Part 1 out of 2
Produced by Stan Goodman, Mary Meehan
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THE OPEN DOOR, AND THE PORTRAIT
Stories of the Seen and the Unseen
By Margaret O. Wilson Oliphant's
THE OPEN DOOR.
I took the house of Brentwood on my return from India in 18--, for the
temporary accommodation of my family, until I could find a permanent
home for them. It had many advantages which made it peculiarly
appropriate. It was within reach of Edinburgh; and my boy Roland, whose
education had been considerably neglected, could go in and out to
school; which was thought to be better for him than either leaving home
altogether or staying there always with a tutor. The first of these
expedients would have seemed preferable to me; the second commended
itself to his mother. The doctor, like a judicious man, took the midway
between. "Put him on his pony, and let him rile into the High School
every morning; it will do him all the good in the world," Dr. Simson
said; "and when it is bad weather, there is the train." His mother
accepted this solution of the difficulty more easily than I could have
hoped; and our pale-faced boy, who had never known anything more
invigorating than Simla, began to encounter the brisk breezes of the
North in the subdued severity of the month of May. Before the time of
the vacation in July we had the satisfaction of seeing him begin to
acquire something of the brown and ruddy complexion of his
schoolfellows. The English system did not commend itself to Scotland in
these days. There was no little Eton at Fettes; nor do I think, if there
had been, that a genteel exotic of that class would have tempted either
my wife or me. The lad was doubly precious to us, being the only one
left us of many; and he was fragile in body, we believed, and deeply
sensitive in mind. To keep him at home, and yet to send him to
school,--to combine the advantages of the two systems,--seemed to be
everything that could be desired. The two girls also found at Brentwood
everything they wanted. They were near enough to Edinburgh to have
masters and lessons as many as they required for completing that
never-ending education which the young people seem to require nowadays.
Their mother married me when she was younger than Agatha; and I should
like to see them improve upon their mother! I myself was then no more
than twenty-five,--an age at which I see the young fellows now groping
about them, with no notion what they are going to do with their lives.
However; I suppose every generation has a conceit of itself which
elevates it, in its own opinion, above that which comes after it.
Brentwood stands on that fine and wealthy slope of country--one of the
richest in Scotland--which lies between the Pentland Hills and the
Firth. In clear weather you could see the blue gleam--like a bent bow,
embracing the wealthy fields and scattered houses--of the great estuary
on one side of you, and on the other the blue heights, not gigantic like
those we had been used to, but just high enough for all the glories of
the atmosphere, the play of clouds, and sweet reflections, which give to
a hilly country an interest and a charm which nothing else can emulate.
Edinburgh--with its two lesser heights, the Castle and the Calton Hill,
its spires and towers piercing through the smoke, and Arthur's Seat lying
crouched behind, like a guardian no longer very needful, taking his
repose beside the well-beloved charge, which is now, so to speak, able to
take care of itself without him--lay at our right hand. From the lawn
and drawing-room windows we could see all these varieties of landscape.
The color was sometimes a little chilly, but sometimes, also, as animated
and full of vicissitude as a drama. I was never tired of it. Its color
and freshness revived the eyes which had grown weary of arid plains and
blazing skies. It was always cheery, and fresh, and full of repose.
The village of Brentwood lay almost under the house, on the other side of
the deep little ravine, down which a stream--which ought to have been a
lovely, wild, and frolicsome little river--flowed between its rocks and
trees. The river, like so many in that district, had, however, in its
earlier life been sacrificed to trade, and was grimy with paper-making.
But this did not affect our pleasure in it so much as I have known it to
affect other streams. Perhaps our water was more rapid; perhaps less
clogged with dirt and refuse. Our side of the dell was charmingly
_accidente_, and clothed with fine trees, through which various paths
wound down to the river-side and to the village bridge which crossed the
stream. The village lay in the hollow, and climbed, with very prosaic
houses, the other side. Village architecture does not flourish in
Scotland. The blue slates and the gray stone are sworn foes to the
picturesque; and though I do not, for my own part, dislike the interior
of an old-fashioned hewed and galleried church, with its little family
settlements on all sides, the square box outside, with its bit of a spire
like a handle to lift it by, is not an improvement to the landscape.
Still a cluster of houses on differing elevations, with scraps of garden
coming in between, a hedgerow with clothes laid out to dry, the opening
of a street with its rural sociability, the women at their doors, the
slow wagon lumbering along, gives a centre to the landscape. It was
cheerful to look at, and convenient in a hundred ways. Within ourselves
we had walks in plenty, the glen being always beautiful in all its
phases, whether the woods were green in the spring or ruddy in the
autumn. In the park which surrounded the house were the ruins of the
former mansion of Brentwood,--a much smaller and less important house
than the solid Georgian edifice which we inhabited. The ruins were
picturesque, however, and gave importance to the place. Even we, who were
but temporary tenants, felt a vague pride in them, as if they somehow
reflected a certain consequence upon ourselves. The old building had the
remains of a tower,--an indistinguishable mass of mason-work,
over-grown with ivy; and the shells of walls attached to this were half
filled up with soil. I had never examined it closely, I am ashamed to
say. There was a large room, or what had been a large room, with the
lower part of the windows still existing, on the principal floor, and
underneath other windows, which were perfect, though half filled up with
fallen soil, and waving with a wild growth of brambles and chance growths
of all kinds. This was the oldest part of all. At a little distance were
some very commonplace and disjointed fragments of building, one of them
suggesting a certain pathos by its very commonness and the complete wreck
which it showed. This was the end of a low gable, a bit of gray wall, all
incrusted with lichens, in which was a common door-way. Probably it had
been a servants' entrance, a backdoor, or opening into what are called
"the offices" in Scotland. No offices remained to be entered,--pantry and
kitchen had all been swept out of being; but there stood the door-way
open and vacant, free to all the winds, to the rabbits, and every wild
creature. It struck my eye, the first time I went to Brentwood, like a
melancholy comment upon a life that was over. A door that led to
nothing,--closed once, perhaps, with anxious care, bolted and guarded,
now void of any meaning. It impressed me, I remember, from the first; so
perhaps it may be said that my mind was prepared to attach to it an
importance which nothing justified.
The summer was a very happy period of repose for us all. The warmth of
Indian suns was still in our veins. It seemed to us that we could never
have enough of the greenness, the dewiness, the freshness of the northern
landscape. Even its mists were pleasant to us, taking all the fever out
of us, and pouring in vigor and refreshment. In autumn we followed the
fashion of the time, and went away for change which we did not in the
least require. It was when the family had settled down for the winter,
when the days were short and dark, and the rigorous reign of frost upon
us, that the incidents occurred which alone could justify me in intruding
upon the world my private affairs. These incidents were, however, of so
curious a character, that I hope my inevitable references to my own
family and pressing personal interests will meet with a general pardon.
I was absent in London when these events began. In London an old Indian
plunges back into the interests with which all his previous life has been
associated, and meets old friends at every step. I had been circulating
among some half-dozen of these,--enjoying the return to my former life in
shadow, though I had been so thankful in substance to throw it
aside,--and had missed some of my home letters, what with going down from
Friday to Monday to old Benbow's place in the country, and stopping on
the way back to dine and sleep at Sellar's and to take a look into
Cross's stables, which occupied another day. It is never safe to miss
one's letters. In this transitory life, as the Prayer-book says, how can
one ever be certain what is going to happen? All was well at home. I knew
exactly (I thought) what they would have to say to me: "The weather has
been so fine, that Roland has not once gone by train, and he enjoys the
ride beyond anything." "Dear papa, be sure that you don't forget
anything, but bring us so-and-so, and so-and-so,"--a list as long as my
arm. Dear girls and dearer mother! I would not for the world have
forgotten their commissions, or lost their little letters, for all the
Benbows and Crosses in the world.
But I was confident in my home-comfort and peacefulness. When I got back
to my club, however, three or four letters were lying for one, upon some
of which I noticed the "immediate," "urgent," which old-fashioned people
and anxious people still believe will influence the post-office and
quicken the speed of the mails. I was about to open one of these, when
the club porter brought me two telegrams, one of which, he said, had
arrived the night before. I opened, as was to be expected, the last
first, and this was what I read: "Why don't you come or answer? For God's
sake, come. He is much worse." This was a thunderbolt to fall upon a
man's head who had one only son, and lie the light of his eyes! The other
telegram, which I opened with hands trembling so much that I lost time by
my haste, was to much the same purport: "No better; doctor afraid of
brain-fever. Calls for you day and night. Let nothing detain you." The
first thing I did was to look up the time-tables to see if there was any
way of getting off sooner than by the night-train, though I knew well
enough there was not; and then I read the letters, which furnished, alas!
too clearly, all the details. They told me that the boy had been pale for
some time, with a scared look. His mother had noticed it before I left
home, but would not say anything to alarm me. This look had increased day
by day: and soon it was observed that Roland came home at a wild gallop
through the park, his pony panting and in foam, himself "as white as a
sheet," but with the perspiration streaming from his forehead. For a long
time he had resisted all questioning, but at length had developed such
strange changes of mood, showing a reluctance to go to school, a desire
to be fetched in the carriage at night,--which was a ridiculous piece of
luxury,--an unwillingness to go out into the grounds, and nervous start
at every sound, that his mother had insisted upon an explanation. When
the boy--our boy Roland, who had never known what fear was--began to talk
to her of voices he had heard in the park, and shadows that had appeared
to him among the ruins, my wife promptly put him to bed and sent for Dr.
Simson, which, of course, was the only thing to do.
I hurried off that evening, as may be supposed, with an anxious heart.
How I got through the hours before the starting of the train, I cannot
tell. We must all be thankful for the quickness of the railway when in
anxiety; but to have thrown myself into a post-chaise as soon as horses
could be put to, would have been a relief. I got to Edinburgh very early
in the blackness of the winter morning, and scarcely dared look the man
in the face, at whom I gasped, "What news?" My wife had sent the
brougham for me, which I concluded, before the man spoke, was a bad sign.
His answer was that stereotyped answer which leaves the imagination so
wildly free,--"Just the same." Just the same! What might that mean? The
horses seemed to me to creep along the long dark country road. As we
dashed through the park, I thought I heard some one moaning among the
trees, and clenched my fist at him (whoever he might be) with fury. Why
had the fool of a woman at the gate allowed any one to come in to disturb
the quiet of the place? If I had not been in such hot haste to get home,
I think I should have stopped the carriage and got out to see what tramp
it was that had made an entrance, and chosen my grounds, of all places in
the world,--when my boy was ill!--to grumble and groan in. But I had no
reason to complain of our slow pace here. The horses flew like lightning
along the intervening path, and drew up at the door all panting, as if
they had run a race. My wife stood waiting to receive me, with a pale
face, and a candle in her hand, which made her look paler still as the
wind blew the flame about. "He is sleeping," she said in a whisper, as if
her voice might wake him. And I replied, when I could find my voice, also
in a whisper, as though the jingling of the horses' furniture and the
sound of their hoofs must not have been more dangerous. I stood on the
steps with her a moment, almost afraid to go in, now that I was here; and
it seemed to me that I saw without observing, if I may say so, that the
horses were unwilling to turn round, though their stables lay that way,
or that the men were unwilling. These things occurred to me afterwards,
though at the moment I was not capable of anything but to ask questions
and to hear of the condition of the boy.
I looked at him from the door of his room, for we were afraid to go near,
lest we should disturb that blessed sleep. It looked like actual sleep,
not the lethargy into which my wife told me he would sometimes fall. She
told me everything in the next room, which communicated with his, rising
now and then and going to the door of communication; and in this there
was much that was very startling and confusing to the mind. It appeared
that ever since the winter began--since it was early dark, and night had
fallen before his return from school--he had been hearing voices among
the ruins: at first only a groaning, he said, at which his pony was as
much alarmed as he was, but by degrees a voice. The tears ran down my
wife's cheeks as she described to me how he would start up in the night
and cry out, "Oh, mother, let me in! oh, mother, let me in!" with a
pathos which rent her heart. And she sitting there all the time, only
longing to do everything his heart could desire! But though she would try
to soothe him, crying, "You are at home, my darling. I am here. Don't you
know me? Your mother is here!" he would only stare at her, and after a
while spring up again with the same cry. At other times he would be quite
reasonable, she said, asking eagerly when I was coming, but declaring
that he must go with me as soon as I did so, "to let them in." "The
doctor thinks his nervous system must have received a shock," my wife
said. "Oh, Henry, can it be that we have pushed him on too much with his
work--a delicate boy like Roland? And what is his work in comparison with
his health? Even you would think little of honors or prizes if it hurt
the boy's health." Even I!--as if I were an inhuman father sacrificing my
child to my ambition. But I would not increase her trouble by taking any
notice. After awhile they persuaded me to lie down, to rest, and to eat,
none of which things had been possible since I received their letters.
The mere fact of being on the spot, of course, in itself was a great
thing; and when I knew that I could be called in a moment, as soon as he
was awake and wanted me, I felt capable, even in the dark, chill morning
twilight, to snatch an hour or two's sleep. As it happened, I was so
worn out with the strain of anxiety, and he so quieted and consoled by
knowing I had come, that I was not disturbed till the afternoon, when the
twilight had again settled down. There was just daylight enough to see
his face when I went to him; and what a change in a fortnight! He was
paler and more worn, I thought, than even in those dreadful days in the
plains before we left India. His hair seemed to me to have grown long and
lank; his eyes were like blazing lights projecting out of his white face.
He got hold of my hand in a cold and tremulous clutch, and waved to
everybody to go away. "Go away--even mother," he said; "go away." This
went to her heart; for she did not like that even I should have more of
the boy's confidence than herself; but my wife has never been a woman to
think of herself, and she left us alone. "Are they all gone?" he said
eagerly. "They would not let me speak. The doctor treated me as if I were
a fool. You know I am not a fool, papa."
"Yes, yes, my boy, I know. But you are ill, and quiet is so necessary.
You are not only not a fool, Roland, but you are reasonable and
understand. When you are ill you must deny yourself; you must not do
everything that you might do being well."
He waved his thin hand with a sort of indignation. "Then, father, I am
not ill," he cried. "Oh, I thought when you came you would not stop
me,--you would see the sense of it! What do you think is the matter with
me, all of you? Simson is well enough; but he is only a doctor. What do
you think is the matter with me? I am no more ill than you are. A doctor,
of course, he thinks you are ill the moment he looks at you--that's what
he's there for--and claps you into bed."
"Which is the best place for you at present, my dear boy."
"I made up my mind," cried the little fellow, "that I would stand it till
you came home. I said to myself, I won't frighten mother and the girls.
But now, father," he cried, half jumping out of bed, "it's not illness:
it's a secret."
His eyes shone so wildly, his face was so swept with strong feeling, that
my heart sank within me. It could be nothing but fever that did it, and
fever had been so fatal. I got him into my arms to put him back into
bed. "Roland," I said, humoring the poor child, which I knew was the
only way, "if you are going to tell me this secret to do any good, you
know you must be quite quiet, and not excite yourself. If you excite
yourself, I must not let you speak."
"Yes, father," said the boy. He was quiet directly, like a man, as if he
quite understood. When I had laid him back on his pillow, he looked up at
me with that grateful, sweet look with which children, when they are ill,
break one's heart, the water coming into his eyes in his weakness. "I was
sure as soon as you were here you would know what to do," he said.
"To be sure, my boy. Now keep quiet, and tell it all out like a man." To
think I was telling lies to my own child! for I did it only to humor him,
thinking, poor little fellow, his brain was wrong.
"Yes, father. Father, there is some one in the park--some one that has
been badly used." "Hush, my dear; you remember there is to be no
excitement. Well, who is this somebody, and who has been ill-using him?
We will soon put a stop to that."
"All," cried Roland, "but it is not so easy as you think. I don't know
who it is. It is just a cry. Oh, if you could hear it! It gets into my
head in my sleep. I heard it as clear--as clear; and they think that I
am dreaming, or raving perhaps," the boy said, with a sort of
This look of his perplexed me; it was less like fever than I thought.
"Are you quite sure you have not dreamed it, Roland?" I said.
"Dreamed?--that!" He was springing up again when he suddenly bethought
himself, and lay down flat, with the same sort of smile on his face. "The
pony heard it, too," he said. "She jumped as if she had been shot. If I
had not grasped at the reins--for I was frightened, father--"
"No shame to you, my boy," said I, though I scarcely knew why.
"If I hadn't held to her like a leech, she'd have pitched me over her
head, and never drew breath till we were at the door. Did the pony dream
it?" he said, with a soft disdain, yet indulgence for my foolishness.
Then he added slowly, "It was only a cry the first time, and all the
time before you went away. I wouldn't tell you, for it was so wretched
to be frightened. I thought it might be a hare or a rabbit snared, and I
went in the morning and looked; but there was nothing. It was after you
went I heard it really first; and this is what he says." He raised
himself on his elbow close to me, and looked me in the face: "'Oh,
mother, let me in! oh, mother, let me in!'" As he said the words a mist
came over his face, the mouth quivered, the soft features all melted and
changed, and when he had ended these pitiful words, dissolved in a
shower of heavy tears.
Was it a hallucination? Was it the fever of the brain? Was it the
disordered fancy caused by great bodily weakness? How could I tell? I
thought it wisest to accept it as if it were all true.
"This is very touching, Roland," I said.
"Oh, if you had just heard it, father! I said to myself, if father heard
it he would do something; but mamma, you know, she's given over to
Simson, and that fellow's a doctor, and never thinks of anything but
clapping you into bed."
"We must not blame Simson for being a doctor, Roland."
"No, no," said my boy, with delightful toleration and indulgence; "oh,
no; that's the good of him; that's what he's for; I know that. But
you--you are different; you are just father; and you'll do
something--directly, papa, directly; this very night."
"Surely," I said. "No doubt it is some little lost child."
He gave me a sudden, swift look, investigating my face as though to see
whether, after all, this was everything my eminence as "father" came
to,--no more than that. Then he got hold of my shoulder, clutching it
with his thin hand. "Look here," he said, with a quiver in his voice;
"suppose it wasn't--living at all!"
"My dear boy, how then could you have heard it?" I said.
He turned away from me with a pettish exclamation,--"As if you didn't
know better than that!"
"Do you want to tell me it is a ghost?" I said.
Roland withdrew his hand; his countenance assumed an aspect of great
dignity and gravity; a slight quiver remained about his lips. "Whatever
it was--you always said we were not to call names. It was something--in
trouble. Oh, father, in terrible trouble!"
"But, my boy," I said (I was at my wits' end), "if it was a child
that was lost, or any poor human creature--but, Roland, what do you
want me to do?"
"I should know if I was you," said the child eagerly. "That is what I
always said to myself,--Father will know. Oh, papa, papa, to have to
face it night after night, in such terrible, terrible trouble, and never
to be able to do it any good! I don't want to cry; it's like a baby, I
know; but what can I do else? Out there all by itself in the ruin, and
nobody to help it! I can't bear it! I can't bear it!" cried my generous
boy. And in his weakness he burst out, after many attempts to restrain
it, into a great childish fit of sobbing and tears.
I do not know that I ever was in a greater perplexity, in my life; and
afterwards, when I thought of it, there was something comic in it too. It
is bad enough to find your child's mind possessed with the conviction
that he has seen, or heard, a ghost; but that he should require you to go
instantly and help that ghost was the most bewildering experience that
had ever come my way. I am a sober man myself, and not superstitious--at
least any more than everybody is superstitious. Of course I do not
believe in ghosts; but I don't deny, any more than other people, that
there are stories which I cannot pretend to understand. My blood got a
sort of chill in my veins at the idea that Roland should be a ghost-seer;
for that generally means a hysterical temperament and weak health, and
all that men most hate and fear for their children. But that I should
take up his ghost and right its wrongs, and save it from its trouble, was
such a mission as was enough to confuse any man. I did my best to console
my boy without giving any promise of this astonishing kind; but he was
too sharp for me: he would have none of my caresses. With sobs breaking
in at intervals upon his voice, and the rain-drops hanging on his
eyelids, he yet returned to the charge.
"It will be there now!--it will be there all the night! Oh, think,
papa,--think if it was me! I can't rest for thinking of it. Don't!" he
cried, putting away my hand,--"don't! You go and help it, and mother can
take care of me."
"But, Roland, what can I do?"
My boy opened his eyes, which were large with weakness and fever, and
gave me a smile such, I think, as sick children only know the secret of.
"I was sure you would know as soon as you came. I always said, Father
will know. And mother," he cried, with a softening of repose upon his
face, his limbs relaxing, his form sinking with a luxurious ease in his
bed,--"mother can come and take care of me."
I called her, and saw him turn to her with the complete dependence of a
child; and then I went away and left them, as perplexed a man as any in
Scotland. I must say, however, I had this consolation, that my mind was
greatly eased about Roland. He might be under a hallucination; but his
head was clear enough, and I did not think him so ill as everybody else
did. The girls were astonished even at the ease with which I took it.
"How do you think he is?" they said in a breath, coming round me, laying
hold of me. "Not half so ill as I expected," I said; "not very bad at
all." "Oh, papa, you are a darling!" cried Agatha, kissing me, and crying
upon my shoulder; while little Jeanie, who was as pale as Roland, clasped
both her arms round mine, and could not speak at all. I knew nothing
about it, not half so much as Simson; but they believed in me: they had a
feeling that all would go right now. God is very good to you when your
children look to you like that. It makes one humble, not proud. I was not
worthy of it; and then I recollected that I had to act the part of a
father to Roland's ghost,--which made me almost laugh, though I might
just as well have cried. It was the strangest mission that ever was
intrusted to mortal man.
It was then I remembered suddenly the looks of the men when they turned
to take the brougham to the stables in the dark that morning. They had
not liked it, and the horses had not liked it. I remembered that even in
my anxiety about Roland I had heard them tearing along the avenue back to
the stables, and had made a memorandum mentally that I must speak of it.
It seemed to me that the best thing I could do was to go to the stables
now and make a few inquiries. It is impossible to fathom the minds of
rustics; there might be some devilry of practical joking, for anything I
knew; or they might have some interest in getting up a bad reputation for
the Brentwood avenue. It was getting dark by the time I went out, and
nobody who knows the country will need to be told how black is the
darkness of a November night under high laurel-bushes and yew-trees. I
walked into the heart of the shrubberies two or three times, not seeing a
step before me, till I came out upon the broader carriage-road, where the
trees opened a little, and there was a faint gray glimmer of sky visible,
under which the great limes and elms stood darkling like ghosts; but it
grew black again as I approached the corner where the ruins lay. Both
eyes and ears were on the alert, as may be supposed; but I could see
nothing in the absolute gloom, and, so far as I can recollect, I heard
nothing. Nevertheless there came a strong impression upon me that
somebody was there. It is a sensation which most people have felt. I have
seen when it has been strong enough to awake me out of sleep, the sense
of some one looking at me. I suppose my imagination had been affected by
Roland's story; and the mystery of the darkness is always full of
suggestions. I stamped my feet violently on the gravel to rouse myself,
and called out sharply, "Who's there?" Nobody answered, nor did I expect
any one to answer, but the impression had been made. I was so foolish
that I did not like to look back, but went sideways, keeping an eye on
the gloom behind. It was with great relief that I spied the light in the
stables, making a sort of oasis in the darkness. I walked very quickly
into the midst of that lighted and cheerful place, and thought the clank
of the groom's pail one of the pleasantest sounds I had ever heard. The
coachman was the head of this little colony, and it was to his house I
went to pursue my investigations. He was a native of the district, and
had taken care of the place in the absence of the family for years; it
was impossible but that he must know everything that was going on, and
all the traditions of the place. The men, I could see, eyed me anxiously
when I thus appeared at such an hour among them, and followed me with
their eyes to Jarvis's house, where he lived alone with his old wife,
their children being all married and out in the world. Mrs. Jarvis met me
with anxious questions. How was the poor young gentleman? But the others
knew, I could see by their faces, that not even this was the foremost
thing in my mind.
* * * * *
"Noises?--ou ay, there'll be noises,--the wind in the trees, and the
water soughing down the glen. As for tramps, Cornel, no, there's little
o' that kind o' cattle about here; and Merran at the gate's a careful
body." Jarvis moved about with some embarrassment from one leg to
another as he spoke. He kept in the shade, and did not look at me more
than he could help. Evidently his mind was perturbed, and he had
reasons for keeping his own counsel. His wife sat by, giving him a quick
look now and then, but saying nothing. The kitchen was very snug and
warm and bright,--as different as could be from the chill and mystery of
the night outside.
"I think you are trifling with me, Jarvis," I said.
"Triflin', Cornel? No me. What would I trifle for? If the deevil himsel
was in the auld hoose, I have no interest in 't one way or another--"
"Sandy, hold your peace!" cried his wife imperatively.
"And what am I to hold my peace for, wi' the Cornel standing there asking
a' thae questions? I'm saying, if the deevil himsel--"
"And I'm telling ye hold your peace!" cried the woman, in great
excitement. "Dark November weather and lang nichts, and us that ken a' we
ken. How daur ye name--a name that shouldna be spoken?" She threw down
her stocking and got up, also in great agitation. "I tellt ye you never
could keep it. It's no a thing that will hide, and the haill toun kens as
weel as you or me. Tell the Cornel straight out--or see, I'll do it. I
dinna hold wi' your secrets, and a secret that the haill toun kens!" She
snapped her fingers with an air of large disdain. As for Jarvis, ruddy
and big as he was, he shrank to nothing before this decided woman. He
repeated to her two or three times her own adjuration, "Hold your peace!"
then, suddenly changing his tone, cried out, "Tell him then, confound
ye! I'll wash my hands o't. If a' the ghosts in Scotland were in the auld
hoose, is that ony concern o' mine?"
After this I elicited without much difficulty the whole story. In the
opinion of the Jarvises, and of everybody about, the certainty that the
place was haunted was beyond all doubt. As Sandy and his wife warmed to
the tale, one tripping up another in their eagerness to tell everything,
it gradually developed as distinct a superstition as I ever heard, and
not without poetry and pathos. How long it was since the voice had been
heard first, nobody could tell with certainty. Jarvis's opinion was that
his father, who had been coachman at Brentwood before him, had never
heard anything about it, and that the whole thing had arisen within the
last ten years, since the complete dismantling of the old house; which
was a wonderfully modern date for a tale so well authenticated. According
to these witnesses, and to several whom I questioned afterwards, and who
were all in perfect agreement, it was only in the months of November and
December that "the visitation" occurred. During these months, the darkest
of the year, scarcely a night passed without the recurrence of these
inexplicable cries. Nothing, it was said, had ever been seen,--at least,
nothing that could be identified. Some people, bolder or more imaginative
than the others, had seen the darkness moving, Mrs. Jarvis said, with
unconscious poetry. It began when night fell, and continued, at
intervals, till day broke. Very often it was only all inarticulate cry
and moaning, but sometimes the words which had taken possession of my
poor boy's fancy had been distinctly audible,--"Oh, mother, let me in!"
The Jarvises were not aware that there had ever been any investigation
into it. The estate of Brentwood had lapsed into the hands of a distant
branch of the family, who had lived but little there; and of the many
people who had taken it, as I had done, few had remained through two
Decembers. And nobody had taken the trouble to make a very close
examination into the facts. "No, no," Jarvis said, shaking his head,
"No, no, Cornel. Wha wad set themsels up for a laughin'-stock to a' the
country-side, making a wark about a ghost? Naebody believes in ghosts. It
bid to be the wind in the trees, the last gentleman said, or some effec'
o' the water wrastlin' among the rocks. He said it was a' quite easy
explained; but he gave up the hoose. And when you cam, Cornel, we were
awfu' anxious you should never hear. What for should I have spoiled the
bargain and hairmed the property for no-thing?"
"Do you call my child's life nothing?" I said in the trouble of the
moment, unable to restrain myself. "And instead of telling this all to
me, you have told it to him,--to a delicate boy, a child unable to sift
evidence or judge for himself, a tender-hearted young creature--"
I was walking about the room with an anger all the hotter that I felt it
to be most likely quite unjust. My heart was full of bitterness against
the stolid retainers of a family who were content to risk other people's
children and comfort rather than let a house be empty. If I had been
warned I might have taken precautions, or left the place, or sent Roland
away, a hundred things which now I could not do; and here I was with my
boy in a brain-fever, and his life, the most precious life on earth,
hanging in the balance, dependent on whether or not I could get to the
reason of a commonplace ghost-story! I paced about in high wrath, not
seeing what I was to do; for to take Roland away, even if he were able to
travel, would not settle his agitated mind; and I feared even that a
scientific explanation of refracted sound or reverberation, or any other
of the easy certainties with which we elder men are silenced, would have
very little effect upon the boy.
"Cornel," said Jarvis solemnly, "and _she'll_ bear me witness,--the young
gentleman never heard a word from me--no, nor from either groom or
gardener; I'll gie ye my word for that. In the first place, he's no a lad
that invites ye to talk. There are some that are, and some that arena.
Some will draw ye on, till ye've tellt them a' the clatter of the toun,
and a' ye ken, and whiles mair. But Maister Roland, his mind's fu' of his
books. He's aye civil and kind, and a fine lad; but no that sort. And ye
see it's for a' our interest, Cornel, that you should stay at Brentwood.
I took it upon me mysel to pass the word,--'No a syllable to Maister
Roland, nor to the young leddies--no a syllable.' The women-servants,
that have little reason to be out at night, ken little or nothing about
it. And some think it grand to have a ghost so long as they're no in the
way of coming across it. If you had been tellt the story to begin with,
maybe ye would have thought so yourself."
This was true enough, though it did not throw any light upon my
perplexity. If we had heard of it to start with, it is possible that all
the family would have considered the possession of a ghost a distinct
advantage. It is the fashion of the times. We never think what a risk it
is to play with young imaginations, but cry out, in the fashionable
jargon, "A ghost!--nothing else was wanted to make it perfect." I should
not have been above this myself. I should have smiled, of course, at the
idea of the ghost at all, but then to feel that it was mine would have
pleased my vanity. Oh, yes, I claim no exemption. The girls would have
been delighted. I could fancy their eagerness, their interest, and
excitement. No; if we had been told, it would have done no good,--we
should have made the bargain all the more eagerly, the fools that we are.
"And there has been no attempt to investigate it," I said, "to see what
it really is?"
"Eh, Cornel," said the coachman's wife, "wha would investigate, as ye
call it, a thing that nobody believes in? Ye would be the laughin'-stock
of a' the country-side, as my man says."
"But you believe in it," I said, turning upon her hastily. The woman was
taken by surprise. She made a step backward out of my way.
"Lord, Cornel, how ye frichten a body! Me!--there's awfu' strange things
in this world. An unlearned person doesna ken what to think. But the
minister and the gentry they just laugh in your face. Inquire into the
thing that is not! Na, na, we just let it be."
"Come with me, Jarvis," I said hastily, "and we'll make an attempt at
least. Say nothing to the men or to anybody. I'll come back after dinner,
and we'll make a serious attempt to see what it is, if it is anything. If
I hear it,--which I doubt,--you may be sure I shall never rest till I
make it out. Be ready for me about ten o'clock."
"Me, Cornel!" Jarvis said, in a faint voice. I had not been looking at
him in my own preoccupation, but when I did so, I found that the greatest
change had come over the fat and ruddy coachman. "Me, Cornel!" he
repeated, wiping the perspiration from his brow. His ruddy face hung in
flabby folds, his knees knocked together, his voice seemed half
extinguished in his throat. Then he began to rub his hands and smile upon
me in a deprecating, imbecile way. "There's nothing I wouldna do to
pleasure ye, Cornel," taking a step further back. "I'm sure _she_ kens
I've aye said I never had to do with a mair fair, weel-spoken
gentleman--" Here Jarvis came to a pause, again looking at me, rubbing
"Well?" I said.
"But eh, sir!" he went on, with the same imbecile yet insinuating smile,
"if ye'll reflect that I am no used to my feet. With a horse atween my
legs, or the reins in my hand, I'm maybe nae worse than other men; but on
fit, Cornel--It's no the--bogles--but I've been cavalry, ye see," with a
little hoarse laugh, "a' my life. To face a thing ye dinna understan'--on
your feet, Cornel."
"Well, sir, if _I_ do it," said I tartly, "why shouldn't you?"
"Eh, Cornel, there's an awfu' difference. In the first place, ye tramp
about the haill countryside, and think naething of it; but a walk tires
me mair than a hunard miles' drive; and then ye're a gentleman, and do
your ain pleasure; and you're no so auld as me; and it's for your ain
bairn, ye see, Cornel; and then--"
"He believes in it, Cornel, and you dinna believe in it," the woman said.
"Will you come with me?" I said, turning to her.
She jumped back, upsetting her chair in her bewilderment. "Me!" with a
scream, and then fell into a sort of hysterical laugh. "I wouldna say but
what I would go; but what would the folk say to hear of Cornel Mortimer
with an auld silly woman at his heels?"
The suggestion made me laugh too, though I had little inclination for it.
"I'm sorry you have so little spirit, Jarvis," I said. "I must find some
one else, I suppose."
Jarvis, touched by this, began to remonstrate, but I cut him short. My
butler was a soldier who had been with me in India, and was not supposed
to fear anything,--man or devil,--certainly not the former; and I felt
that I was losing time. The Jarvises were too thankful to get rid of me.
They attended me to the door with the most anxious courtesies. Outside,
the two grooms stood close by, a little confused by my sudden exit. I
don't know if perhaps they had been listening,--as least standing as near
as possible, to catch any scrap of the conversation. I waved my hand to
them as I went past, in answer to their salutations, and it was very
apparent to me that they also were glad to see me go.
And it will be thought very strange, but it would be weak not to add,
that I myself, though bent on the investigation I have spoken of, pledged
to Roland to carry it out, and feeling that my boy's health, perhaps his
life, depended on the result of my inquiry,--I felt the most
unaccountable reluctance to pass these ruins on my way home. My curiosity
was intense; and yet it was all my mind could do to pull my body along. I
daresay the scientific people would describe it the other way, and
attribute my cowardice to the state of my stomach. I went on; but if I
had followed my impulse, I should have turned and bolted. Everything in
me seemed to cry out against it: my heart thumped, my pulses all began,
like sledge-hammers, beating against my ears and every sensitive part. It
was very dark, as I have said; the old house, with its shapeless tower,
loomed a heavy mass through the darkness, which was only not entirely so
solid as itself. On the other hand, the great dark cedars of which we
were so proud seemed to fill up the night. My foot strayed out of the
path in my confusion and the gloom together, and I brought myself up with
a cry as I felt myself knock against something solid. What was it? The
contact with hard stone and lime and prickly bramble-bushes restored me a
little to myself. "Oh, it's only the old gable," I said aloud, with a
little laugh to reassure myself. The rough feeling of the stones
reconciled me. As I groped about thus, I shook off my visionary folly.
What so easily explained as that I should have strayed from the path in
the darkness? This brought me back to common existence, as if I had been
shaken by a wise hand out of all the silliness of superstition. How silly
it was, after all! What did it matter which path I took? I laughed again,
this time with better heart, when suddenly, in a moment, the blood was
chilled in my veins, a shiver stole along my spine, my faculties seemed
to forsake me. Close by me, at my side, at my feet, there was a sigh. No,
not a groan, not a moaning, not anything so tangible,--a perfectly soft,
faint, inarticulate sigh. I sprang back, and my heart stopped beating.
Mistaken! no, mistake was impossible. I heard it as clearly as I hear
myself speak; a long, soft, weary sigh, as if drawn to the utmost, and
emptying out a load of sadness that filled the breast. To hear this in
the solitude, in the dark, in the night (though it was still early), had
an effect which I cannot describe. I feel it now,--something cold
creeping over me, up into my hair, and down to my feet, which refused to
move. I cried out, with a trembling voice, "Who is there?" as I had done
before; but there was no reply.
I got home I don't quite know how; but in my mind there was no longer
any indifference as to the thing, whatever it was, that haunted these
ruins. My scepticism disappeared like a mist. I was as firmly determined
that there was something as Roland was. I did not for a moment pretend
to myself that it was possible I could be deceived; there were movements
and noises which I understood all about,--cracklings of small branches
in the frost, and little rolls of gravel on the path, such as have a
very eerie sound sometimes, and perplex you with wonder as to who has
done it, _when there is no real mystery_; but I assure you all these
little movements of nature don't affect you one bit _when there is
something_. I understood _them_. I did not understand the sigh. That was
not simple nature; there was meaning in it, feeling, the soul of a
creature invisible. This is the thing that human nature trembles at,--a
creature invisible, yet with sensations, feelings, a power somehow of
expressing itself. I had not the same sense of unwillingness to turn my
back upon the scene of the mystery which I had experienced in going to
the stables; but I almost ran home, impelled by eagerness to get
everything done that had to be done, in order to apply myself to finding
it out. Bagley was in the hall as usual when I went in. He was always
there in the afternoon, always with the appearance of perfect
occupation, yet, so far as I know, never doing anything. The door was
open, so that I hurried in without any pause, breathless; but the sight
of his calm regard, as he came to help me off with my overcoat, subdued
me in a moment. Anything out of the way, anything incomprehensible,
faded to nothing in the presence of Bagley. You saw and wondered how
_he_ was made: the parting of his hair, the tie of his white neckcloth,
the fit of his trousers, all perfect as works of art; but you could see
how they were done, which makes all the difference. I flung myself upon
him, so to speak, without waiting to note the extreme unlikeness of the
man to anything of the kind I meant. "Bagley," I said, "I want you to
come out with me to-night to watch for--"
"Poachers, Colonel?" he said, a gleam of pleasure running all over him.
"No, Bagley; a great deal worse," I cried.
"Yes, Colonel; at what hour, sir?" the man said; but then I had not told
him what it was.
It was ten o'clock when we set out. All was perfectly quiet indoors. My
wife was with Roland, who had been quite calm, she said, and who (though,
no doubt, the fever must run its course) had been better ever since I
came. I told Bagley to put on a thick greatcoat over his evening coat,
and did the same myself, with strong boots; for the soil was like a
sponge, or worse. Talking to him, I almost forgot what we were going to
do. It was darker even than it had been before, and Bagley kept very
close to me as we went along. I had a small lantern in my hand, which
gave us a partial guidance. We had come to the corner where the path
turns. On one side was the bowling-green, which the girls had taken
possession of for their croquet-ground,--a wonderful enclosure surrounded
by high hedges of holly, three hundred years old and more; on the other,
the ruins. Both were black as night; but before we got so far, there was
a little opening in which we could just discern the trees and the lighter
line of the road. I thought it best to pause there and take breath.
"Bagley," I said, "there is something about these ruins I don't
understand. It is there I am going. Keep your eyes open and your wits
about you. Be ready to pounce upon any stranger you see,--anything, man
or woman. Don't hurt, but seize anything you see." "Colonel," said
Bagley, with a little tremor in his breath, "they do say there's things
there--as is neither man nor woman." There was no time for words. "Are
you game to follow me, my man? that's the question," I said. Bagley fell
in without a word, and saluted. I knew then I had nothing to fear.
We went, so far as I could guess, exactly as I had come; when I heard
that sigh. The darkness, however, was so complete that all marks, as of
trees or paths, disappeared. One moment we felt our feet on the gravel,
another sinking noiselessly into the slippery grass, that was all. I had
shut up my lantern, not wishing to scare any one, whoever it might be.
Bagley followed, it seemed to me, exactly in my footsteps as I made my
way, as I supposed, towards the mass of the ruined house. We seemed to
take a long time groping along seeking this; the squash of the wet soil
under our feet was the only thing that marked our progress. After a while
I stood still to see, or rather feel, where we were. The darkness was
very still, but no stiller than is usual in a winter's night. The sounds
I have mentioned--the crackling of twigs, the roll of a pebble, the sound
of some rustle in the dead leaves, or creeping creature on the
grass--were audible when you listened, all mysterious enough when your
mind is disengaged, but to me cheering now as signs of the livingness of
nature, even in the death of the frost. As we stood still there came up
from the trees in the glen the prolonged hoot of an owl. Bagley started
with alarm, being in a state of general nervousness, and not knowing what
he was afraid of. But to me the sound was encouraging and pleasant, being
"An owl," I said, under my breath. "Y--es, Colonel," said Bagley, his
teeth chattering. We stood still about five minutes, while it broke into
the still brooding of the air, the sound widening out in circles, dying
upon the darkness. This sound, which is not a cheerful one, made me
almost gay. It was natural, and relieved the tension of the mind. I moved
on with new courage, my nervous excitement calming down.
When all at once, quite suddenly, close to us, at our feet, there broke
out a cry. I made a spring backwards in the first moment of surprise and
horror, and in doing so came sharply against the same rough masonry and
brambles that had struck me before. This new sound came upwards from the
ground,--a low, moaning, wailing voice, full of suffering and pain. The
contrast between it and the hoot of the owl was indescribable,--the one
with a wholesome wildness and naturalness that hurt nobody; the other, a
sound that made one's blood curdle, full of human misery. With a great
deal of fumbling,--for in spite of everything I could do to keep up my
courage my hands shook,--I managed to remove the slide of my lantern. The
light leaped out like something living, and made the place visible in a
moment. We were what would have been inside the ruined building had
anything remained but the gable-wall which I have described. It was close
to us, the vacant door-way in it going out straight into the blackness
outside. The light showed the bit of wall, the ivy glistening upon it in
clouds of dark green, the bramble-branches waving, and below, the open
door,--a door that led to nothing. It was from this the voice came which
died out just as the light flashed upon this strange scene. There was a
moment's silence, and then it broke forth again. The sound was so near,
so penetrating, so pitiful, that, in the nervous start I gave, the light
fell out of my hand. As I groped for it in the dark my hand was clutched
by Bagley, who, I think, must have dropped upon his knees; but I was too
much perturbed myself to think much of this. He clutched at me in the
confusion of his terror, forgetting all his usual decorum. "For God's
sake, what is it, sir?" he gasped. If I yielded, there was evidently an
end of both of us. "I can't tell," I said, "any more than you; that's
what we've got to find out. Up, man, up!" I pulled him to his feet. "Will
you go round and examine the other side, or will you stay here with the
lantern?" Bagley gasped at me with a face of horror. "Can't we stay
together, Colonel?" he said; his knees were trembling under him. I pushed
him against the corner of the wall, and put the light into his hands.
"Stand fast till I come back; shake yourself together, man; let nothing
pass you," I said. The voice was within two or three feet of us; of that
there could be no doubt.
I went myself to the other side of the wall, keeping close to it. The
light shook in Bagley's hand, but, tremulous though it was, shone out
through the vacant door, one oblong block of light marking all the
crumbling corners and hanging masses of foliage. Was that something dark
huddled in a heap by the side of it? I pushed forward across the light in
the door-way, and fell upon it with my hands; but it was only a
juniper-bush growing close against the wall. Meanwhile, the sight of my
figure crossing the door-way had brought Bagley's nervous excitement to a
height: he flew at me, gripping my shoulder. "I've got him, Colonel!
I've got him!" he cried, with a voice of sudden exultation. He thought it
was a man, and was at once relieved. But at that moment the voice burst
forth again between us, at our feet,--more close to us than any separate
being could be. He dropped off from me, and fell against the wall, his
jaw dropping as if he were dying. I suppose, at the same moment, he saw
that it was me whom he had clutched. I, for my part, had scarcely more
command of myself. I snatched the light out of his hand, and flashed it
all about me wildly. Nothing,--the juniper-bush which I thought I had
never seen before, the heavy growth of the glistening ivy, the brambles
waving. It was close to my ears now, crying, crying, pleading as if for
life. Either I heard the same words Roland had heard, or else, in my
excitement, his imagination got possession of mine. The voice went on,
growing into distinct articulation, but wavering about, now from one
point, now from another, as if the owner of it were moving slowly back
and forward. "Mother! mother!" and then an outburst of wailing. As my
mind steadied, getting accustomed (as one's mind gets accustomed to
anything), it seemed to me as if some uneasy, miserable creature was
pacing up and down before a closed door. Sometimes--but that must have
been excitement--I thought I heard a sound like knocking, and then
another burst, "Oh, mother! mother!" All this close, close to the space
where I was standing with my lantern, now before me, now behind me: a
creature restless, unhappy, moaning, crying, before the vacant door-way,
which no one could either shut or open more.
"Do you hear it, Bagley? do you hear what it is saying?" I cried,
stepping in through the door-way. He was lying against the wall, his eyes
glazed, half dead with terror. He made a motion of his lips as if to
answer me, but no sounds came; then lifted his hand with a curious
imperative movement as if ordering me to be silent and listen. And how
long I did so I cannot tell. It began to have an interest, an exciting
hold upon me, which I could not describe. It seemed to call up visibly a
scene any one could understand,--a something shut out, restlessly
wandering to and fro; sometimes the voice dropped, as if throwing itself
down, sometimes wandered off a few paces, growing sharp and clear. "Oh,
mother, let me in! oh, mother, mother, let me in! oh, let me in!" Every
word was clear to me. No wonder the boy had gone wild with pity. I tried
to steady my mind upon Roland, upon his conviction that I could do
something, but my head swam with the excitement, even when I partially
overcame the terror. At last the words died away, and there was a sound
of sobs and moaning. I cried out, "In the name of God, who are you?" with
a kind of feeling in my mind that to use the name of God was profane,
seeing that I did not believe in ghosts or anything supernatural; but I
did it all the same, and waited, my heart giving a leap of terror lest
there should be a reply. Why this should have been I cannot tell, but I
had a feeling that if there was an answer it would be more than I could
bear. But there was no answer; the moaning went on, and then, as if it
had been real, the voice rose a little higher again, the words
recommenced, "Oh, mother, let me in! oh, mother, let me in!" with an
expression that was heart-breaking to hear.
_As if it had been real_! What do I mean by that? I suppose I got less
alarmed as the thing went on. I began to recover the use of my senses,--I
seemed to explain it all to myself by saying that this had once happened,
that it was a recollection of a real scene. Why there should have seemed
something quite satisfactory and composing in this explanation I cannot
tell, but so it was. I began to listen almost as if it had been a play,
forgetting Bagley, who, I almost think, had fainted, leaning against the
wall. I was startled out of this strange spectatorship that had fallen
upon me by the sudden rush of something which made my heart jump once
more, a large black figure in the door-way waving its arms. "Come in!
come in! come in!" it shouted out hoarsely at the top of a deep bass
voice, and then poor Bagley fell down senseless across the threshold. He
was less sophisticated than I,--he had not been able to bear it any
longer. I took him for something supernatural, as he took me, and it was
some time before I awoke to the necessities of the moment. I remembered
only after, that from the time I began to give my attention to the man, I
heard the other voice no more. It was some time before I brought him to.
It must have been a strange scene: the lantern making a luminous spot in
the darkness, the man's white face lying on the black earth, I over him,
doing what I could for him, probably I should have been thought to be
murdering him had any one seen us. When at last I succeeded in pouring a
little brandy down his throat, he sat up and looked about him wildly.
"What's up?" he said; then recognizing me, tried to struggle to his feet
with a faint "Beg your pardon, Colonel." I got him home as best I could,
making him lean upon my arm. The great fellow was as weak as a child.
Fortunately he did not for some time remember what had happened. From the
time Bagley fell the voice had stopped, and all was still.
* * * * *
"You've got an epidemic in your house, Colonel," Simson said to me next
morning. "What's the meaning of it all? Here's your butler raving about a
voice. This will never do, you know; and so far as I can make out, you
are in it too."
"Yes, I am in it, Doctor. I thought I had better speak to you. Of course
you are treating Roland all right, but the boy is not raving, he is as
sane as you or me. It's all true."
"As sane as--I--or you. I never thought the boy insane. He's got cerebral
excitement, fever. I don't know what you've got. There's something very
queer about the look of your eyes."
"Come," said I, "you can't put us all to bed, you know. You had better
listen and hear the symptoms in full."
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders, but he listened to me patiently. He
did not believe a word of the story, that was clear; but he heard it all
from beginning to end. "My dear fellow," he said, "the boy told me just
the same. It's an epidemic. When one person falls a victim to this sort
of thing, it's as safe as can be,--there's always two or three."
"Then how do you account for it?" I said.
"Oh, account for it!--that's a different matter; there's no accounting
for the freaks our brains are subject to. If it's delusion, if it's some
trick of the echoes or the winds,--some phonetic disturbance or other--"
"Come with me to-night, and judge for yourself," I said.
Upon this he laughed aloud, then said, "That's not such a bad idea; but
it would ruin me forever if it were known that John Simson was
"There it is," said I; "you dart down on us who are unlearned with your
phonetic disturbances, but you daren't examine what the thing really is
for fear of being laughed at. That's science!"
"It's not science,--it's common-sense," said the Doctor. "The thing has
delusion on the front of it. It is encouraging an unwholesome tendency
even to examine. What good could come of it? Even if I am convinced, I
"I should have said so yesterday; and I don't want you to be convinced or
to believe," said I. "If you prove it to be a delusion, I shall be very
much obliged to you for one. Come; somebody must go with me."
"You are cool," said the Doctor. "You've disabled this poor fellow of
yours, and made him--on that point--a lunatic for life; and now you want
to disable me. But, for once, I'll do it. To save appearance, if you'll
give me a bed, I'll come over after my last rounds."
It was agreed that I should meet him at the gate, and that we should
visit the scene of last night's occurrences before we came to the house,
so that nobody might be the wiser. It was scarcely possible to hope that
the cause of Bagley's sudden illness should not somehow steal into the
knowledge of the servants at least, and it was better that all should be
done as quietly as possible. The day seemed to me a very long one. I had
to spend a certain part of it with Roland, which was a terrible ordeal
for me, for what could I say to the boy? The improvement continued, but
he was still in a very precarious state, and the trembling vehemence with
which he turned to me when his mother left the room filled me with alarm.
"Father?" he said quietly. "Yes, my boy, I am giving my best attention to
it; all is being done that I can do. I have not come to any
conclusion--yet. I am neglecting nothing you said," I cried. What I could
not do was to give his active mind any encouragement to dwell upon the
mystery. It was a hard predicament, for some satisfaction had to be given
him. He looked at me very wistfully, with the great blue eyes which shone
so large and brilliant out of his white and worn face. "You must trust
me," I said. "Yes, father. Father understands," he said to himself, as if
to soothe some inward doubt. I left him as soon as I could. He was about
the most precious thing I had on earth, and his health my first thought;
but yet somehow, in the excitement of this other subject, I put that
aside, and preferred not to dwell upon Roland, which was the most curious
part of it all.
That night at eleven I met Simson at the gate. He had come by train, and
I let him in gently myself. I had been so much absorbed in the coming
experiment that I passed the ruins in going to meet him, almost without
thought, if you can understand that. I had my lantern; and he showed me a
coil of taper which he had ready for use. "There is nothing like light,"
he said, in his scoffing tone. It was a very still night, scarcely a
sound, but not so dark. We could keep the path without difficulty as we
went along. As we approached the spot we could hear a low moaning, broken
occasionally by a bitter cry. "Perhaps that is your voice," said the
Doctor; "I thought it must be something of the kind. That's a poor brute
caught in some of these infernal traps of yours; you'll find it among the
bushes somewhere." I said nothing. I felt no particular fear, but a
triumphant satisfaction in what was to follow. I led him to the spot
where Bagley and I had stood on the previous night. All was silent as a
winter night could be,--so silent that we heard far off the sound of the
horses in the stables, the shutting of a window at the house. Simson
lighted his taper and went peering about, poking into all the corners. We
looked like two conspirators lying in wait for some unfortunate
traveller; but not a sound broke the quiet. The moaning had stopped
before we came up; a star or two shone over us in the sky, looking down
as if surprised at our strange proceedings. Dr. Simson did nothing but
utter subdued laughs under his breath. "I thought as much," he said. "It
is just the same with tables and all other kinds of ghostly apparatus; a
sceptic's presence stops everything. When I am present nothing ever comes
off. How long do you think it will be necessary to stay here? Oh, I don't
complain; only when _you_ are satisfied, _I_ am--quite."
I will not deny that I was disappointed beyond measure by this result. It
made me look like a credulous fool. It gave the Doctor such a pull over
me as nothing else could. I should point all his morals for years to
come; and his materialism, his scepticism, would be increased beyond
endurance. "It seems, indeed," I said, "that there is to be no--"
"Manifestation," he said, laughing; "that is what all the mediums say. No
manifestations, in consequence of the presence of an unbeliever." His
laugh sounded very uncomfortable to me in the silence; and it was now
near midnight. But that laugh seemed the signal; before it died away the
moaning we had heard before was resumed. It started from some distance
off, and came towards us, nearer and nearer, like some one walking along
and moaning to himself. There could be no idea now that it was a hare
caught in a trap. The approach was slow, like that of a weak person, with
little halts and pauses. We heard it coming along the grass straight
towards the vacant door-way. Simson had been a little startled by the
first sound. He said hastily, "That child has no business to be out so
late." But he felt, as well as I, that this was no child's voice. As it
came nearer, he grew silent, and, going to the door-way with his taper,
stood looking out towards the sound. The taper being unprotected blew
about in the night air, though there was scarcely any wind. I threw the
light of my lantern steady and white across the same space. It was in a
blaze of light in the midst of the blackness. A little icy thrill had
gone over me at the first sound, but as it came close, I confess that my
only feeling was satisfaction. The scoffer could scoff no more. The light
touched his own face, and showed a very perplexed countenance. If he was
afraid, he concealed it with great success, but he was perplexed. And
then all that had happened on the previous night was enacted once more.
It fell strangely upon me with a sense of repetition. Every cry, every
sob seemed the same as before. I listened almost without any emotion at
all in my own person, thinking of its effect upon Simson. He maintained a
very bold front, on the whole. All that coming and going of the voice
was, if our ears could be trusted, exactly in front of the vacant, blank
door-way, blazing full of light, which caught and shone in the glistening
leaves of the great hollies at a little distance. Not a rabbit could have
crossed the turf without being seen; but there was nothing. After a time,
Simson, with a certain caution and bodily reluctance, as it seemed to me,
went out with his roll of taper into this space. His figure showed
against the holly in full outline. Just at this moment the voice sank, as
was its custom, and seemed to fling itself down at the door. Simson
recoiled violently, as if some one had come up against him, then turned,
and held his taper low, as if examining something. "Do you see anybody?"
I cried in a whisper, feeling the chill of nervous panic steal over me at
this action. "It's nothing but a--confounded juniper-bush," he said. This
I knew very well to be nonsense, for the juniper-bush was on the other
side. He went about after this round and round, poking his taper
everywhere, then returned to me on the inner side of the wall. He scoffed
no longer; his face was contracted and pale. "How long does this go on?"
he whispered to me, like a man who does not wish to interrupt some one
who is speaking. I had become too much perturbed myself to remark whether
the successions and changes of the voice were the same as last night. It
suddenly went out in the air almost as he was speaking, with a soft
reiterated sob dying away. If there had been anything to be seen, I
should have said that the person was at that moment crouching on the
ground close to the door.
We walked home very silent afterwards. It was only when we were in sight
of the house that I said, "What do you think of it?" "I can't tell what
to think of it," he said quickly. He took--though he was a very temperate
man--not the claret I was going to offer him, but some brandy from the
tray, and swallowed it almost undiluted. "Mind you, I don't believe a
word of it," he said, when he had lighted his candle; "but I can't tell
what to think," he turned round to add, when he was half-way upstairs.
All of this, however, did me no good with the solution of my problem. I
was to help this weeping, sobbing thing, which was already to me as
distinct a personality as anything I knew; or what should I say to
Roland? It was on my heart that my boy would die if I could not find some
way of helping this creature. You may be surprised that I should speak of
it in this way. I did not know if it was man or woman; but I no more
doubted that it was a soul in pain than I doubted my own being; and it
was my business to soothe this pain,--to deliver it, if that was
possible. Was ever such a task given to an anxious father trembling for
his only boy? I felt in my heart, fantastic as it may appear, that I must
fulfill this somehow, or part with my child; and you may conceive that
rather than do that I was ready to die. But even my dying would not have
advanced me, unless by bringing me into the same world with that seeker
at the door.
* * * * *
Next morning Simson was out before breakfast, and came in with evident
signs of the damp grass on his boots, and a look of worry and weariness,
which did not say much for the night he had passed. He improved a little
after breakfast, and visited his two patients,--for Bagley was still an
invalid. I went out with him on his way to the train, to hear what he
had to say about the boy. "He is going on very well," he said; "there are
no complications as yet. But mind you, that's not a boy to be trifled
with, Mortimer. Not a word to him about last night." I had to tell him
then of my last interview with Roland, and of the impossible demand he
had made upon me, by which, though he tried to laugh, he was much
discomposed, as I could see. "We must just perjure ourselves all round,"
he said, "and swear you exorcised it;" but the man was too kind-hearted
to be satisfied with that. "It's frightfully serious for you, Mortimer. I
can't laugh as I should like to. I wish I saw a way out of it, for your
sake. By the way," he added shortly, "didn't you notice that juniper-bush
on the left-hand side?" "There was one on the right hand of the door. I
noticed you made that mistake last night." "Mistake!" he cried, with a
curious low laugh, pulling up the collar of his coat as though he felt
the cold,--"there's no juniper there this morning, left or right. Just go
and see." As he stepped into the train a few minutes after, he looked
back upon me and beckoned me for a parting word. "I'm coming back
to-night," he said.
I don't think I had any feeling about this as I turned away from that
common bustle of the railway which made my private preoccupations feel so
strangely out of date. There had been a distinct satisfaction in my mind
before, that his scepticism had been so entirely defeated. But the more
serious part of the matter pressed upon me now. I went straight from the
railway to the manse, which stood on a little plateau on the side of the
river opposite to the woods of Brentwood. The minister was one of a class
which is not so common in Scotland as it used to be. He was a man of good
family, well educated in the Scotch way, strong in philosophy, not so
strong in Greek, strongest of all in experience,--a man who had "come
across," in the course of his life, most people of note that had ever
been in Scotland, and who was said to be very sound in doctrine, without
infringing the toleration with which old men, who are good men, are
generally endowed. He was old-fashioned; perhaps he did not think so much
about the troublous problems of theology as many of the young men, nor
ask himself any hard questions about the Confession of Faith; but he
understood human nature, which is perhaps better. He received me with a
"Come away, Colonel Mortimer," he said; "I'm all the more glad to see
you, that I feel it's a good sign for the boy. He's doing well?--God be
praised,--and the Lord bless him and keep him. He has many a poor body's
prayers, and that can do nobody harm."
"He will need them all, Dr. Moncrieff," I said, "and your counsel too."
And I told him the story,--more than I had told Simson. The old clergyman
listened to me with many suppressed exclamations, and at the end the
water stood in his eyes.
"That's just beautiful," he said. "I do not mind to have heard anything
like it; it's as fine as Burns when he wished deliverance to one--that is
prayed for in no kirk. Ay, ay! so he would have you console the poor lost
spirit? God bless the boy! There's something more than common in that,
Colonel Mortimer. And also the faith of him in his father!--I would like
to put that into a sermon." Then the old gentleman gave me an alarmed
look, and said, "No, no; I was not meaning a sermon; but I must write it
down for the 'Children's Record.'" I saw the thought that passed through
his mind. Either he thought, or he feared I would think, of a funeral
sermon. You may believe this did not make me more cheerful.
I can scarcely say that Dr. Moncrieff gave me any advice. How could any
one advise on such a subject? But he said, "I think I'll come too. I'm an
old man; I'm less liable to be frightened than those that are further off
the world unseen. It behooves me to think of my own journey there. I've
no cut-and-dry beliefs on the subject. I'll come too; and maybe at the
moment the Lord will put into our heads what to do."
This gave me a little comfort,--more than Simson had given me. To be
clear about the cause of it was not my grand desire. It was another thing
that was in my mind,--my boy. As for the poor soul at the open door, I
had no more doubt, as I have said, of its existence than I had of my own.
It was no ghost to me. I knew the creature, and it was in trouble. That
was my feeling about it, as it was Roland's. To hear it first was a great
shock to my nerves, but not now; a man will get accustomed to anything.
But to do something for it was the great problem; how was I to be
serviceable to a being that was invisible, that was mortal no longer?
"Maybe at the moment the Lord will put it into our heads." This is very
old-fashioned phraseology, and a week before, most likely, I should have
smiled (though always with kindness) at Dr. Moncrieff's credulity; but
there was a great comfort, whether rational or otherwise I cannot say, in
the mere sound of the words.
The road to the station and the village lay through the glen, not by the
ruins; but though the sunshine and the fresh air, and the beauty of the
trees, and the sound of the water were all very soothing to the spirits,
my mind was so full of my own subject that I could not refrain from
turning to the right hand as I got to the top of the glen, and going
straight to the place which I may call the scene of all my thoughts. It
was lying full in the sunshine, like all the rest of the world. The
ruined gable looked due east, and in the present aspect of the sun the
light streamed down through the door-way as our lantern had done,
throwing a flood of light upon the damp grass beyond. There was a strange
suggestion in the open door,--so futile, a kind of emblem of vanity: all
free around, so that you could go where you pleased, and yet that
semblance of an enclosure,--that way of entrance, unnecessary, leading to
nothing. And why any creature should pray and weep to get in--to nothing,
or be kept out--by nothing, you could not dwell upon it, or it made your
brain go round. I remembered, however, what Simson said about the
juniper, with a little smile on my own mind as to the inaccuracy of
recollection which even a scientific man will be guilty of. I could see
now the light of my lantern gleaming upon the wet glistening surface of
the spiky leaves at the right hand,--and he ready to go to the stake for
it that it was the left! I went round to make sure. And then I saw what
he had said. Right or left there was no juniper at all! I was confounded
by this, though it was entirely a matter of detail nothing at all,--a
bush of brambles waving, the grass growing up to the very walls. But
after all, though it gave me a shock for a moment, what did that matter?
There were marks as if a number of footsteps had been up and down in
front of the door, but these might have been our steps; and all was
bright and peaceful and still. I poked about the other ruin--the larger
ruins of the old house--for some time, as I had done before. There were
marks upon the grass here and there--I could not call them
footsteps--all about; but that told for nothing one way or another. I had
examined the ruined rooms closely the first day. They were half filled up
with soil and _debris_, withered brackens and bramble,--no refuge for any
one there. It vexed me that Jarvis should see me coming from that spot
when he came up to me for his orders. I don't know whether my nocturnal
expeditions had got wind among the servants, but there was a significant
look in his face. Something in it I felt was like my own sensation when
Simson in the midst of his scepticism was struck dumb. Jarvis felt
satisfied that his veracity had been put beyond question. I never spoke
to a servant of mine in such a peremptory tone before. I sent him away
"with a flea in his lug," as the man described it afterwards.
Interference of any kind was intolerable to me at such a moment.
But what was strangest of all was, that I could not face Roland. I did
not go up to his room, as I would have naturally done, at once. This the
girls could not understand. They saw there was some mystery in it.
"Mother has gone to lie down," Agatha said; "he has had such a good
night." "But he wants you so, papa!" cried little Jeanie, always with her
two arms embracing mine in a pretty way she had. I was obliged to go at
last, but what could I say? I could only kiss him, and tell him to keep
still,--that I was doing all I could. There is something mystical about
the patience of a child. "It will come all right, won't it, father?" he
said. "God grant it may! I hope so, Roland." "Oh, yes, it will come all
right." Perhaps he understood that in the midst of my anxiety I could not
stay with him as I should have done otherwise. But the girls were more
surprised than it is possible to describe. They looked at me with
wondering eyes. "If I were ill, papa, and you only stayed with me a
moment, I should break my heart," said Agatha. But the boy had a
sympathetic feeling. He knew that of my own will I would not have done
it. I shut myself up in the library, where I could not rest, but kept
pacing up and down like a caged beast. What could I do? and if I could do
nothing, what would become of my boy? These were the questions that,
without ceasing, pursued each other through my mind.
Simson came out to dinner, and when the house was all still, and most of
the servants in bed, we went out and met Dr. Moncrieff, as we had
appointed, at the head of the glen. Simson, for his part, was disposed to
scoff at the Doctor. "If there are to be any spells, you know, I'll cut
the whole concern," he said. I did not make him any reply. I had not
invited him; he could go or come as he pleased. He was very talkative,
far more so than suited my humor, as we went on. "One thing is certain,
you know; there must be some human agency," he said. "It is all bosh
about apparitions. I never have investigated the laws of sound to any
great extent, and there's a great deal in ventriloquism that we don't
know much about." "If it's the same to you," I said, "I wish you'd keep
all that to yourself, Simson. It doesn't suit my state of mind." "Oh, I
hope I know how to respect idiosyncrasy," he said. The very tone of his
voice irritated me beyond measure. These scientific fellows, I wonder
people put up with them as they do, when you have no mind for their
cold-blooded confidence. Dr. Moncrieff met us about eleven o'clock, the
same time as on the previous night. He was a large man, with a venerable
countenance and white hair,--old, but in full vigor, and thinking less
of a cold night walk than many a younger man. He had his lantern, as I
had. We were fully provided with means of lighting the place, and we were
all of us resolute men. We had a rapid consultation as we went up, and
the result was that we divided to different posts. Dr. Moncrieff remained
inside the wall--if you can call that inside where there was no wall but
one. Simson placed himself on the side next the ruins, so as to intercept
any communication with the old house, which was what his mind was fixed
upon. I was posted on the other side. To say that nothing could come near
without being seen was self-evident. It had been so also on the previous
night. Now, with our three lights in the midst of the darkness, the whole
place seemed illuminated. Dr. Moncrieff's lantern, which was a large one,
without any means of shutting up,--an old-fashioned lantern with a
pierced and ornamental top,--shone steadily, the rays shooting out of it
upward into the gloom. He placed it on the grass, where the middle of the
room, if this had been a room, would have been. The usual effect of the
light streaming out of the door-way was prevented by the illumination
which Simson and I on either side supplied. With these differences,
everything seemed as on the previous night.
And what occurred was exactly the same, with the same air of repetition,
point for point, as I had formerly remarked. I declare that it seemed to
me as if I were pushed against, put aside, by the owner of the voice as
he paced up and down in his trouble,--though these are perfectly futile
words, seeing that the stream of light from my lantern, and that from
Simson's taper, lay broad and clear, without a shadow, without the
smallest break, across the entire breadth of the grass. I had ceased even
to be alarmed, for my part. My heart was rent with pity and
trouble,--pity for the poor suffering human creature that moaned and
pleaded so, and trouble for myself and my boy. God! if I could not find
any help,--and what help could I find?--Roland would die.
We were all perfectly still till the first outburst was exhausted, as I
knew, by experience, it would be. Dr. Moncrieff, to whom it was new, was
quite motionless on the other side of the wall, as we were in our places.
My heart had remained almost at its usual beating during the voice. I was
used to it; it did not rouse all my pulses as it did at first. But just
as it threw itself sobbing at the door (I cannot use other words), there
suddenly came something which sent the blood coursing through my veins,
and my heart into my mouth. It was a voice inside the wall,--the
minister's well-known voice. I would have been prepared for it in any
kind of adjuration, but I was not prepared for what I heard. It came out
with a sort of stammering, as if too much moved for utterance. "Willie,
Willie! Oh, God preserve us! is it you?"
These simple words had an effect upon me that the voice of the
invisible creature had ceased to have. I thought the old man, whom I
had brought into this danger, had gone mad with terror. I made a dash
round to the other side of the wall, half crazed myself with the
thought. He was standing where I had left him, his shadow thrown vague
and large upon the grass by the lantern which stood at his feet. I
lifted my own light to see his face as I rushed forward. He was very
pale, his eyes wet and glistening, his mouth quivering with parted
lips. He neither saw nor heard me. We that had gone through this
experience before, had crouched towards each other to get a little
strength to bear it. But he was not even aware that I was there. His
whole being seemed absorbed in anxiety and tenderness. He held out his
hands, which trembled, but it seemed to me with eagerness, not fear. He
went on speaking all the time. "Willie, if it is you,--and it's you, if
it is not a delusion of Satan,--Willie, lad! why come ye here frighting
them that know you not? Why came ye not to me?"
He seemed to wait for an answer. When his voice ceased, his countenance,
every line moving, continued to speak. Simson gave me another terrible
shock, stealing into the open door-way with his light, as much
awe-stricken, as wildly curious, as I. But the minister resumed, without
seeing Simson, speaking to some one else. His voice took a tone of
"Is this right to come here? Your mother's gone with your name on her
lips. Do you think she would ever close her door on her own lad? Do ye
think the Lord will close the door, ye faint-hearted creature? No!--I
forbid ye! I forbid ye!" cried the old man. The sobbing voice had begun
to resume its cries. He made a step forward, calling out the last words
in a voice of command. "I forbid ye! Cry out no more to man. Go home, ye
wandering spirit! go home! Do you hear me?--me that christened ye, that
have struggled with ye, that have wrestled for ye with the Lord!" Here
the loud tones of his voice sank into tenderness. "And her too, poor
woman! poor woman! her you are calling upon. She's not here. You'll find
her with the Lord. Go there and seek her, not here. Do you hear me, lad?
go after her there. He'll let you in, though it's late. Man, take heart!
if you will lie and sob and greet, let it be at heaven's gate, and not
your poor mother's ruined door."
He stopped to get his breath; and the voice had stopped, not as it had
done before, when its time was exhausted and all its repetitions said,
but with a sobbing catch in the breath as if overruled. Then the
minister spoke again, "Are you hearing me, Will? Oh, laddie, you've liked
the beggarly elements all your days. Be done with them now. Go home to
the Father--the Father! Are you hearing me?" Here the old man sank down
upon his knees, his face raised upwards, his hands held up with a tremble
in them, all white in the light in the midst of the darkness. I resisted
as long as I could, though I cannot tell why; then I, too, dropped upon
my knees. Simson all the time stood in the door-way, with an expression
in his face such as words could not tell, his under lip dropped, his eyes
wild, staring. It seemed to be to him, that image of blank ignorance and
wonder, that we were praying. All the time the voice, with a low arrested
sobbing, lay just where he was standing, as I thought.
"Lord," the minister said,--"Lord, take him into Thy everlasting
habitations. The mother he cries to is with Thee. Who can open to him but
Thee? Lord, when is it too late for Thee, or what is too hard for Thee?
Lord, let that woman there draw him inower! Let her draw him inower!"
I sprang forward to catch something in my arms that flung itself wildly
within the door. The illusion was so strong, that I never paused till I
felt my forehead graze against the wall and my hands clutch the
ground,--for there was nobody there to save from falling, as in my
foolishness I thought. Simson held out his hand to me to help me up. He
was trembling and cold, his lower lip hanging, his speech almost
inarticulate. "It's gone," he said, stammering,--"it's gone!" We leaned
upon each other for a moment, trembling so much, both of us, that the
whole scene trembled as if it were going to dissolve and disappear; and
yet as long as I live I will never forget it,--the shining of the
strange lights, the blackness all round, the kneeling figure with all
the whiteness of the light concentrated on its white venerable head and
uplifted hands. A strange solemn stillness seemed to close all round us.
By intervals a single syllable, "Lord! Lord!" came from the old
minister's lips. He saw none of us, nor thought of us. I never knew how
long we stood, like sentinels guarding him at his prayers, holding our
lights in a confused dazed way, not knowing what we did. But at last he
rose from his knees, and standing up at his full height, raised his
arms, as the Scotch manner is at the end of a religious service, and
solemnly gave the apostolical benediction,--to what? to the silent
earth, the dark woods, the wide breathing atmosphere; for we were but
spectators gasping an Amen!
It seemed to me that it must be the middle of the night, as we all walked
back. It was in reality very late. Dr. Moncrieff put his arm into mine.
He walked slowly, with an air of exhaustion. It was as if we were coming
from a death-bed. Something hushed and solemnized the very air. There was
that sense of relief in it which there always is at the end of a
death-struggle. And nature, persistent, never daunted, came back in all
of us, as we returned into the ways of life. We said nothing to each
other, indeed, for a time; but when we got clear of the trees and
reached the opening near the house, where we could see the sky, Dr.
Moncrieff himself was the first to speak. "I must be going," he said;
"it's very late, I'm afraid. I will go down the glen, as I came."
"But not alone. I am going with you, Doctor."
"Well, I will not oppose it. I am an old man, and agitation wearies more
than work. Yes; I'll be thankful of your arm. To-night, Colonel, you've
done me more good turns than one."
I pressed his hand on my arm, not feeling able to speak. But Simson,
who turned with us, and who had gone along all this time with his taper
flaring, in entire unconsciousness, came to himself, apparently at the
sound of our voices, and put out that wild little torch with a quick
movement, as if of shame. "Let me carry your lantern," he said; "it is
heavy." He recovered with a spring; and in a moment, from the
awe-stricken spectator he had been, became himself, sceptical and
cynical. "I should like to ask you a question," he said. "Do you
believe in Purgatory, Doctor? It's not in the tenets of the Church, so
far as I know."
"Sir," said Dr. Moncrieff, "an old man like me is sometimes not very
sure what he believes. There is just one thing I am certain of--and that
is the loving-kindness of God."
"But I thought that was in this life. I am no theologian--"
"Sir," said the old man again, with a tremor in him which I could feel
going over all his frame, "if I saw a friend of mine within the gates of
hell, I would not despair but his Father would take him by the hand
still, if he cried like _you_."
"I allow it is very strange, very strange. I cannot see through it. That
there must be human agency, I feel sure. Doctor, what made you decide
upon the person and the name?"
The minister put out his hand with the impatience which a man might show
if he were asked how he recognized his brother. "Tuts!" he said, in
familiar speech; then more solemnly, "How should I not recognize a person
that I know better--far better--than I know you?"
"Then you saw the man?"
Dr. Moncrieff made no reply. He moved his hand again with a little
impatient movement, and walked on, leaning heavily on my arm. And we went
on for a long time without another word, threading the dark paths, which
were steep and slippery with the damp of the winter. The air was very
still,--not more than enough to make a faint sighing in the branches,
which mingled with the sound of the water to which we were descending.
When we spoke again, it was about indifferent matters,--about the height
of the river, and the recent rains. We parted with the minister at his
own door, where his old housekeeper appeared in great perturbation,
waiting for him. "Eh, me, minister! the young gentleman will be worse?"
"Far from that--better. God bless him!" Dr. Moncrieff said.
I think if Simson had begun again to me with his questions, I should have
pitched him over the rocks as we returned up the glen; but he was silent,
by a good inspiration. And the sky was clearer than it had been for many
nights, shining high over the trees, with here and there a star faintly
gleaming through the wilderness of dark and bare branches. The air, as I
have said, was very soft in them, with a subdued and peaceful cadence. It
was real, like every natural sound, and came to us like a hush of peace
and relief. I thought there was a sound in it as of the breath of a
sleeper, and it seemed clear to me that Roland must be sleeping,
satisfied and calm. We went up to his room when we went in. There we
found the complete hush of rest. My wife looked up out of a doze, and
gave me a smile: "I think he is a great deal better; but you are very
late," she said in a whisper, shading the light with her hand that the
Doctor might see his patient. The boy had got back something like his own
color. He woke as we stood all round his bed. His eyes had the happy,
half-awakened look of childhood, glad to shut again, yet pleased with the
interruption and glimmer of the light. I stooped over him and kissed his
forehead, which was moist and cool. "All is well, Roland," I said. He
looked up at me with a glance of pleasure, and took my hand and laid his
cheek upon it, and so went to sleep.
* * * * *
For some nights after, I watched among the ruins, spending all the dark
hours up to midnight patrolling about the bit of wall which was
associated with so many emotions; but I heard nothing, and saw nothing
beyond the quiet course of nature; nor, so far as I am aware, has
anything been heard again. Dr. Moncrieff gave me the history of the
youth, whom he never hesitated to name. I did not ask, as Simson did, how
he recognized him. He had been a prodigal,--weak, foolish, easily imposed
upon, and "led away," as people say. All that we had heard had passed
actually in life, the Doctor said. The young man had come home thus a day
or two after his mother died,--who was no more than the housekeeper in
the old house,--and distracted with the news, had thrown himself down at
the door and called upon her to let him in. The old man could scarcely
speak of it for tears. To me it seemed as if--Heaven help us, how little
do we know about anything!--a scene like that might impress itself
somehow upon the hidden heart of nature. I do not pretend to know how,
but the repetition had struck me at the time as, in its terrible
strangeness and incomprehensibility, almost mechanical,--as if the unseen
actor could not exceed or vary, but was bound to re-enact the whole. One
thing that struck me, however, greatly, was the likeness between the old
minister and my boy in the manner of regarding these strange phenomena.
Dr. Moncrieff was not terrified, as I had been myself, and all the rest
of us. It was no "ghost," as I fear we all vulgarly considered it, to
him,--but a poor creature whom he knew under these conditions, just as
he had known him in the flesh, having no doubt of his identity. And to
Roland it was the same. This spirit in pain,--if it was a spirit,--this
voice out of the unseen,--was a poor fellow-creature in misery, to be
succored and helped out of his trouble, to my boy. He spoke to me quite
frankly about it when he got better. "I knew father would find out some
way," he said. And this was when he was strong and well, and all idea
that he would turn hysterical or become a seer of visions had happily
* * * * *
I must add one curious fact, which does not seem to me to have any
relation to the above, but which Simson made great use of, as the human
agency which he was determined to find somehow. We had examined the ruins
very closely at the time of these occurrences; but afterwards, when all
was over, as we went casually about them one Sunday afternoon in the
idleness of that unemployed day, Simson with his stick penetrated an old
window which had been entirely blocked up with fallen soil. He jumped
down into it in great excitement, and called me to follow. There we found
a little hole,--for it was more a hole than a room,--entirely hidden
under the ivy and ruins, in which there was a quantity of straw laid in a
corner, as if some one had made a bed there, and some remains of crusts
about the floor. Some one had lodged there, and not very long before, he
made out; and that this unknown being was the author of all the
mysterious sounds we heard he is convinced. "I told you it was human
agency," he said triumphantly. He forgets, I suppose, how he and I stood
with our lights, seeing nothing, while the space between us was audibly
traversed by something that could speak, and sob, and suffer. There is no
argument with men of this kind. He is ready to get up a laugh against me
on this slender ground. "I was puzzled myself,--I could not make it
out,--but I always felt convinced human agency was at the bottom of it.
And here it is,--and a clever fellow he must have been," the Doctor says.
Bagley left my service as soon as he got well. He assured me it was no
want of respect, but he could not stand "them kind of things;" and the
man was so shaken and ghastly that I was glad to give him a present and
let him go. For my own part, I made a point of staying out the
time--two years--for which I had taken Brentwood; but I did not renew
my tenancy. By that time we had settled, and found for ourselves a
pleasant home of our own.
I must add, that when the Doctor defies me, I can always bring back
gravity to his countenance, and a pause in his railing, when I remind him
of the juniper-bush. To me that was a matter of little importance. I
could believe I was mistaken. I did not care about it one way or other;
but on his mind the effect was different. The miserable voice, the spirit
in pain, he could think of as the result of ventriloquism, or
reverberation, or--anything you please: an elaborate prolonged hoax,
executed somehow by the tramp that had found a lodging in the old tower;
but the juniper-bush staggered him. Things have effects so different on
the minds of different men.
At the period when the following incidents occurred, I was living with my
father at The Grove, a large old house in the immediate neighborhood of a
little town. This had been his home for a number of years; and I believe
I was born in it. It was a kind of house which, notwithstanding all the
red and white architecture known at present by the name of Queen Anne,
builders nowadays have forgotten how to build. It was straggling and
irregular, with wide passages, wide staircases, broad landings; the rooms
large but not very lofty; the arrangements leaving much to be desired,
with no economy of space; a house belonging to a period when land was
cheap, and, so far as that was concerned, there was no occasion to
economize. Though it was so near the town, the clump of trees in which it
was environed was a veritable grove. In the grounds in spring the
primroses grew as thickly as in the forest. We had a few fields for the
cows, and an excellent walled garden. The place is being pulled down at
this moment to make room for more streets of mean little houses,--the
kind of thing, and not a dull house of faded gentry, which perhaps the
neighborhood requires. The house was dull, and so were we, its last
inhabitants; and the furniture was faded, even a little dingy,--nothing
to brag of. I do not, however, intend to convey a suggestion that we were
faded gentry, for that was not the case. My father, indeed, was rich, and
had no need to spare any expense in making his life and his house bright
if he pleased; but he did not please, and I had not been long enough at
home to exercise any special influence of my own. It was the only home I
had ever known; but except in my earliest childhood, and in my holidays
as a schoolboy, I had in reality known but little of it. My mother had
died at my birth, or shortly after, and I had grown up in the gravity and
silence of a house without women. In my infancy, I believe, a sister of
my father's had lived with us, and taken charge of the household and of
me; but she, too, had died long, long ago, my mourning for her being one
of the first things I could recollect. And she had no successor. There
were, indeed, a housekeeper and some maids,--the latter of whom I only
saw disappearing at the end of a passage, or whisking out of a room when
one of "the gentlemen" appeared. Mrs. Weir, indeed, I saw nearly every
day; but a curtsey, a smile, a pair of nice round arms which she caressed
while folding them across her ample waist, and a large white apron, were
all I knew of her. This was the only female influence in the house. The
drawing-room I was aware of only as a place of deadly good order, into
which nobody ever entered. It had three long windows opening on the lawn,
and communicated at the upper end, which was rounded like a great bay,
with the conservatory. Sometimes I gazed into it as a child from without,
wondering at the needlework on the chairs, the screens, the
looking-glasses which never reflected any living face. My father did not
like the room, which probably was not wonderful, though it never occurred
to me in those early days to inquire why.
I may say here, though it will probably be disappointing to those who
form a sentimental idea of the capabilities of children, that it did
not occur to me either, in these early days, to make any inquiry about
my mother. There was no room in life, as I knew it, for any such
person; nothing suggested to my mind either the fact that she must have
existed, or that there was need of her in the house. I accepted, as I
believe most children do, the facts of existence, on the basis with
which I had first made acquaintance with them, without question or
remark. As a matter of fact, I was aware that it was rather dull at
home; but neither by comparison with the books I read, nor by the
communications received from my school-fellows, did this seem to me
anything remarkable. And I was possibly somewhat dull too by nature,
for I did not mind. I was fond of reading, and for that there was
unbounded opportunity. I had a little ambition in respect to work, and
that too could be prosecuted undisturbed. When I went to the
university, my society lay almost entirely among men; but by that time
and afterwards, matters had of course greatly changed with me, and
though I recognized women as part of the economy of nature, and did not
indeed by any means dislike or avoid them, yet the idea of connecting
them at all with my own home never entered into my head. That continued
to be as it had always been, when at intervals I descended upon the
cool, grave, colorless place, in the midst of my traffic with the
world: always very still, well-ordered, serious,--the cooking very
good, the comfort perfect; old Morphew, the butler, a little older (but
very little older, perhaps on the whole less old, since in my childhood
I had thought him a kind of Methuselah); and Mrs. Weir, less active,
covering up her arms in sleeves, but folding and caressing them just as
always. I remember looking in from the lawn through the windows upon
that deadly-orderly drawing-room, with a humorous recollection of my
childish admiration and wonder, and feeling that it must be kept so
forever and ever, and that to go into it would break some sort of
amusing mock mystery, some pleasantly ridiculous spell.
But it was only at rare intervals that I went home. In the long vacation,
as in my school holidays, my father often went abroad with me, so that we
had gone over a great deal of the Continent together very pleasantly. He
was old in proportion to the age of his son, being a man of sixty when I
was twenty, but that did not disturb the pleasure of the relations
between us. I don't know that they were ever very confidential. On my
side there was but little to communicate, for I did not get into scrapes
nor fall in love, the two predicaments which demand sympathy and
confidences. And as for my father himself, I was never aware what there
could be to communicate on his side. I knew his life exactly,--what he
did almost at every hour of the day; under what circumstances of the
temperature he would ride and when walk; how often and with what guests
he would indulge in the occasional break of a dinner-party, a serious
pleasure,--perhaps, indeed, less a pleasure than a duty. All this I knew
as well as he did, and also his views on public matters, his political
opinions, which naturally were different from mine. What ground, then,
remained for confidence? I did not know any. We were both of us of a
reserved nature, not apt to enter into our religious feelings, for
instance. There are many people who think reticence on such subjects a
sign of the most reverential way of contemplating them. Of this I am far
from being sure; but, at all events, it was the practice most congenial
to my own mind.
And then I was for a long time absent, making my own way in the world. I
did not make it very successfully. I accomplished the natural fate of an
Englishman, and went out to the Colonies; then to India in a
semi-diplomatic position; but returned home after seven or eight years,
invalided, in bad health and not much better spirits, tired and
disappointed with my first trial of life. I had, as people say, "no
occasion" to insist on making my way. My father was rich, and had never
given me the slightest reason to believe that he did not intend me to be
his heir. His allowance to me was not illiberal, and though he did not
oppose the carrying out of my own plans, he by no means urged me to
exertion. When I came home he received me very affectionately, and
expressed his satisfaction in my return. "Of course," he said, "I am not
glad that you are disappointed, Philip, or that your health is broken;
but otherwise it is an ill wind, you know, that blows nobody good; and I
am very glad to have you at home. I am growing an old man--"
"I don't see any difference, sir," said I; "everything here seems exactly
the same as when I went away--"
He smiled, and shook his head. "It is true enough," he said; "after we
have reached a certain age we seem to go on for a long time on a
plane, and feel no great difference from year to year; but it is an
inclined plane, and the longer we go on the more sudden will be the
fall at the end. But at all events it will be a great comfort to me to
have you here."
"If I had known that," I said, "and that you wanted me, I should have
come in any circumstances. As there are only two of us in the world--"
"Yes," he said, "there are only two of us in the world; but still I
should not have sent for you, Phil, to interrupt your career."
"It is as well, then, that it has interrupted itself," I said rather
bitterly; for disappointment is hard to bear.
He patted me on the shoulder, and repeated, "It is an ill wind that blows
nobody good," with a look of real pleasure which gave me a certain
gratification too; for, after all, he was an old man, and the only one in
all the world to whom I owed any duty. I had not been without dreams of
warmer affections, but they had come to nothing--not tragically, but in
the ordinary way. I might perhaps have had love which I did not want but
not that which I did want,--which was not a thing to make any unmanly
moan about, but in the ordinary course of events. Such disappointments
happen every day; indeed, they are more common than anything else, and
sometimes it is apparent afterwards that it is better it was so.
However, here I was at thirty stranded, yet wanting for nothing,--in a
position to call forth rather envy than pity from the greater part of my
contemporaries; for I had an assured and comfortable existence, as much
money as I wanted, and the prospect of an excellent fortune for the
future. On the other hand, my health was still low, and I had no
occupation. The neighborhood of the town was a drawback rather than an
advantage. I felt myself tempted, instead of taking the long walk into
the country which my doctor recommended, to take a much shorter one
through the High Street, across the river, and back again, which was
not a walk but a lounge. The country was silent and full of
thoughts,--thoughts not always very agreeable,--whereas there were always
the humors of the little urban population to glance at, the news to be
heard,--all those petty matters which so often make up life in a very
impoverished version for the idle man. I did not like it, but I felt
myself yielding to it, not having energy enough to make a stand. The
rector and the leading lawyer of the place asked me to dinner. I might
have glided into the society, such as it was, had I been disposed for
that; everything about me began to close over me as if I had been fifty,
and fully contented with my lot.
It was possibly my own want of occupation which made me observe with
surprise, after a while, how much occupied my father was. He had
expressed himself glad of my return; but now that I had returned, I saw
very little of him. Most of his time was spent in his library, as had
always been the case. But on the few visits I paid him there, I could not
but perceive that the aspect of the library was much changed. It had
acquired the look of a business-room, almost an office. There were large
business-like books on the table, which I could not associate with
anything he could naturally have to do; and his correspondence was very
large. I thought he closed one of those books hurriedly as I came in, and
pushed it away, as if he did not wish me to see it. This surprised me at
the moment without arousing any other feeling; but afterwards I
remembered it with a clearer sense of what it meant. He was more absorbed
altogether than I had been used to see him. He was visited by men
sometimes not of very prepossessing appearance. Surprise grew in my mind
without any very distinct idea of the reason of it; and it was not till
after a chance conversation with Morphew that my vague uneasiness began
to take definite shape. It was begun without any special intention on my
part. Morphew had informed me that master was very busy, on some occasion
when I wanted to see him. And I was a little annoyed to be thus put off.
"It appears to me that my father is always busy," I said hastily. Morphew
then began very oracularly to nod his head in assent.
"A deal too busy, sir, if you take my opinion," he said.
This startled me much, and I asked hurriedly, "What do you mean?" without
reflecting that to ask for private information from a servant about my
father's habits was as bad as investigating into a stranger's affairs. It
did not strike me in the same light.
"Mr. Philip," said Morphew, "a thing 'as 'appened as 'appens more often
than it ought to. Master has got awful keen about money in his old age."
"That's a new thing for him," I said.
"No, sir, begging your pardon, it ain't a new thing. He was once
broke of it, and that wasn't easy done; but it's come back, if you'll
excuse me saying so. And I don't know as he'll ever be broke of it
again at his age."
I felt more disposed to be angry than disturbed by this. "You must be
making some ridiculous mistake," I said. "And if you were not so old a
friend as you are, Morphew, I should not have allowed my father to be so
spoken of to me."
The old man gave me a half-astonished, half-contemptuous look. "He's been
my master a deal longer than he's been your father," he said, turning on
his heel. The assumption was so comical that my anger could not stand in
face of it. I went out, having been on my way to the door when this
conversation occurred, and took my usual lounge about, which was not a
satisfactory sort of amusement. Its vanity and emptiness appeared to be
more evident than usual to-day. I met half-a-dozen people I knew, and had
as many pieces of news confided to me. I went up and down the length of
the High Street. I made a small purchase or two. And then I turned
homeward, despising myself, yet finding no alternative within my reach.
Would a long country walk have been more virtuous? It would at least have
been more wholesome; but that was all that could be said. My mind did
not dwell on Morphew's communication. It seemed without sense or meaning
to me; and after the excellent joke about his superior interest in his
master to mine in my father, was dismissed lightly enough from my mind. I
tried to invent some way of telling this to my father without letting him
perceive that Morphew had been finding faults in him, or I listening; for
it seemed a pity to lose so good a joke. However, as I returned home,
something happened which put the joke entirely out of my head. It is
curious when a new subject of trouble or anxiety has been suggested to
the mind in an unexpected way, how often a second advertisement follows
immediately after the first, and gives to that a potency which in itself
it had not possessed.
I was approaching our own door, wondering whether my father had gone, and
whether, on my return, I should find him at leisure,--for I had several
little things to say to him,--when I noticed a poor woman lingering about
the closed gates. She had a baby sleeping in her arms. It was a spring
night, the stars shining in the twilight, and everything soft and dim;
and the woman's figure was like a shadow, flitting about, now here, now
there, on one side or another of the gate. She stopped when she saw me
approaching, and hesitated for a moment, then seemed to take a sudden
resolution. I watched her without knowing, with a prevision that she was
going to address me, though with no sort of idea as to the subject of her
address. She came up to me doubtfully, it seemed, yet certainly, as I
felt, and when she was close to me, dropped a sort of hesitating curtsey,
and said, "It's Mr. Philip?" in a low voice.
"What do you want with me?" I said.
Then she poured forth suddenly, without warning or preparation, her long
speech,--a flood of words which must have been all ready and waiting at
the doors of her lips for utterance. "Oh, sir, I want to speak to you! I
can't believe you'll be so hard, for you're young; and I can't believe
he'll be so hard if so be as his own son, as I've always heard he had but
one, 'll speak up for us. Oh, gentleman, it is easy for the likes of you,
that, if you ain't comfortable in one room, can just walk into another;
but if one room is all you have, and every bit of furniture you have
taken out of it, and nothing but the four walls left,--not so much as the
cradle for the child, or a chair for your man to sit down upon when he
comes from his work, or a saucepan to cook him his supper--"
"My good woman," I said, "who can have taken all that from you? Surely
nobody can be so cruel?"
"You say it's cruel!" she cried with a sort of triumph. "Oh, I knowed you
would, or any true gentleman that don't hold with screwing poor folks.
Just go and say that to him inside there for the love of God. Tell him
to think what he's doing, driving poor creatures to despair. Summer's
coming, the Lord be praised, but yet it's bitter cold at night with your
counterpane gone; and when you've been working hard all day, and nothing
but four bare walls to come home to, and all your poor little sticks of
furniture that you've saved up for, and got together one by one, all
gone, and you no better than when you started, or rather worse, for then
you was young. Oh, sir!" the woman's voice rose into a sort of passionate
wail. And then she added, beseechingly, recovering herself, "Oh, speak
for us; he'll not refuse his own son--"
"To whom am I to speak? Who is it that has done this to you?" I said.
The woman hesitated again, looking keenly in my face, then repeated with
a slight faltering, "It's Mr. Philip?" as if that made everything right.
"Yes; I am Philip Canning," I said; "but what have I to do with this?
and to whom am I to speak?"
She began to whimper, crying and stopping herself. "Oh, please, sir! it's
Mr. Canning as owns all the house property about; it's him that our court
and the lane and everything belongs to. And he's taken the bed from under
us, and the baby's cradle, although it's said in the Bible as you're not
to take poor folks' bed."
"My father!" I cried in spite of myself; "then it must be some agent,
some one else in his name. You may be sure he knows nothing of it. Of
course I shall speak to him at once."
"Oh, God bless you, sir," said the woman. But then she added, in a lower
tone, "It's no agent. It's one as never knows trouble. It's him that
lives in that grand house." But this was said under her breath, evidently
not for me to hear.
Morphew's words flashed through my mind as she spoke. What was this? Did
it afford an explanation of the much-occupied hours, the big books, the
strange visitors? I took the poor woman's name, and gave her something
to procure a few comforts for the night, and went indoors disturbed and
troubled. It was impossible to believe that my father himself would
have acted thus; but he was not a man to brook interference, and I did
not see how to introduce the subject, what to say. I could but hope
that, at the moment of broaching it, words would be put into my mouth,
which often happens in moments of necessity, one knows not how, even
when one's theme is not so all-important as that for which such help has
been promised. As usual, I did not see my father till dinner. I have
said that our dinners were very good, luxurious in a simple way,
everything excellent in its kind, well cooked, well served,--the
perfection of comfort without show,--which is a combination very dear to
the English heart. I said nothing till Morphew, with his solemn
attention to everything that was going, had retired; and then it was
with some strain of courage that I began.
"I was stopped outside the gate to-day by a curious sort of
petitioner,--a poor woman, who seems to be one of your tenants, sir, but
whom your agent must have been rather too hard upon."
"My agent? Who is that?" said my father quietly.
"I don't know his name, and I doubt his competence. The poor creature
seems to have had everything taken from her,--her bed, her child's
"No doubt she was behind with her rent."
"Very likely, sir. She seemed very poor," said I.
"You take it coolly," said my father, with an upward glance, half-amused,
not in the least shocked by my statement. "But when a man, or a woman
either, takes a house, I suppose you will allow that they ought to pay
rent for it."
"Certainly, sir," I replied, "when they have got anything to pay."
"I don't allow the reservation," he said. But he was not angry, which I
had feared he would be.
"I think," I continued, "that your agent must be too severe. And this
emboldens me to say something which has been in my mind for some
time"--(these were the words, no doubt, which I had hoped would be put
into my month; they were the suggestion of the moment, and yet as I said
them it was with the most complete conviction of their truth)--"and that
is this: I am doing nothing; my time hangs heavy on my hands. Make me
your agent. I will see for myself, and save you from such mistakes; and
it will be an occupation--"
"Mistakes? What warrant have you for saying these are mistakes?" he said
testily; then after a moment: "This is a strange proposal from you, Phil.
Do you know what it is you are offering?--to be a collector of rents,
going about from door to door, from week to week; to look after wretched
little bits of repairs, drains, etc.; to get paid, which, after all, is
the chief thing, and not to be taken in by tales of poverty."
"Not to let you be taken in by men without pity," I said.
He gave me a strange glance, which I did not very well understand, and
said abruptly, a thing which, so far as I remember, he had never in my
life said before, "You've become a little like your mother, Phil--"
"My mother!" the reference was so unusual--nay, so unprecedented--that I
was greatly startled. It seemed to me like the sudden introduction of a
quite new element in the stagnant atmosphere, as well as a new party to
our conversation. My father looked across the table, as if with some
astonishment at my tone of surprise.
"Is that so very extraordinary?" he said.
"No; of course it is not extraordinary that I should resemble my mother.
Only--I have heard very little of her--almost nothing."
"That is true." He got up and placed himself before the fire, which was
very low, as the night was not cold--had not been cold heretofore at
least; but it seemed to me now that a little chill came into the dim and
faded room. Perhaps it looked more dull from the suggestion of a
something brighter, warmer, that might have been. "Talking of mistakes,"
he said, "perhaps that was one: to sever you entirely from her side of
the house. But I did not care for the connection. You will understand how
it is that I speak of it now when I tell you--" He stopped here, however,
said nothing more for a minute or so, and then rang the bell. Morphew
came, as he always did, very deliberately, so that some time elapsed in
silence, during which my surprise grew. When the old man appeared at the
door--"Have you put the lights in the drawing-room, as I told you?" my
"Yes, sir; and opened the box, sir; and it's a--it's a speaking
This the old man got out in a great hurry, as if afraid that his master
would stop him. My father did so with a wave of his hand.
"That's enough. I asked no information. You can go now."
The door closed upon us, and there was again a pause. My subject had
floated away altogether like a mist, though I had been so concerned about
it. I tried to resume, but could not. Something seemed to arrest my very
breathing; and yet in this dull, respectable house of ours, where
everything breathed good character and integrity, it was certain that
there could be no shameful mystery to reveal. It was some time before my
father spoke, not from any purpose that I could see, but apparently
because his mind was busy with probably unaccustomed thoughts.