robert Louis Stephenson by way of apology.

Stephenson’s wife considered this, the original exploration of the ideas in Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, to be far superior to the latter, more famous psychological study. I think she’s right, too. Decide for yourself.

Scant on spooks, this story is loaded with punches to the gut, the kind that keep you up at night thinking. So, think about this:


Markheim
by Robert Louis Stephenson

Markheim, in portrait by the incomparable Lynd Ward

Markheim, in portrait by the incomparable Lynd Ward

“Yes,” said the dealer, “our windfalls are of various kinds. Some customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend on my superior knowledge. Some are dishonest,” and here he held up the candle, so that the light fell strongly on his visitor, “and in that case,” he continued, “I profit by my virtue.”

Markheim had but just entered from the daylight streets, and his eyes had not yet grown familiar with the mingled shine and darkness in the shop. At these pointed words, and before the near presence of the flame, he blinked painfully and looked aside.

The dealer chuckled. “You come to me on Christmas Day,” he resumed, “when you know that I am alone in my house, put up my shutters, and make a point of refusing business. Well, you will have to pay for that; you will have to pay for my loss of time, when I should be balancing my books; you will have to pay, besides, for a kind of manner that I remark in you to-day very strongly. I am the essence of discretion, and ask no awkward questions; but when a customer cannot look me in the eye, he has to pay for it.” The dealer once more chuckled; and then, changing to his usual business voice, though still with a note of irony, “You can give, as usual, a clear account of how you came into the possession of the object?” he continued. “Still your uncle’s cabinet? A remarkable collector, sir!”

And the little pale, round-shouldered dealer stood almost on tip-toe, looking over the top of his gold spectacles, and nodding his head with every mark of disbelief. Markheim returned his gaze with one of infinite pity, and a touch of horror.

“This time,” said he, “you are in error. I have not come to sell, but to buy. I have no curios to dispose of; my uncle’s cabinet is bare to the wainscot; even were it still intact, I have done well on the Stock Exchange, and should more likely add to it than otherwise, and my errand to-day is simplicity itself. I seek a Christmas present for a lady,” he continued, waxing more fluent as he struck into the speech he had prepared; “and certainly I owe you every excuse for thus disturbing you upon so small a matter. But the thing was neglected yesterday; I must produce my little compliment at dinner; and, as you very well know, a rich marriage is not a thing to be neglected.”

     There followed a pause, during which the dealer seemed to weigh this statement incredulously. The ticking of many clocks among the curious lumber of the shop, and the faint rushing of the cabs in a near thoroughfare, filled up the interval of silence.

“Well, sir,” said the dealer, “be it so. You are an old customer after all; and if, as you say, you have the chance of a good marriage, far be it from me to be an obstacle. Here is a nice thing for a lady now,” he went on, “this hand glass – fifteenth century, warranted; comes from a good collection, too; but I reserve the name, in the interests of my customer, who was just like yourself, my dear sir, the nephew and sole heir of a remarkable collector.”

The dealer, while he thus ran on in his dry and biting voice, had stooped to take the object from its place; and, as he had done so, a shock had passed through Markheim, a start both of hand and foot, a sudden leap of many tumultuous passions to the face. It passed as swiftly as it came, and left no trace beyond a certain trembling of the hand that now received the glass.

“A glass,” he said hoarsely, and then paused, and repeated it more clearly. “A glass? For Christmas? Surely not?”

“And why not?” cried the dealer. “Why not a glass?”

Markheim was looking upon him with an indefinable expression. “You ask me why not?” he said. “Why, look here – look in it – look at yourself! Do you like to see it? No! nor – nor any man.”

The little man had jumped back when Markheim had so suddenly confronted him with the mirror; but now, perceiving there was nothing worse on hand, he chuckled. “Your future lady, sir, must be pretty hard favoured,” said he.

“I ask you,” said Markheim, “for a Christmas present, and you give me this – this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies – this hand-conscience! Did you mean it? Had you a thought in your mind? Tell me. It will be better for you if you do. Come, tell me about yourself. I hazard a guess now, that you are in secret a very charitable man?”

     The dealer looked closely at his companion. It was very odd, Markheim did not appear to be laughing; there was something in his face like an eager sparkle of hope, but nothing of mirth.

“What are you driving at?” the dealer asked.

“Not charitable?” returned the other gloomily. “Not charitable; not pious; not scrupulous; unloving, unbeloved; a hand to get money, a safe to keep it. Is that all? Dear God, man, is that all?”

“I will tell you what it is,” began the dealer, with some sharpness, and then broke off again into a chuckle. “But I see this is a love match of yours, and you have been drinking the lady’s health.”

“Ah!” cried Markheim, with a strange curiosity. “Ah, have you been in love? Tell me about that.”

“I,” cried the dealer. “I in love! I never had the time, nor have I the time today for all this nonsense. Will you take the glass?”

“Where is the hurry?” returned Markheim. “It is very pleasant to stand here talking; and life is so short and insecure that I would not hurry away from any pleasure – no, not even from so mild a one as this. We should rather cling, cling to what little we can get, like a man at a cliff’s edge. Every second is a cliff, if you think upon it – a cliff a mile high – high enough, if we fall, to dash us out of every feature of humanity. Hence it is best to talk pleasantly. Let us talk of each other: why should we wear this mask? Let us be confidential. Who knows, we might become friends?”

“I have just one word to say to you,” said the dealer. “Either make your purchase, or walk out of my shop!”

“True, true,” said Markheim. “Enough fooling. To business. Show me something else.”

The dealer stooped once more, this time to replace the glass upon the shelf, his thin blond hair falling over his eyes as he did so. Markheim moved a little nearer, with one hand in the pocket of his greatcoat; he drew himself up and filled his lungs; at the same time many different emotions were depicted together on his face – terror, horror, and resolve, fascination and a physical repulsion; and through a haggard lift of his upper lip, his teeth looked out.

     “This, perhaps, may suit,” observed the dealer: and then, as he began to re-arise, Markheim bounded from behind upon his victim. The long, skewerlike dagger flashed and fell. The dealer struggled like a hen, striking his temple on the shelf, and then tumbled on the floor in a heap.

Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age; others garrulous and hurried. All these told out the seconds in an intricate chorus of tickings. Then the passage of a lad’s feet, heavily running on the pavement, broke in upon these smaller voices and startled Markheim into the consciousness of his surroundings. He looked about him awfully. The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water. The inner door stood ajar, and peered into that leaguer of shadows with a long slit of daylight like a pointing finger.

From these fear-stricken rovings, Markheim’s eyes returned to the body of his victim, where it lay both humped and sprawling, incredibly small and strangely meaner than in life. In these poor, miserly clothes, in that ungainly attitude, the dealer lay like so much sawdust. Markheim had feared to see it, and, lo! it was nothing. And yet, as he gazed, this bundle of old clothes and pool of blood began to find eloquent voices. There it must lie; there was none to work the cunning hinges or direct the miracle of locomotion – there it must lie till it was found. Found! ay, and then? Then would this dead flesh lift up a cry that would ring over England, and fill the world with the echoes of pursuit. Ay, dead or not, this was still the enemy. “Time was that when the brains were out,” he thought; and the first word struck into his mind. Time, now that the deed was accomplished – time, which had closed for the victim, had become instant and momentous for the slayer.

     The thought was yet in his mind, when, first one and then another, with every variety of pace and voice – one deep as the bell from a cathedral turret, another ringing on its treble notes the prelude of a waltz – the clocks began to strike the hour of three in the afternoon.

The sudden outbreak of so many tongues in that dumb chamber staggered him. He began to bestir himself, going to and fro with the candle, beleaguered by moving shadows, and startled to the soul by chance reflections. In many rich mirrors, some of home designs, some from Venice or Amsterdam, he saw his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies; his own eyes met and detected him; and the sound of his own steps, lightly as they fell, vexed the surrounding quiet. And still, as he continued to fill his pockets, his mind accused him with a sickening iteration, of the thousand faults of his design. He should have chosen a more quiet hour; he should have prepared an alibi; he should not have used a knife; he should have been more cautious, and only bound and gagged the dealer, and not killed him; he should have been more bold, and killed the servant also; he should have done all things otherwise: poignant regrets, weary, incessant toiling of the mind to change what was unchangeable, to plan what was now useless, to be the architect of the irrevocable past. Meanwhile, and behind all this activity, brute terrors, like the scurrying of rats in a deserted attic, filled the more remote chambers of his brain with riot; the hand of the constable would fall heavy on his shoulder, and his nerves would jerk like a hooked fish; or he beheld, in galloping defile, the dock, the prison, the gallows, and the black coffin.

Terror of the people in the street sat down before his mind like a besieging army. It was impossible, he thought, but that some rumour of the struggle must have reached their ears and set on edge their curiosity; and now, in all the neighbouring houses, he divined them sitting motionless and with uplifted ear – solitary people, condemned to spend Christmas dwelling alone on memories of the past, and now startingly recalled from that tender exercise; happy family parties, struck into silence round the table, the mother still with raised finger: every degree and age and humour, but all, by their own hearths, prying and hearkening and weaving the rope that was to hang him. Sometimes it seemed to him he could not move too softly; the clink of the tall Bohemian goblets rang out loudly like a bell; and alarmed by the bigness of the ticking, he was tempted to stop the clocks. And then, again, with a swift transition of his terrors, the very silence of the place appeared a source of peril, and a thing to strike and freeze the passer-by; and he would step more boldly, and bustle aloud among the contents of the shop, and imitate, with elaborate bravado, the movements of a busy man at ease in his own house.

     But he was now so pulled about by different alarms that, while one portion of his mind was still alert and cunning, another trembled on the brink of lunacy. One hallucination in particular took a strong hold on his credulity. The neighbour hearkening with white face beside his window, the passer-by arrested by a horrible surmise on the pavement – these could at worst suspect, they could not know; through the brick walls and shuttered windows only sounds could penetrate. But here, within the house, was he alone? He knew he was; he had watched the servant set forth sweet-hearting, in her poor best, “out for the day” written in every ribbon and smile. Yes, he was alone, of course; and yet, in the bulk of empty house above him, he could surely hear a stir of delicate footing – he was surely conscious, inexplicably conscious of some presence. Ay, surely; to every room and corner of the house his imagination followed it; and now it was a faceless thing, and yet had eyes to see with; and again it was a shadow of himself; and yet again behold the image of the dead dealer, reinspired with cunning and hatred.

At times, with a strong effort, he would glance at the open door which still seemed to repel his eyes. The house was tall, the skylight small and dirty, the day blind with fog; and the light that filtered down to the ground story was exceedingly faint, and showed dimly on the threshold of the shop. And yet, in that strip of doubtful brightness, did there not hang wavering a shadow?

Suddenly, from the street outside, a very jovial gentleman began to beat with a staff on the shop-door, accompanying his blows with shouts and railleries in which the dealer was continually called upon by name. Markheim, smitten into ice, glanced at the dead man. But no! he lay quite still; he was fled away far beyond earshot of these blows and shoutings; he was sunk beneath seas of silence; and his name, which would once have caught his notice above the howling of a storm, had become an empty sound. And presently the jovial gentleman desisted from his knocking and departed.

     Here was a broad hint to hurry what remained to be done, to get forth from this accusing neighbourhood, to plunge into a bath of London multitudes, and to reach, on the other side of day, that haven of safety and apparent innocence – his bed. One visitor had come: at any moment another might follow and be more obstinate. To have done the deed, and yet not to reap the profit, would be too abhorrent a failure. The money, that was now Markheim’s concern; and as a means to that, the keys.

He glanced over his shoulder at the open door, where the shadow was still lingering and shivering; and with no conscious repugnance of the mind, yet with a tremor of the belly, he drew near the body of his victim. The human character had quite departed. Like a suit half-stuffed with bran, the limbs lay scattered, the trunk doubled, on the floor; and yet the thing repelled him. Although so dingy and inconsiderable to the eye, he feared it might have more significance to the touch. He took the body by the shoulders, and turned it on its back. It was strangely light and supple, and the limbs, as if they had been broken, fell into the oddest postures. The face was robbed of all expression; but it was as pale as wax, and shockingly smeared with blood about one temple. That was, for Markheim, the one displeasing circumstance. It carried him back, upon the instant, to a certain fair-day in a fishers’ village: a gray day, a piping wind, a crowd upon the street, the blare of the brasses, the booming of drums, the nasal voice of a ballad singer; and a boy going to and fro, buried over head in the crowd and divided between interest and fear, until, coming out upon the chief place of concourse, he beheld a booth and a great screen with pictures, dismally designed, garishly coloured: Brownrigg with her apprentice; the Mannings with their murdered guest; Weare in the death-grip of Thurtell; and a score besides of famous crimes. The thing was as clear as an illusion; he was once again that little boy; he was looking once again, and with the same sense of physical revolt, at these vile pictures; he was still stunned by the thumping of the drums. A bar of that day’s music returned upon his memory; and at that, for the first time, a qualm came over him, a breath of nausea, a sudden weakness of the joints, which he must instantly resist and conquer.

     He judged it more prudent to confront than to flee from these considerations; looking the more hardily in the dead face, bending his mind to realise the nature and greatness of his crime. So little a while ago that face had moved with every change of sentiment, that pale mouth had spoken, that body had been all on fire with governable energies; and now, and by his act, that piece of life had been arrested as the horologist, with interjected finger, arrests the beating of the clock. So he reasoned in vain; he could rise to no more remorseful consciousness; the same heart which had shuddered before the painted effigies of crime, looked on its reality unmoved. At best, he felt a gleam of pity for one who had been endowed in vain with all those faculties that can make the world a garden of enchantment, one who had never lived and who was now dead. But of penitence, no, not a tremor.

With that, shaking himself clear of these considerations, he found the keys and advanced towards the open door of the shop. Outside, it had begun to rain smartly; and the sound of the shower upon the roof had banished silence. Like some dripping cavern, the chambers of the house were haunted by an incessant echoing, which filled the ear and mingled with the ticking of the clocks. And, as Markheim approached the door, he seemed to hear, in answer to his own cautious tread, the steps of another foot withdrawing up the stair. The shadow still palpitated loosely on the threshold. He threw a ton’s weight of resolve upon his muscles, and drew back the door.

The faint, foggy daylight glimmered dimly on the bare floor and stairs; on the bright suit of armour posted, halbert in hand, upon the landing; and on the dark wood-carvings, and framed pictures that hung against the yellow panels of the wainscot. So loud was the beating of the rain through all the house that, in Markheim’s ears, it began to be distinguished into many different sounds. Footsteps and sighs, the tread of regiments marching in the distance, the chink of money in the counting, and the creaking of doors held stealthily ajar, appeared to mingle with the patter of the drops upon the cupola and the gushing of the water in the pipes. The sense that he was not alone grew upon him to the verge of madness. On every side he was haunted and begirt by presences. He heard them moving in the upper chambers; from the shop, he heard the dead man getting to his legs; and as he began with a great effort to mount the stairs, feet fled quietly before him and followed stealthily behind. If he were but deaf, he thought, how tranquilly he would posses his soul! And then again, and hearkening with ever fresh attention, he blessed himself for that unresting sense which held the outposts and stood a trusty sentinel upon his life. His head turned continually on his neck; his eyes, which seemed starting from their orbits, scouted on every side, and on every side were half-rewarded as with the tail of something nameless vanishing. The four-and-twenty steps to the first floor were four-and-twenty agonies.

     On that first story, the doors stood ajar, three of them like three ambushes, shaking his nerves like the throats of cannon. He could never again, he felt, be sufficiently immured and fortified from men’s observing eyes; he longed to be home, girt in by walls, buried among bedclothes, and invisible to all but God. And at that thought he wondered a little, recollecting tales of other murderers and the fear they were said to entertain of heavenly avengers. It was not so, at least, with him. He feared the laws of nature, lest, in their callous and immutable procedure, they should preserve some damning evidence of his crime. He feared tenfold more, with a slavish, superstitious terror, some scission in the continuity of man’s experience, some wilful illegality of nature. He played a game of skill, depending on the rules, calculating consequence from cause; and what if nature, as the defeated tyrant overthrew the chessboard, should break the mould of their succession? The like had befallen Napoleon (so writers said) when the winter changed the time of its appearance. The like might befall Markheim: the solid walls might become transparent and reveal his doings like those of bees in a glass hive; the stout planks might yield under his foot like quicksands and detain him in their clutch; ay, and there were soberer accidents that might destroy him: if, for instance, the house should fall and imprison him beside the body of his victim; or the house next door should fly on fire, and the firemen invade him from all sides. These things he feared; and, in a sense, these things might be called the hands of God reached forth against sin. But about God Himself he was at ease; his act was doubtless exceptional, but so were his excuses, which God knew; it was there, and not among men, that he felt sure of justice.

When he had got safe into the drawing-room, and shut the door behind him, he was aware of a respite from alarms. The room was quite dismantled, uncarpeted besides, and strewn with packing cases and incongruous furniture; several great pier-glasses, in which he beheld himself at various angles, like an actor on a stage; many pictures, framed and unframed, standing, with their faces to the wall; a fine Sheraton sideboard, a cabinet of marquetry, and a great old bed, with tapestry hangings. The windows opened to the floor; but by great good fortune the lower part of the shutters had been closed, and this concealed him from the neighbours. Here, then, Markheim drew in a packing case before the cabinet, and began to search among the keys. It was a long business, for there were many; and it was irksome, besides; for, after all, there might be nothing in the cabinet, and time was on the wing. But the closeness of the occupation sobered him. With the tail of his eye he saw the door – even glanced at it from time to time directly, like a besieged commander pleased to verify the good estate of his defences. But in truth he was at peace. The rain falling in the street sounded natural and pleasant. Presently, on the other side, the notes of a piano were wakened to the music of a hymn, and the voices of many children took up the air and words. How stately, how comfortable was the melody! How fresh the youthful voices! Markheim gave ear to it smilingly, as he sorted out the keys; and his mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images; church-going children and the pealing of the high organ; children afield, bathers by the brookside, ramblers on the brambly common, kite-flyers in the windy and cloud navigated sky; and then, at another cadence of the hymn, back again to church, and the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high genteel voice of the parson (which he smiled a little to recall) and the painted Jacobean tombs, and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel.

     And as he sat thus, at once busy and absent, he was startled to his feet. A flash of ice, a flash of fire, a bursting gush of blood, went over him, and then he stood transfixed and thrilling. A step mounted the stair slowly and steadily, and presently a hand was laid upon the knob, and the lock clicked, and the door opened.

Fear held Markheim in a vice. What to expect he knew not, whether the dead man walking, or the official ministers of human justice, or some chance witness blindly stumbling in to consign him to the gallows. But when a face was thrust into the aperture, glanced round the room, looked at him, nodded and smiled as if in friendly recognition, and then withdrew again, and the door closed behind it, his fear broke loose from his control in a hoarse cry. At the sound of this the visitant returned.

“Did you call me?” he asked pleasantly, and with that he entered the room and closed the door behind him.

Markheim stood and gazed at him with all his eyes. Perhaps there was a film upon his sight, but the outlines of the newcomer seemed to change and waver like those of the idols in the wavering candlelight of the shop; and at times he thought he knew him; and at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself; and always, like a lump of living terror, there lay in his bosom the conviction that this thing was not of the earth and not of God.

And yet the creature had a strange air of the commonplace, as he stood looking on Markheim with a smile; and when he added: “You are looking for the money, I believe?” it was in the tones of everyday politeness.

Markheim made no answer.

“I should warn you,” resumed the other, “that the maid has left her sweetheart earlier than usual and will soon be here. If Mr. Markheim be found in this house, I need not describe to him the consequences.”

     “You know me?” cried the murderer.

The visitor smiled. “You have long been a favourite of mine,” he said; “and I have long observed and often sought to help you.”

“What are you?” cried Markheim: “the devil?”

“What I may be,” returned the other, “cannot affect the service I propose to render you.”

“It can,” cried Markheim; “it does! Be helped by you? No, never; not by you! You do not know me yet; thank God, you do not know me!”

“I know you,” replied the visitant, with a sort of kind severity or rather firmness. “I know you to the soul.”

“Know me!” cried Markheim. “Who can do so? My life is but a travesty and slander on myself. I have lived to belie my nature. All men do; all men are better than this disguise that grows about and stifles them. You see each dragged away by life, like one whom bravos have seized and muffled in a cloak. If they had their own control – if you could see their faces, they would be altogether different, they would shine out for heroes and saints! I am worse than most; myself is more overlaid; my excuse is known to men and God. But, had I the time, I could disclose myself.”

“To me?” inquired the visitant.

“To you before all,” returned the murderer. “I supposed you were intelligent. I thought – since you exist – you could prove a reader of the heart. And yet you would propose to judge me by my acts! Think of it; my acts! I was born and I have lived in a land of giants; giants have dragged me by the wrists since I was born out of my mother – the giants of circumstance. And you would judge me by my acts! But can you not look within? Can you not understand that evil is hateful to me? Can you not see within me the clear writing of conscience, never blurred by any wilful sophistry, although too often disregarded? Can you not read me for a thing that surely must be common as humanity – the unwilling sinner?”

     “All this is very feelingly expressed,” was the reply, “but it regards me not. These points of consistency are beyond my province, and I care not in the least by what compulsion you may have been dragged away, so as you are but carried in the right direction. But time flies; the servant delays, looking in the faces of the crowd and at the pictures on the hoardings, but still she keeps moving nearer; and remember, it is as if the gallows itself was striding towards you through the Christmas streets! Shall I help you; I, who know all? Shall I tell you where to find the money?”

“For what price?” asked Markheim.

“I offer you the service for a Christmas gift,” returned the other.

Markheim could not refrain from smiling with a kind of bitter triumph. “No,” said he, “I will take nothing at your hands; if I were dying of thirst, and it was your hand that put the pitcher to my lips, I should find the courage to refuse. It may be credulous, but I will do nothing to commit myself to evil.”

“I have no objection to a deathbed repentance,” observed the visitant.

“Because you disbelieve their efficacy!” Markheim cried.

“I do not say so,” returned the other; “but I look on these things from a different side, and when the life is done my interest falls. The man has lived to serve me, to spread black looks under colour of religion, or to sow tares in the wheatfield, as you do, in a course of weak compliance with desire. Now that he draws so near to his deliverance, he can add but one act of service – to repent, to die smiling, and thus to build up in confidence and hope the more timorous of my surviving followers. I am not so hard a master. Try me. Accept my help. Please yourself in life as you have done hitherto; please yourself more amply, spread your elbows at the board; and when the night begins to fall and the curtains to be drawn, I tell you, for your greater comfort, that you will find it even easy to compound your quarrel with your conscience, and to make a truckling peace with God. I came but now from such a deathbed, and the room was full of sincere mourners, listening to the man’s last words: and when I looked into that face, which had been set as a flint against mercy, I found it smiling with hope.”

     “And do you, then, suppose me such a creature?” asked Markheim. “Do you think I have no more generous aspirations than to sin, and sin, and, at the last, sneak into heaven? My heart rises at the thought. Is this, then, your experience of mankind? or is it because you find me with red hands that you presume such baseness? and is this crime of murder indeed so impious as to dry up the very springs of good?”

“Murder is to me no special category,” replied the other.

“All sins are murder, even as all life is war. I behold your race, like starving mariners on a raft, plucking crusts out of the hands of famine and feeding on each other’s lives. I follow sins beyond the moment of their acting; I find in all that the last consequence is death; and to my eyes, the pretty maid who thwarts her mother with such taking graces on a question of a ball, drips no less visibly with human gore than such a murderer as yourself. Do I say that I follow sins? I follow virtues also; they differ not by the thickness of a nail, they are both scythes for the reaping angel of Death. Evil, for which I live, consists not in action but in character. The bad man is dear to me; not the bad act, whose fruits, if we could follow them far enough down the hurtling cataract of the ages, might yet be found more blessed than those of the rarest virtues. And it is not because you have killed a dealer, but because you are Markheim, that I offer to forward your escape.”

“I will lay my heart open to you,” answered Markheim. “This crime on which you find me is my last. On my way to it I have learned many lessons; itself is a lesson, a momentous lesson. Hitherto I have been driven with revolt to what I would not; I was a bond-slave to poverty, driven and scourged. There are robust virtues that can stand in these temptations; mine are not so: I had a thirst of pleasure. But today, and out of this deed, I pluck both warning and riches – both the power and a fresh resolve to be myself. I become in all things a free actor in the world; I begin to see myself all changed, hands the agents of good, this heart at peace. Something comes over me out of the past; something of what I have dreamed on Sabbath evenings to the sound of the church organ, of what I forecast when I shed tears over noble books, or talked, an innocent child, with my mother. There lies my life; I have wandered a few years, but now I see once more my city of destination.”

     “You are to use this money on the Stock Exchange, I think?” remarked the visitor; “and there, if I mistake not, you have already lost some thousands?”

“Ah,” said Markheim, “but this time I have a sure thing.”

“This time, again, you will lose,” replied the visitor quietly.

“Ah, but I keep back the half!” cried Markheim.

“That also you will lose,” said the other.

The sweat started upon Markheim’s brow. “Well, then, what matter?” he exclaimed. “Say it be lost, say I am plunged again in poverty, shall one part of me, and that the worse, continue until the end to override the better? Evil and good run strong in me, haling me both ways. I do not love the one thing, I love all. I can conceive great deeds, renunciations, martyrdoms; and though I be fallen to such a crime as murder, pity is no stranger to my thoughts. I pity the poor; who knows their trials better than myself? I pity and help them; I prize love, I love honest laughter; there is no good thing not true thing on earth but I love it from my heart. And are my vices only to direct my life, and my virtues without effect, like some passive lumber of the mind? Not so; good, also, is a spring of acts.”

But the visitant raised his finger. “For six-and-thirty years that you have been in this world,” said he, “through many changes of fortune and varieties of humour, I have watched you steadily fall. Fifteen years ago you would have started at a theft. Three years back you would have blenched at the name of murder. Is there any crime, is there any cruelty or meanness, from which you still recoil? – five years from now I shall detect you in the fact! Downward, downward, lies your way; nor can anything but death avail to stop you.”

“It is true,” Markheim said huskily, “I have in some degree complied with evil. But it is so with all: the very saints, in the mere exercise of living, grow less dainty, and take on the tone of their surroundings.”

     “I will propound to you one simple question,” said the other; “and as you answer, I shall read to you your moral horoscope. You have grown in many things more lax; possibly you do right to be so; and at any account, it is the same with all men. But granting that, are you in any one particular, however trifling, more difficult to please with your own conduct, or do you go in all things with a looser rein?”

“In any one?” repeated Markheim, with an anguish of consideration. “No,” he added, with despair, “in none! I have gone down in all.”

“Then,” said the visitor, “content yourself with what you are, for you will never change; and the words of your part on this stage are irrevocably written down.”

Markheim stood for a long while silent, and indeed it was the visitor who first broke the silence. “That being so,” he said, “shall I show you the money?”

“And grace?” cried Markheim.

“Have you not tried it?” returned the other. “Two or three years ago. did I not see you on the platform of revival meetings, and was not your voice the loudest in the hymn?”

“It is true,” said Markheim; “and I see clearly what remains for me by way of duty. I thank you for these lessons from my soul; my eyes are opened, and I behold myself at last for what I am.”

At this moment, the sharp note of the door-bell rang through the house; and the visitant, as though this were some concerted signal for which he had been waiting, changed at once in his demeanour.

“The maid!” he cried. “She has returned, as I forewarned you, and there is now before you one more difficult passage. Her master, you must say, is ill; you must let her in, with an assured but rather serious countenance – no smiles, no over-acting, and I promise you success! Once the girl within, and the door closed, the same dexterity that has already rid you of the dealer will relieve you of this last danger in your path. Thenceforward you have the whole evening – the whole night, if needful – to ransack the treasures of the house and to make good your safety. This is help that comes to you with the mask of danger. Up!” he cried; “up, friend; your life hangs trembling in the scales: up, and act!”

     Markheim steadily regarded his counsellor. “If I be condemned to evil acts,” he said, “there is still one door of freedom open – I can cease from action. If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down. Though I be, as you say truly, at the beck of every small temptation, I can yet, by one decisive gesture, place myself beyond the reach of all. My love of good is damned to barrenness; it may, and let it be! But I have still my hatred of evil; and from that, to your galling disappointment, you shall see that I can draw both energy and courage.”

The features of the visitor began to undergo a wonderful and lovely change: they brightened and softened with a tender triumph, and, even as they brightened, faded and dislimned. But Markheim did not pause to watch or understand the transformation. He opened the door and went downstairs very slowly, thinking to himself. His past went soberly before him; he beheld it as it was, ugly and strenuous like a dream, random as chance-medley – a scene of defeat. Life, as he thus reviewed it, tempted him no longer; but on the farther side he perceived a quiet haven for his bark. He paused in the passage, and looked into the shop, where the candle still burned by the dead body. It was strangely silent. Thoughts of the dealer swarmed into his mind, as he stood gazing. And then the bell once more broke out into impatient clamour.

He confronted the maid upon the threshold with something like a smile.

“You had better go for the police,” said he: “I have killed your master.”