A True Story In Two by Talbot Baines Reed

Story type: Literature

Chapter I. THE STORY

Ferriby had broken up. The rats and mice were having their innings in the schoolrooms, and the big bell was getting rusty for want of exercise. The door of the Lower Third had not had a panel kicked out of it for a whole week, and Dr Allsuch’s pictures and sofas and piano were all stacked up in the Detention Room while their proper quarters underwent a “doing-up.”

There was no mistake about the school having broken up. And yet, if it was so, how came we all to be there this Christmas week, instead of sitting at our own firesides in the bosoms of our own families, anywhere but at Ferriby?

When I say all, I mean all in Jolliffe’s House; the others had cleared out. Bull’s was empty, and Wragg’s, across the quadrangle, had not a ghost of a fellow left. Nor had the doctor’s. Every other house was shut up, but Jolliffe’s was as full up as the night before a county match, and no sign of an exodus.

Of course the reader guesses the reason at once!

“I know,” says one virtuous youth; “they’d all been detained for bad conduct, and stopped their holidays!”

Wrong, my exemplary one! Jolliffe’s was the best behaved house in Ferriby, though I say so who should not. But any one could tell you so. For every thousand lines of imposition the other houses had to turn out Jolliffe’s only had a hundred, and for every half-dozen canes worn out on the horny palms of Bull’s and Wragg’s, one was quite enough for us.

No; the fact was, one of our fellows had had scarlet fever a fortnight before the holidays, and as he was in and out with us for some days before it was discovered, sleeping in our dormitory, and sitting next to us in class it was a settled thing we were all in for it.

So the school was suddenly broken up, the other houses all packed off, the sickly ones among us–there were only one or two–removed to the infirmary, and the rest of us, under the charge of Jolliffe himself, invited to make the best of a bad job, and enjoy ourselves as well as we could, with the promise that if in three weeks no one else showed signs of knocking up, we should be allowed to go home.

Of course, we were awfully sold at first, and by no means in an amiable frame of mind. It is no joke to be done out of Christmas at home. What a dolt that Gilks was to get scarlet fever! Why could he not have waited till he got home?

But after a day or two we shook down, as British boys will, to our lot. After all, it was only a case of putting off our holiday, and meanwhile we were allowed to do anything we liked, short of setting the place on fire, or kicking up a row near the infirmary.

There were enough of us to turn out two good teams at football, or to run a big paper-chase across country, or get up a grand concert of an evening; and not too many of us to crowd into the long dormitory, where, for all we were interfered with, we might have prolonged our bolster matches “from eve to dewy morn.”

In time we came to look upon our confinement as rather a spree than otherwise, and this feeling was considerably heightened by the arrival of several hampers at the beginning of Christmas week, including a magnificent one from Dr Allsuch himself, along with a message bidding us be sure and have a merry Christmas. We voted the doctor a brick, and drank his health in ginger beer, with great enthusiasm, to the toast of “Dr Allsuch, and all such bricks!”

It was on Christmas Eve, after a specially grand banquet off the contents of one of these hampers, that we crowded round the big common- hall fire in a very complacent frame of mind, uncommonly well satisfied and comfortable within and without.

“I don’t know,” said Lamb meditatively, cracking a walnut between his finger and thumb, and slowly skinning it–“I don’t know; Gilks might have done us a worse turn after all.”

“I rather wish he’d make a yearly thing of it,” said Ellis. “They say he’s pulled through all right.”

“Oh yes, he’s all right! and so are the other three. In fact, French and Addley never had scarlet fever at all. It was a false alarm.”

“Well,” said Lamb, “I’m jolly glad of it! I wouldn’t have cared for any of them to die, you know.”

Lamb said this in a tone as if we should all be rather surprised to hear him say so.

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“Nobody ever did die at Ferriby, did they?” said Jim Sparrow, the youngest and tenderest specimen we had at Jolliffe’s.

It was rather cheek of a kid like Jim to interpose at all in a conversation of his seniors, and it seemed as if he was going to get snubbed by receiving no reply, when Fergus suddenly took the thing up.

“Eh, young Jim Sparrow, what’s that you’re saying?”

Fergus was the wag of our house–indeed, he was the only Irishman we could boast of, and the fact of his being an Irishman always made us inclined to laugh whenever he spoke. We could see now by the twinkle in his eye that he was going to let off the steam at Jim Sparrow’s expense.

“I said,” replied Jim, blushing rather to find every body listening to him, “nobody’s ever died at Ferriby, have they?”

Fergus gazed at him in astonishment.

“What!” exclaimed he, “you mean to say you never heard of poor Bubbles?”

“Bubbles? No,” replied Jim, looking rather scared.

“Just fancy that!” said Fergus, turning round to us; “never heard of Bubbles!”

Of course we, who saw what the wag was driving at, looked rather surprised and a little mysterious.

“What was it?” inquired Jim Sparrow, looking half ashamed of himself.

“Eh? Well, if you never heard it, I’d better not tell you. It’s not a nice story, is it, you fellows?”

“Horrible!” said Lamb, starting at another walnut.

“Oh, do tell me!” cried Jim eagerly, “I’m so fond of stories;” and he settled himself back in his chair rather uneasily, and tried to look as if it was all good fun.

“Well, if you do want it I’ll tell you; but don’t blame me if it upsets you, that’s all!” replied the irrepressible Fergus.

Jim looked as heroic as he could, and wished he had never asked to be enlightened on the subject of Bubbles.

Fergus refreshed himself with an orange, stuck his feet into the fender, and began in a solemn voice.

“I suppose, Jim Sparrow, if you have never heard about Bubbles, you really don’t know the history of the school at all. You don’t even know how it came to be called Ferriby?”

“No,” responded Jim, keeping his eyes on the fire.

“Ferriby is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words,” proceeded Fergus, “which you may have heard–`fire’ and `boy.’ Now I’ll tell you about Bubbles!”

There was something very mysterious about the manner in which Fergus uttered these words, and we listened for what was to come almost as breathlessly as Jim Sparrow.

“It was early in this century,” he said, “that a boy came to this school called Bubbles. No one knew where he came from. He had no parents, and never went home for the holidays. He was about your age, Sparrow, and just your build, and he was in the Lower Fourth.”

“I’m going to be moved up this Christmas,” interposed Jim hurriedly.

“Are you? So was Bubbles going to be moved up when what I’m going to tell you happened!”

It was getting dark, and for the last, few minutes all the light in the room had been caused by a jet of gas in the coals. That jet now went out suddenly, leaving us in nearly total darkness.

“It was a Christmas Eve. Everybody else had gone home for the holidays, and Bubbles was the only boy left in the school–Bubbles and a master whose name I won’t mention.”

“He was the Detention Master, wasn’t he?” inquired Lamb’s voice.

“Ah, yes. There’s no harm in telling you that. Bubbles and the Detention Master were left all alone at Ferriby, Sparrow.”

“Ye–es,” said Sparrow softly, and making two syllables of the word.

“They’d had no hampers sent them, and as they sat round the fire that evening they knew both of them there was no Christmas dinner in the house. They had neither of them tasted food for some days, and had no money to buy any, and if they had had, the snow was too deep to get anywhere. They had tried making soup out of copybook covers, but it wasn’t nourishing, and the soles of their boots which they tried to eat didn’t sit well on their stomachs.”

Some one choked at this point, greatly to the speaker’s wrath.

“All right; some one seems to think it a laughing matter, so I’ll stop.”

“Oh no,” cried one or two voices eagerly, “do go on. He only got a piece of apple the wrong way.”

“Was it you laughed, Jim Sparrow?” demanded Fergus.

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“Oh no,” replied Jim, who was holding on rather tight to the sides of his chair.

“I don’t like any one making fun of a serious thing like this,” said Fergus. “I was saying the soles of their boots didn’t sit well on their stomachs. They sat round the fire the whole evening, brooding and ravenous, and saying nothing. For a long time they both stared into the fire; then presently the master took his eyes off the fire and stared at Bubbles. Bubbles used to be fat, like you, Sparrow, but the last day or two he had got rather reduced. Still he was fairly plump; at least, so thought the master, as he looked first at him, then at the fire, and then thought of the empty larder downstairs.”

It was too dark to see Jim Sparrow, but I could almost hear him turn pale, so profound was the silence.

“The fire was a big one, a roaring one, and howled up the chimney as if it was hungry too. Bubbles where he sat was close to it, in fact, his feet almost touched the bars. The master sat a little behind Bubbles, and his arm rested on the back of Bubbles’s chair. `To-morrow,’ thought the master, `he will be thinner, and next day only skin and bone.’ Then he thought of the saying in the copy-books, `Never put off till to- morrow what you can do to-day.’ He sprang to his feet, seized Bubbles by the head and feet–there was a shriek and a yell–and next moment the master was alone in the room, and the chimney was on fire!”

At this last sentence the speaker, suiting the action to the word, had risen from his seat and suddenly pounced upon the unhappy Sparrow, who, already paralysed with terror, now fairly yelled and howled for mercy. Fergus dropped him back gently into his chair, and resuming his own seat, continued–

“There is very little to add. Under the ruins were found the remains of the master grasping in each hand a large-sized drumstick. Bubbles was never seen more. It was supposed he escaped without his legs on to the roof, and they do say that every Christmas Eve he revisits Ferriby, and tries to get down the chimney in search of his lost legs.”

At the conclusion of this tragic story every one drew a long breath. Jim Sparrow, it was clear, had swallowed it from beginning to end, and one or two others of the juniors looked as if they would have been more pleased had the event not been made to happen on Christmas Eve, of all nights. But with these exceptions the whole thing seemed a very good joke, and greatly to the credit of Fergus’s imagination.

“Oh, and I should say,” added that doughty historian, as he poked up the fire into a blaze, “though it’s not of much consequence, that this took place in this very house, they say in this very room. Funny story, isn’t it, Sparrow?”

Sparrow had not yet sufficiently recovered from his fright to reply, but it was evident by his looks he considered it anything but funny. However, the talk soon veered round to other and more ordinary topics, in the midst of which, aided by the remnants of our feast, the spirits even of Jim Sparrow revived, so much so that by bedtime he was as cheerful as if he had never even heard the name of Bubbles.


Mr Jolliffe appeared on the scene as usual at ten o’clock, and read prayers. After which, advising us all to get a good night, and announcing that to-morrow being Christmas Day, we should not breakfast till nine, he trotted off to his quarters and left us.

We were all pretty ready to take his advice, for what with a sixteen- mile run across country in the afternoon, and our big dinner in the evening, the thought of bed seemed rather a comfortable prospect.

One or two of the fellows, however, fellows whom no exertion ever seemed to weary, protested against going to bed at ten o’clock, and took good care that those who did shouldn’t sleep. We were used to that, and had to put up with it, and it must have been close upon the stroke of Christmas Day before they finally condescended to turn in and leave us in peace.

One by one the candles went out, the talk and the laughter gradually subsided, and even the grunts and twitches of the doughty heroes as they first gave themselves over to slumber died away in the darkness. For the first time since we rose that morning, a dead silence reigned in Jolliffe’s.

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In fact, as I lay awake and tried to get to sleep the silence seemed unnaturally profound. The tick of the big clock down in the hall struck on the ear with almost a thud, and the light breeze outside moaned among the ventilators and played chromatic scales through the keyhole in a fashion quite disturbing. I wished that wind would shut up, and that the clock would run down. How was a fellow to get to sleep with such a row going on?

And yet, next moment, the utter silence of the place disturbed me even more than the wind and the clock. Why, I actually seemed to hear the winking of my own eyes as I lay there. I wished some one would snore, or breathe hard, or roll over in his bed. But no, in all those thirty beds there was neither sound nor motion.

Nothing is so unpleasant as listening for sounds in a dead silence. I half wished–

Hullo! what was that? Rain on the window! Why can’t rain drop straight instead of tapping at a fellow’s window? It sounded like some one wanting to come in. I knew it was only rain; but supposing it had been somebody–a thief, for instance, or–or–Bubbles come to look after his legs!

I do not know what evil genius put the thought of Bubbles into my head. But once in, I could not get it out. Downstairs before the big fire I had laughed as loud as any one, and been as sure as sure could be that Fergus’s story was all an invention of his fertile imagination. But, somehow, now that the lights were out, and the fellows all asleep, and the wind was moaning outside, and I lay sleepless on my bed, it did not seem so utterly preposterous.

Not that I believed in ghosts. Oh dear no. I hoped I was not such a fool as that, but supposing–

That rain again at the window! Why couldn’t it stop startling a fellow in that way? Yes, supposing Fergus’s story had been founded on fact, what a dreadful end to a boy Bubbles’s end must have been!

“And they do say,”–the words seemed to echo in my ears–“that every Christmas Eve he re-visits Ferriby, and tries to get down the chimney in search of his lost legs.”

Ugh! Why did not some of the fellows wake up? How unnaturally still they all were! I would have given all my pocket-money to two of them to start another steeplechase that moment over the beds. In fact, I had half a mind to–

As I reached this point a sudden noise made my blood run cold, and froze me to my bed.

It did not seem to be in the dormitory, or on the stairs outside, or in the quadrangle below. None of my companions appeared to have heard it, for they all slept on quietly, and the silence which followed was doubly as intense as that which had gone before. What could it be?

I do not fancy I was a particularly cowardly boy, but somehow that sound terrified me. I could neither move nor call out. All I could do was to lie and listen.

There it was again! this time not so sudden, but far more distinct. There was no mistaking it now. As sure as I lay there, it was something on the roof! It sounded like something crawling slowly and by fits and starts along the gutter just above the dormitory. Sometimes it seemed to spring upwards, as though attempting to reach a higher position, and then sullenly slip down and proceed on its crawling way.

Yes, without doubt Fergus had told the truth!

Suddenly a voice in a loud whisper at the other end of the dormitory exclaimed–

“Listen! I say, listen!”

It was Lamb’s voice. There was at least some comfort in knowing that I was not the only one awake.

With a desperate effort I sat up in my bed and replied–

“Oh, Lamb, what is it?”

His only reply was a gasp, as the noises recommenced. The body, whatever it was, seemed to have dragged itself forward, so as to be now just over our heads. The ceiling above us went right up into the roof, and I could distinctly hear a rustling sound against the tiles, followed by an occasional upward leap, sometimes almost wild in its eagerness. How could I mistake these sounds? The chimney was immediately above us, and it was towards this goal, as I well knew, that the hapless and legless Bubbles was destined fruitlessly to aspire. At last one bound more frantic than the rest, followed by a sudden clatter of displaced tiles, unloosed my tongue, and I fairly cried out–

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Half a dozen fellows were on the alert in an instant.

“Who’s that called out?” cried one. “I’d like to scrag him.”

“What’s the row, whoever it is?” demanded Fergus.

“Hush! Listen!” was all I could reply.

There must have been something in my voice which bespoke my horror, for a dead silence ensued.

But not for long. Once more the dull, dragging sound, interrupted by the spasmodic and fruitless leaps!

A shudder went round the dormitory at the sound. They knew as well as I did what it meant.

“It’s the ghost!” faltered Sparrow’s trembling voice; and no one contradicted him. Fergus himself, like one suddenly confronted with a spirit of his own raising, seemed the most terrified of the lot, and I could hear him gasping as he sat petrified in his bed.

“Can’t some one strike a light?” Lamb said presently.

All very well, but the matches were on the table, and to secure them one would have to get out of bed. No one seemed quite inclined for that.

As we lay endeavouring to screw up our courage to the necessary pitch, the sound once more recommenced, with a violent motion towards the edge of the roof. The moon at the same moment broke out from behind the clouds and shot its pale light in at the big windows. There was a momentary pause above us, and then, casting a sudden shadow across the dormitory floor, a dim white figure, as of a body without limbs, floated down outside the window. The moon once more was obscured, and we were left motionless and horrified in utter silence and darkness! What would come next?

How long we might have remained in suspense I can’t say, had not Lamb and another fellow, by a combined effort of heroism, dashed arm in arm from bed and secured the matches. They were in the act of striking a light (one match had broken, and another had had no head)–they were in the act of striking a light when Lamb, who was close to the window, suddenly exclaimed–“Look!”

There was such terror in his tone that we knew only too well what he had seen. But where!

“Where?” I managed to gasp.

“There, down in the quad,” he replied, pointing out of the window, but looking another way.

Curiosity is sometimes greater than fear, and for all my terror I could not resist the impulse to steal up to the window and look out. And others did the same.

It was as Lamb had said. There in the quadrangle below, moving restlessly to and fro, and swaying itself upward, as if in supplication, was the white form, erect but helpless. For a long time we gazed without a word. At last, one more hardy than the rest said–“What can it be?”

What a question! What could it be but–Bubbles! Still, when the question was once asked, it did occur to one or two of us that possibly we might have jumped to a conclusion too hastily. It’s wonderful how hardy a fellow will get when he’s got twenty fellows clustering round him.

“He’s alive, anyhow,” said one. “Call out to him, some one,” suggested another. “You’re nearest the window, Fraser,” said another. Fraser was vice-captain of the second fifteen, and always touchy whenever his pluck was called in question.

“I’m not afraid,” he said, in a voice which was hardly quite steady. And as he spoke he threw up the window, and called out hurriedly, and in rather deferential tones–“Who are you down there?”

I don’t suppose Fraser ever did a pluckier thing than ask that question. We listened, all ears, for the reply. But none came. Only a faint moan, as the apparition swayed uneasily towards us, and even seemed to try to raise itself in our direction; but never a word we heard, and we closed the window again as much in the dark as to its identity as ever.

What could we do? We couldn’t go to bed with Bubbles’s or anybody’s ghost wandering about in the quadrangle below us, that was evident. But how were we to solve the mystery, unless indeed–

It was a terrible alternative, but the only one. We thought of it a good bit before any one proposed it. At last Fraser himself said–

“Who’s game to come down into the quad?”

Fraser was on his mettle, or he would never have been so mad. At first a dead silence was the only answer to his challenge. Then Lamb said–

“I don’t mind.”

If he didn’t mind, why should he nearly choke saying so? However, he broke the ice, and others followed. I considered myself as good a man as Lamb any day (it was only my own opinion), and I wasn’t going to be outdone by him now. So I volunteered. And one or two others who considered themselves as good as I volunteered too, until the forlorn hope numbered a dozen.

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“Come along,” said Fraser, who had armed himself with a lighted candle and led the way.

I think those who stayed behind felt a little dismayed when the last of us glided from the door and left them behind.

Still, as far as happiness of mind was concerned, they would not have gained much had they been of our party. For we descended the staircase in rather depressed spirits, starting at every creak, and–some of us– wishing twenty times we were safe back in the dormitory. But there was no drawing back now.

What a noise the bars of the big door made as we unfastened them, and what an ominous shriek the lock gave as we turned the key! Our one hope was that the ghost would have taken fright and vanished before we reached the quadrangle. But no! As we stepped out into the damp breezy night the first thing that met our eyes was the distant, restless figure of Bubbles!

By one consent we halted, and as we did so a gust of wind extinguished our leader’s candle! What was to be done? I glanced up, and saw the lights twinkling at the far distant dormitory window. Oh, whatever possessed me to come on this wild errand!

“Now then, you fellows!” It was Fraser’s voice, and more like himself too. “Now then, stick all together and–“

“Better get a light first,” suggested some one. “Will you run back to the dormitory and get the matches?” asked our leader.

Nothing more was said about the light.

We advanced a few yards, and then halted again.

“Better speak to him, I think,” said Lamb.

“All right,” said Fraser. “Now then, who are you? What’s your name there?”

His voice sounded loud and startling in the night air; but it was wasted breath. Never a word spoke Bubbles, but moaned as he struggled restlessly on the ground where he lay.

Fraser’s spirits were rising every moment. “Oh, hang it!” he exclaimed. “I don’t believe it’s a ghost at all.”

So saying, he made a further advance to within a few yards of the apparition.

If it wasn’t a ghost, it was the most unearthly thing in the dark I ever saw as it lay there. We were still too far off to see it clearly, but it looked like some bloated creature without legs trying its hardest to rise on the feet that were not there.

“Do you hear?” shouted Fraser once more. “Why can’t you speak and tell us who you are?”

The creature gave a long sigh by way of answer, but no more.

Fraser advanced another step, and we were preparing to follow, when the ghost slowly rose on end and made a sudden bound towards him!

In an instant we were back in the house, rushing pellmell up the stairs, and looking neither this way nor that till we were safe back in the dormitory with our companions.

We passed the remainder of that night dressed, and with candles burning, and it was not till morning broke that we dared once more look out of the window.

And then we discovered the mystery of Bubbles’s ghost.

A small half-exhausted balloon, about five feet high, lay on the grass below, with enough gas in it still to toss about restlessly in the breeze, and now and then even to rise on end and drag its little car a few inches.

Where it came from and who it belonged to we never discovered. Probably some toy balloon let up by Christmas Eve revellers, who little thought it would alight on the roof of Jolliffe’s, and after flopping about there for some minutes would finally tumble into the court below, and there act the part of Bubbles to a handful of scared schoolboys.

However, all’s well that ends well, and among the many amusements which made that day a Merry Christmas to us all there was none over which we laughed more than “Bubbles’s Ghost.”

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