Story type: Literature
It was a dull evening in November. A drizzling mist had been falling all day about the old farm. Harry Heywood and his two sisters sat in the house-place, expecting a visit from their uncle, Cornelius Heywood. This uncle lived alone, occupying the first floor above a chemist’s shop in the town, and had just enough of money over to buy books that nobody seemed ever to have heard of but himself; for he was a student in all those regions of speculation in which anything to be called knowledge is impossible.
“What a dreary night!” said Kate. “I wish uncle would come and tell us a story.”
“A cheerful wish,” said Harry. “Uncle Cornie is a lively companion–isn’t he? He cant even blunder through a Joe Miller without tacking a moral to it, and then trying to persuade you that the joke of it depends on the moral.”
“Here he comes!” said Kate, as three distinct blows with the knob of his walking-stick announced the arrival of Uncle Cornelius. She ran to the door to open it.
The air had been very still all day, but as he entered he seemed to have brought the wind with him, for the first moan of it pressed against rather than shook the casement of the low-ceiled room.
Uncle Cornelius was very tall, and very thin, and very pale, with large gray eyes that looked greatly larger because he wore spectacles of the most delicate hair-steel, with the largest pebble-eyes that ever were seen. He gave them a kindly greeting, but too much in earnest even in shaking hands to smile over it. He sat down in the arm-chair by the chimney corner.
I have been particular in my description of him, in order that my reader may give due weight to his words. I am such a believer in words, that I believe everything depends on who says them. Uncle Cornelius Heywood’s story told word for word by Uncle Timothy Warren, would not have been the same story at all. Not one of the listeners would have believed a syllable of it from the lips of round-bodied, red-faced, small-eyed, little Uncle Tim; whereas from Uncle Cornie–disbelieve one of his stories if you could!
One word more concerning him. His interest in everything conjectured or believed relative to the awful borderland of this world and the next, was only equalled by his disgust at the vulgar, unimaginative forms which curiosity about such subjects has assumed in the present day. With a yearning after the unseen like that of a child for the lifting of the curtain of a theatre, he declared that, rather than accept such a spirit-world as the would-be seers of the nineteenth century thought or pretended to reveal,–the prophets of a pauperised, workhouse immortality, invented by a poverty-stricken soul, and a sense so greedy that it would gorge on carrion,–he would rejoice to believe that a man had just as much of a soul as the cabbage of Iamblichus, namely, an aerial double of his body.
“I’m so glad you’re come, uncle!” said Kate. “Why wouldn’t you come to dinner? We have been so gloomy!”
“Well, Katey, you know I don’t admire eating. I never could bear to see a cow tearing up the grass with her long tongue.” As he spoke he looked very much like a cow. He had a way of opening his jaws while he kept his lips closely pressed together, that made his cheeks fall in, and his face look awfully long and dismal. “I consider eating,” he went on, “such an animal exercise that it ought always to be performed in private. You never saw me dine, Kate.”
“Never, uncle; but I have seen you drink;–nothing but water, I must confess.”
“Yes that is another affair. According to one eyewitness that is no more than the disembodied can do. I must confess, however, that, although well attested, the story is to me scarcely credible. Fancy a glass of Bavarian beer lifted into the air without a visible hand, turned upside down, and set empty on the table!–and no splash on the floor or anywhere else!”
A solitary gleam of humour shone through the great eyes of the spectacles as he spoke.
“Oh, uncle! how can you believe such nonsense!” said Janet.
“I did not say I believed it–did I? But why not? The story has at least a touch of imagination in it.”
“That is a strange reason for believing a thing, uncle,” said Harry.
“You might have a worse, Harry. I grant it is not sufficient; but it is better than that commonplace aspect which is the ground of most faith. I believe I did say that the story puzzled me.”
“But how can you give it any quarter at all, uncle?”
“It does me no harm. There it is–between the boards of an old German book. There let it remain.”
“Well, you will never persuade me to believe such things,” said Janet.
“Wait till I ask you, Janet,” returned her uncle, gravely. “I have not the slightest desire to convince you. How did we get into this unprofitable current of talk? We will change it at once. How are consols, Harry?”
“Oh, uncle!” said Kate, “we were longing for a story, and just as I thought you were coming to one, off you go to consols!”
“I thought a ghost story at least was coming,” said Janet.
“You did your best to stop it, Janet,” said Harry.
Janet began an angry retort, but Cornelius interrupted her. “You never heard me tell a ghost story, Janet.”
“You have just told one about a drinking ghost, uncle,” said Janet–in such a tone that Cornelius replied–
“Well, take that for your story, and let us talk of something else.”
Janet apparently saw that she had been rude, and said as sweetly as she might–“Ah! but you didn’t make that one, uncle. You got it out of a German book.”
“Make it!–Make a ghost story!” repeated Cornelius. “No; that I never did.”
“Such things are not to be trifled with, are they?” said Janet.
“I at least have no inclination to trifle with them.”
“But, really and truly, uncle,” persisted Janet, “you don’t believe in such things?”
“Why should I either believe or disbelieve in them? They are not essential to salvation, I presume.”
“You must do the one or the other, I suppose.”
“I beg your pardon. You suppose wrong. It would take twice the proof I have ever had to make me believe in them; and exactly your prejudice, and allow me to say ignorance, to make me disbelieve in them. Neither is within my reach. I postpone judgment. But you, young people, of course, are wiser, and know all about the question.”
“Oh, uncle! I’m so sorry!” said Kate. “I’m sure I did not mean to vex you.”
“Not at all, not at all, my dear.–It wasn’t you.”
“Do you know,” Kate went on, anxious to prevent anything unpleasant, for there was something very black perched on Janet’s forehead, “I have taken to reading about that kind of thing.”
“I beg you will give it up at once. You will bewilder your brains till you are ready to believe anything, if only it be absurd enough. Nay, you may come to find the element of vulgarity essential to belief. I should be sorry to the heart to believe concerning a horse or dog what they tell you nowadays about Shakespeare and Burns. What have you been reading, my girl?”
“Don’t be alarmed, uncle. Only some Highland legends, which are too absurd either for my belief or for your theories.”
“I don’t know that, Kate.”
“Why, what could you do with such shapeless creatures as haunt their fords and pools for instance? They are as featureless as the faces of the mountains.”
“And so much the more terrible.”
“But that does not make it easier to believe in them,” said Harry.
“I only said,” returned his uncle, “that their shapelessness adds to their horror.”
“But you allowed–almost, at least, uncle,” said Kate, “that you could find a place in your theories even for those shapeless creatures.”
Cornelius sat silent for a moment; then, having first doubled the length of his face, and restored it to its natural condition, said thoughtfully, “I suspect, Katey, if you were to come upon an ichthyosaurus or a pterodactyl asleep in the shubbery, you would hardly expect your report of it to be believed all at once either by Harry or Janet.”
“I suppose not, uncle. But I can’t see what–“
“Of course such a thing could not happen here and now. But there was a time when and a place where such a thing may have happened. Indeed, in my time, a traveller or two have got pretty soundly disbelieved for reporting what they saw,–the last of an expiring race, which had strayed over the natural verge of its history, coming to life in some neglected swamp, itself a remnant of the slime of Chaos.”
“I never heard you talk like that before, uncle,” said Harry. “If you go on like that, you’ll land me in a swamp, I’m afraid.”
“I wasn’t talking to you at all, Harry. Kate challenged me to find a place for kelpies, and such like, in the theories she does me the honour of supposing I cultivate.”
“Then you think, uncle, that all these stories are only legends which, if you could follow them up, would lead you back to some one of the awful monsters that have since quite disappeared from the earth.”
“It is possible those stories may be such legends; but that was not what I intended to lead you to. I gave you that only as something like what I am going to say now. What if,–mind, I only suggest it,–what if the direful creatures, whose report lingers in these tales, should have an origin far older still? What if they were the remnants of a vanishing period of the earth’s history long antecedent to the birth of mastodon and iguanodon; a stage, namely, when the world, as we call it, had not yet become quite visible, was not yet so far finished as to part from the invisible world that was its mother, and which, on its part, had not then become quite invisible–was only almost such; and when, as a credible consequence, strange shapes of those now invisible regions, Gorgons and Chimaeras dire, might be expected to gloom out occasionally from the awful Fauna of an ever-generating world upon that one which was being born of it. Hence, the life-periods of a world being long and slow, some of these huge, unformed bulks of half-created matter might, somehow, like the megatherium of later times,–a baby creation to them,–roll at age-long intervals, clothed in a mighty terror of shapelessness into the half-recognition of human beings, whose consternation at the uncertain vision were barrier enough to prevent all further knowledge of its substance.”
“I begin to have some notion of your meaning, uncle,” said Kate.
“But then,” said Janet, “all that must be over by this time. That world has been invisible now for many years.”
“Ever since you were born, I suppose, Janet. The changes of a world are not to be measured by the changes of its generations.”
“Oh, but, uncle, there can’t be any such things. You know that as well as I do.”
“Yes, just as well, and no better.”
“There can’t be any ghosts now. Nobody believes such things.”
“Oh, as to ghosts, that is quite another thing. I did not know you were talking with reference to them. It is no wonder if one can get nothing sensible out of you, Janet, when your discrimination is no greater than to lump everything marvellous, kelpies, ghosts, vampires, doubles, witches, fairies, nightmares, and I don’t know what all, under the one head of ghosts; and we haven’t been saying a word about them. If one were to disprove to you the existence of the afreets of Eastern tales, you would consider the whole argument concerning the reappearance of the departed upset. I congratulate you on your powers of analysis and induction, Miss Janet. But it matters very little whether we believe in ghosts, as you say, or not, provided we believe that we are ghosts–that within this body, which so many people are ready to consider their own very selves, their lies a ghostly embryo, at least, which has an inner side to it God only can see, which says I concerning itself, and which will soon have to know whether or not it can appear to those whom it has left behind, and thus solve the question of ghosts for itself, at least.”
“Then you do believe in ghosts, uncle?” said Janet, in a tone that certainly was not respectful.
“Surely I said nothing of the sort, Janet. The man most convinced that he had himself had such an interview as you hint at, would find–ought to find it impossible to convince any one else of it.”
“You are quite out of my depth, uncle,” said Harry. “Surely any honest man ought to be believed?”
“Honesty is not all, by any means, that is necessary to being believed. It is impossible to convey a conviction of anything. All you can do is to convey a conviction that you are convinced. Of course, what satisfied you might satisfy another; but, till you can present him with the sources of your conviction, you cannot present him with the conviction–and perhaps not even then.”
“You can tell him all about, it, can’t you?”
“Is telling a man about a ghost, affording him the source of your conviction? Is it the same as a ghost appearing to him? Really, Harry!–You cannot even convey the impression a dream has made upon you.”
“But isn’t that just because it is only a dream?”
“Not at all. The impression may be deeper and clearer on your mind than any fact of the next morning will make. You will forget the next day altogether, but the impression of the dream will remain through all the following whirl and storm of what you call facts. Now a conviction may be likened to a deep impression on the judgment or the reason, or both. No one can feel it but the person who is convinced. It cannot be conveyed.”
“I fancy that is just what those who believe in spirit-rapping would say.”
“There are the true and false of convictions, as of everything else. I mean that a man may take that for a conviction in his own mind which is not a conviction, but only resembles one. But those to whom you refer profess to appeal to facts. It is on the ground of those facts, and with the more earnestness the more reason they can give for receiving them as facts, that I refuse all their deductions with abhorrence. I mean that, if what they say is true, the thinker must reject with contempt the claim to anything like revelation therein.”
“Then you do not believe in ghosts, after all?” said Kate, in a tone of surprise.
“I did not say so, my dear. Will you be reasonable, or will you not?”
“Dear uncle, do tell us what you really think.”
“I have been telling you what I think ever since I came, Katey; and you won’t take in a word I say.”
“I have been taking in every word, uncle, and trying hard to understand it as well.–Did you ever see a ghost, uncle?”
Cornelius Heywood was silent. He shut his lips and opened his jaws till his cheeks almost met in the vacuum. A strange expression crossed the strange countenance, and the great eyes of his spectacles looked as if, at the very moment, they were seeing something no other spectacles could see. Then his jaws closed with a snap, his countenance brightened, a flash of humour came through the goggle eyes of pebble, and, at length, he actually smiled as he said–“Really, Katey, you must take me for a simpleton!”
“To think, if I had ever seen a ghost, I would confess the fact before a set of creatures like you–all spinning your webs like so many spiders to catch and devour old Daddy Longlegs.”
By this time Harry had grown quite grave. “Indeed, I am very sorry, uncle,” he said, “if I have deserved such a rebuke.”
“No, no, my boy,” said Cornelius; “I did not mean it more than half. If I had meant it, I would not have said it. If you really would like–” Here he paused.
“Indeed we should, uncle,” said Kate, earnestly. “You should have heard what we were saying just before you came in.”
“All you were saying, Katey?”
“Yes,” answered Kate, thoughtfully. “The worst we said was that you could not tell a story without–well, we did say tacking a moral to it.”
“Well, well! I mustn’t push it. A man has no right to know what people say about him. It unfits him for occupying his real position amongst them. He, least of all, has anything to do with it. If his friends won’t defend him, he can’t defend himself. Besides, what people say is so often untrue!–I don’t mean to others, but to themselves. Their hearts are more honest than their mouths. But Janet doesn’t want a strange story, I am sure.”
Janet certainly was not one to have chosen for a listener to such a tale. Her eyes were so small that no satisfaction could possibly come of it. “Oh! I don’t mind, uncle,” she said, with half-affected indifference, as she searched in her box for silk to mend her gloves.
“You are not very encouraging, I must say,” returned her uncle, making another cow-face.”
“I will go away, if you like,” said Janet, pretending to rise.
“No, never mind,” said her uncle hastily. “If you don’t want me to tell it, I want you to hear it; and, before I have done, that may have come to the same thing perhaps.”
“Then you really are going to tell us a ghost story!” said Kate, drawing her chair nearer to her uncle’s; and then, finding this did not satisfy her sense of propinquity to the source of the expected pleasure, drawing a stool from the corner, and seating herself almost on the hearth-rug at his knee.
“I did not say so,” returned Cornelius, once more. “I said I would tell you a strange story. You may call it a ghost story if you like; I do not pretend to determine what it is. I confess it will look like one, though.”
After so many delays, Uncle Cornelius now plunged almost hurriedly into his narration.
“In the year 1820,” he said, “in the month of August, I fell in love.” Here the girls glanced at each other. The idea of Uncle Cornie in love, and in the very same century in which they were now listening to the confession, was too astonishing to pass without ocular remark; but, if he observed it, he took no notice of it; he did not even pause. “In the month of September, I was refused. Consequently, in the month of October, I was ready to fall in love again. Take particular care of yourself, Harry, for a whole month, at least, after your first disappointment; for you will never be more likely to do a foolish thing. Please yourself after the second. If you are silly then, you may take what you get, for you will deserve it–except it be good fortune.”
“Did you do a foolish thing then, uncle?” asked Harry, demurely.
“I did, as you will see; for I fell in love again.”
“I don’t see anything so very foolish in that.”
“I have repented it since, though. Don’t interrupt me again, please. In the middle of October, then, in the year 1820, in the evening, I was walking across Russell Square, on my way home from the British Museum, where I had been reading all day. You see I have a full intention of being precise, Janet.”
“I’m sure I don’t know why you make the remark to me, uncle,” said Janet, with an involuntary toss of her head. Her uncle only went on with his narrative.
“I begin at the very beginning of my story,” he said; “for I want to be particular as to everything that can appear to have had anything to do with what came afterwards. I had been reading, I say, all the morning in the British Museum; and, as I walked, I took off my spectacles to ease my eyes. I need not tell you that I am short-sighted now, for that you know well enough. But I must tell you that I was short-sighted then, and helpless enough without my spectacles, although I was not quite so much so as I am now;–for I find it all nonsense about short-sighted eyes improving with age. Well, I was walking along the south side of Russell Square, with my spectacles in my hand, and feeling a little bewildered in consequence–for it was quite the dusk of the evening, and short-sighted people require more light than others. I was feeling, in fact, almost blind. I had got more than half-way to the other side, when, from the crossing that cuts off the corner in the direction of Montagu Place, just as I was about to turn towards it, an old lady stepped upon the kerbstone of the pavement, looked at me for a moment, and passed–an occurrence not very remarkable, certainly. But the lady was remarkable, and so was her dress. I am not good at observing, and I am still worse at describing dress, therefore I can only say that hers reminded me of an old picture–that is, I had never seen anything like it, except in old pictures. She had no bonnet, and looked as if she had walked straight out of an ancient drawing-room in her evening attire. Of her face I shall say nothing now. The next instant I met a man on the crossing, who stopped and addressed me. So short-sighted was I that, although I recognised his voice as one I ought to know, I could not identify him until I had put on my spectacles, which I did instinctively in the act of returning his greeting. At the same moment I glanced over my shoulder after the old lady. She was nowhere to be seen.
“‘What are you looking at?’ asked James Hetheridge.
“‘I was looking after that old lady,’ I answered, ‘but I can’t see her.’
“‘What old lady?’ said Hetheridge, with just a touch of impatience.
“‘You must have seen her,’ I returned. ‘You were not more than three yards behind her.’
“‘Where is she then?’
“‘She must have gone down one of the areas, I think. But she looked a lady, though an old-fashioned one.’
“‘Have you been dining?’ asked James, in a tone of doubtful inquiry.
“‘No,’ I replied, not suspecting the insinuation; ‘I have only just come from the Museum.’
“‘Then I advise you to call on your medical man before you go home.’
“‘Medical man!’ I returned; ‘I have no medical man. What do you mean? I never was better in my life.’
“‘I mean that there was no old lady. It was an illusion, and that indicates something wrong. Besides, you did not know me when I spoke to you.’
“‘That is nothing,” I returned. ‘I had just taken off my spectacles, and without them I shouldn’t know my own father.’
“‘How was it you saw the old lady, then?’
“The affair was growing serious under my friend’s cross-questioning. I did not at all like the idea of his supposing me subject to hallucinations. So I answered, with a laugh, ‘Ah! to be sure, that explains it. I am so blind without my spectacles, that I shouldn’t know an old lady from a big dog.’
“‘There was no big dog,’ said Hetheridge, shaking his head, as the fact for the first time dawned upon me that, although I had seen the old lady clearly enough to make a sketch of her, even to the features of her care-worn, eager old face, I had not been able to recognise the well-known countenance of James Hetheridge.
“‘That’s what comes of reading till the optic nerve is weakened,” he went on. ‘You will cause yourself serious injury if you do not pull up in time. I’ll tell you what; I’m going home next week–will you go with me?’
“‘You are very kind,’ I answered, not altogether rejecting the proposal, for I felt that a little change to the country would be pleasant, and I was quite my own master. For I had unfortunately means equal to my wants, and had no occasion to follow any profession–not a very desirable thing for a young man, I can tell you, Master Harry. I need not keep you over the commonplaces of pressing and yielding. It is enough to say that he pressed and that I yielded. The day was fixed for our departure together; but something or other, I forget what, occurred, to make him advance the date, and it was resolved that I should follow later in the month.
“It was a drizzly afternoon in the beginning of the last week of October when I left the town of Bradford in a post-chaise to drive to Lewton Grange, the property of my friend’s father. I had hardly left the town, and the twilight had only begun to deepen, when, glancing from one of the windows of the chaise, I fancied I saw, between me and the hedge, the dim figure of a horse keeping pace with us. I thought, in the first interval of unreason, that it was a shadow from my own horse, but reminded myself the next moment that there could be no shadow where there was no light. When I looked again, I was at the first glance convinced that my eyes had deceived me. At the second, I believed once more that a shadowy something, with the movements of a horse in harness, was keeping pace with us. I turned away again with some discomfort, and not till we had reached an open moorland road, whence a little watery light was visible on the horizon, could I summon up courage enough to look out once more. Certainly then there was nothing to be seen, and I persuaded myself that it had been all a fancy, and lighted a cigar. With my feet on the cushions before me, I had soon lifted myself on the clouds of tobacco far above all the terrors of the night, and believed them banished for ever. But, my cigar coming to an end just as we turned into the avenue that led up to the Grange, I found myself once more glancing nervously out of the window. The moment the trees were about me, there was, if not a shadowy horse out there by the side of the chaise, yet certainly more than half that conviction in here in my consciousness. When I saw my friend, however, standing on the doorstep, dark against the glow of the hall fire, I forgot all about it; and I need not add that I did not make it a subject of conversation when I entered, for I was well aware that it was essential to a man’s reputation that his senses should be accurate, though his heart might without prejudice swarm with shadows, and his judgment be a very stable of hobbies.
“I was kindly received. Mrs. Hetheridge had been dead for some years, and Laetitia, the eldest of the family, was at the head of the household. She had two sisters, little more than girls. The father was a burly, yet gentlemanlike Yorkshire squire, who ate well, drank well, looked radiant, and hunted twice a week. In this pastime his son joined him when in the humour, which happened scarcely so often. I, who had never crossed a horse in my life, took his apology for not being able to mount me very coolly, assuring him that I would rather loiter about with a book than be in at the death of the best-hunted fox in Yorkshire.
“I very soon found myself at home with the Hetheridges; and very soon again I began to find myself not so much at home; for Miss Hetheridge–Laetitia as I soon ventured to call her–was fascinating. I have told you, Katey, that there was an empty place in my heart. Look to the door then, Katey. That was what made me so ready to fall in love with Laetitia. Her figure was graceful, and I think, even now, her face would have been beautiful but for a certain contraction of the skin over the nostrils, suggesting an invisible thumb and forefinger pinching them, which repelled me, although I did not then know what it indicated. I had not been with her one evening before the impression it made on me had vanished, and that so entirely that I could hardly recall the perception of the peculiarity which had occasioned it. Her observation was remarkably keen, and her judgment generally correct. She had great confidence in it herself; nor was she devoid of sympathy with some of the forms of human imagination, only they never seemed to possess for her any relation to practical life. That was to be ordered by the judgment alone. I do not mean she ever said so. I am only giving the conclusions I came to afterwards. It is not necessary that you should have any more thorough acquaintance with her mental character. One point in her moral nature, of special consequence to my narrative, will show itself by and by.
“I did all I could to make myself agreeable to her, and the more I succeeded the more delightful she became in my eyes. We walked in the garden and grounds together; we read, or rather I read and she listened;–read poetry, Katey–sometimes till we could not read any more for certain haziness and huskiness which look now, I am afraid, considerably more absurd than they really were, or even ought to look. In short, I considered myself thoroughly in love with her.”
“And wasn’t she in love with you, uncle?”
“Don’t interrupt me, child. I don’t know. I hoped so then. I hope the contrary now. She liked me I am sure. That is not much to say. Liking is very pleasant and very cheap. Love is as rare as a star.”
“I thought the stars were anything but rare, uncle.”
“That’s because you never went out to find one for yourself, Katey. They would prove a few miles apart then.”
“But it would be big enough when I did find it.”
“Right, my dear. That is the way with love.–Laetitia was a good housekeeper. Everything was punctual as clockwork. I use the word advisedly. If her father, who was punctual to one date,–the dinner-hour,–made any remark to the contrary as he took up the carving-knife, Laetitia would instantly send one of her sisters to question the old clock in the hall, and report the time to half a minute. It was sure to be found that, if there was a mistake, the mistake was in the clock. But although it was certainly a virtue to have her household in such perfect order, it was not a virtue to be impatient with every infringement of its rules on the part of others. She was very severe, for instance, upon her two younger sisters if, the moment after the second bell had rung, they were not seated at the dinner-table, washed and aproned. Order was a very idol with her. Hence the house was too tidy for any sense of comfort. If you left an open book on the table, you would, on returning to the room a moment after, find it put aside. What the furniture of the drawing-room was like, I never saw; for not even on Christmas Day, which was the last day I spent there, was it uncovered. Everything in it was kept in bibs and pinafores. Even the carpet was covered with a cold and slippery sheet of brown holland. Mr. Hetheridge never entered that room, and therein was wise. James remonstrated once. She answered him quite kindly, even playfully, but no change followed. What was worse, she made very wretched tea. Her father never took tea; neither did James. I was rather fond of it, but I soon gave it up. Everything her father partook of was first-rate. Everything else was somewhat poverty-stricken. My pleasure in Laetitia’s society prevented me from making practical deductions from such trifles.”
“I shouldn’t have thought you knew anything about eating, uncle,” said Janet.
“The less a man eats, the more he likes to have it good, Janet. In short,–there can be no harm in saying it now,–Laetitia was so far from being like the name of her baptism,–and most names are so good that they are worth thinking about; no children are named after bad ideas,–Laetitia was so far unlike hers as to be stingy–an abominable fault. But, I repeat, the notion of such a fact was far from me then. And now for my story.
“The first of November was a very lovely day, quite one of the ‘halcyon days’ of ‘St. Martin’s summer.’ I was sitting in a little arbour I had just discovered, with a book in my hand,–not reading, however, but day-dreaming,–when, lifting my eyes from the ground, I was startled to see, through a thin shrub in front of the arbour, what seemed the form of an old lady seated, apparently reading from a book on her knee. The sight instantly recalled the old lady of Russell Square. I started to my feet, and then, clear of the intervening bush, saw only a great stone such as abounded on the moors in the neighbourhood, with a lump of quartz set on the top of it. Some childish taste had put it there for an ornament. Smiling at my own folly, I sat down again, and reopened my book. After reading for a while, I glanced up again, and once more started to my feet, overcome by the fancy that there verily sat the old lady reading. You will say it indicated an excited condition of the brain. Possibly; but I was, as far as I can recall, quite collected and reasonable. I was almost vexed this second time, and sat down once more to my book. Still, every time I looked up, I was startled afresh. I doubt, however, if the trifle is worth mentioning, or has any significance even in relation to what followed.
“After dinner I strolled out by myself, leaving father and son over their claret. I did not drink wine; and from the lawn I could see the windows of the library, whither Laetitia commonly retired from the dinner-table. It was a very lovely soft night. There was no moon, but the stars looked wider awake than usual. Dew was falling, but the grass was not yet wet, and I wandered about on it for half an hour. The stillness was somehow strange. It had a wonderful feeling in it as if something were expected–as if the quietness were the mould in which some event or other was about to be cast.
“Even then I was a reader of certain sorts of recondite lore. Suddenly I remembered that this was the eve of All Souls. This was the night on which the dead came out of their graves to visit their old homes. ‘Poor dead!’ I thought with myself; ‘have you any place to call a home now? If you have, surely you will not wander back here, where all that you called home has either vanished or given itself to others, to be their home now and yours no more! What an awful doom the old fancy has allotted you! To dwell in your graves all the year, and creep out, this one night, to enter at the midnight door, left open for welcome! A poor welcome truly!–just an open door, a clean-swept floor, and a fire to warm your rain-sodden limbs! The household asleep, and the house-place swarming with the ghosts of ancient times,–the miser, the spendthrift, the profligate, the coquette,–for the good ghosts sleep, and are troubled with no waking like yours! Not one man, sleepless like yourselves, to question you, and be answered after the fashion of the old nursery rhyme–
“‘What makes your eyes so holed?’
‘I’ve lain so long among the mould.’
‘What makes your feet so broad?’
‘I’ve walked more than ever I rode!’
“‘Yet who can tell?’ I went on to myself. ‘It may be your hell to return thus. It may be that only on this one night of all the year you can show yourselves to him who can see you, but that the place where you were wicked is the Hades to which you are doomed for ages.’ I thought and thought till I began to feel the air alive about me, and was enveloped in the vapours that dim the eyes of those who strain them for one peep through the dull mica windows that will not open on the world of ghosts. At length I cast my fancies away, and fled from them to the library, where the bodily presence of Laetitia made the world of ghosts appear shadowy indeed.
“‘What a reality there is about a bodily presence!’ I said to myself, as I took my chamber-candle in my hand. ‘But what is there more real in a body?’ I said again, as I crossed the hall. ‘Surely nothing,’ I went on, as I ascended the broad staircase to my room. ‘The body must vanish. If there be a spirit, that will remain. A body can but vanish. A ghost can appear.’
“I woke in the morning with a sense of such discomfort as made me spring out of bed at once. My foot lighted upon my spectacles. How they came to be on the floor I could not tell, for I never took them off when I went to bed. When I lifted them I found they were in two pieces; the bridge was broken. This was awkward. I was so utterly helpless without them! Indeed, before I could lay my hand on my hair-brush I had to peer through one eye of the parted pair. When I looked at my watch after I was dressed, I found I had risen an hour earlier than usual. I groped my way downstairs to spend the hour before breakfast in the library.
“No sooner was I seated with a book than I heard the voice of Laetitia scolding the butler, in no very gentle tones, for leaving the garden door open all night. The moment I heard this, the strange occurrences I am about to relate began to dawn upon my memory. The door had been open the night long between All Saints and All Souls. In the middle of that night I awoke suddenly. I knew it was not the morning by the sensations I had, for the night feels altogether different from the morning. It was quite dark. My heart was beating violently, and I either hardly could or hardly dared breathe. A nameless terror was upon me, and my sense of hearing was, apparently by the force of its expectation, unnaturally roused and keen. There it was–a slight noise in the room!–slight, but clear, and with an unknown significance about it! It was awful to think it would come again. I do believe it was only one of those creaks in the timbers which announce the torpid, age-long, sinking flow of every house back to the dust–a motion to which the flow of the glacier is as a torrent, but which is no less inevitable and sure. Day and night it ceases not; but only in the night, when house and heart are still, do we hear it. No wonder it should sound fearful! for are we not the immortal dwellers in ever-crumbling clay? The clay is so near us, and yet not of us, that its every movement starts a fresh dismay. For what will its final ruin disclose? When it falls from about us, where shall we find that we have existed all the time?
“My skin tingled with the bursting of the moisture from its pores. Something was in the room beside me. A confused, indescribable sense of utter loneliness, and yet awful presence, was upon me, mingled with a dreary, hopeless desolation, as of burnt-out love and aimless life. All at once I found myself sitting up. The terror that a cold hand might be laid upon me, or a cold breath blow on me, or a corpse-like face bend down through the darkness over me, had broken my bonds!–I would meet half-way whatever might be approaching. The moment that my will burst into action the terror began to ebb.
“The room in which I slept was a large one, perfectly dreary with tidiness. I did not know till afterwards that it was Laetitia’s room, which she had given up to me rather than prepare another. The furniture, all but one article, was modern and commonplace. I could not help remarking to myself afterwards how utterly void the room was of the nameless charm of feminine occupancy. I had seen nothing to wake a suspicion of its being a lady’s room. The article I have excepted was an ancient bureau, elaborate and ornate, which stood on one side of the large bow window. The very morning before, I had seen a bunch of keys hanging from the upper part of it, and had peeped in. Finding however, that the pigeon-holes were full of papers, I closed it at once. I should have been glad to use it, but clearly it was not for me. At that bureau the figure of a woman was now seated in the posture of one writing. A strange dim light was around her, but whence it proceeded I never thought of inquiring. As if I, too, had stepped over the bourne, and was a ghost myself, all fear was now gone. I got out of bed, and softly crossed the room to where she was seated. ‘If she should be beautiful!’ I thought–for I had often dreamed of a beautiful ghost that made love to me. The figure did not move. She was looking at a faded brown paper. ‘Some old love-letter,’ I thought, and stepped nearer. So cool was I now, that I actually peeped over her shoulder. With mingled surprise and dismay I found that the dim page over which she bent was that of an old account-book. Ancient household records, in rusty ink, held up to the glimpses of the waning moon, which shone through the parting in the curtains, their entries of shillings and pence!–Of pounds there was not one. No doubt pounds and farthings are much the same in the world of thought–the true spirit-world; but in the ghost-world this eagerness over shillings and pence must mean something awful! I To think that coins which had since been worn smooth in other pockets and purses, which had gone back to the Mint, and been melted down, to come out again and yet again with the heads of new kings and queens,–that dinners, eaten by men and women and children whose bodies had since been eaten by the worms,–that polish for the floors, inches of whose thickness had since been worn away,–that the hundred nameless trifles of a life utterly vanished, should be perplexing, annoying, and worst of all, interesting the soul of a ghost who had been in Hades for centuries! The writing was very old-fashioned, and the words were contracted. I could read nothing but the moneys and one single entry–‘Corinths, Vs.’
“Currants for a Christmas pudding, most likely!–Ah, poor lady! the pudding and not the Christmas was her care; not the delight of the children over it, but the beggarly pence which it cost. And she cannot get it out of her head, although her brain was ‘powdered all as thin as flour’ ages ago in the mortar of Death. ‘Alas, poor ghost!’ It needs no treasured hoard left behind, no floor stained with the blood of the murdered child, no wickedly hidden parchment of landed rights! An old account-book is enough for the hell of the housekeeping gentlewoman!
“She never lifted her face, or seemed to know that I stood behind her. I left her, and went into the bow window, where I could see her face. I was right. It was the same old lady I had met in Russell Square, walking in front of James Hetheridge. Her withered lips went moving as if they would have uttered words had the breath been commissioned thither; her brow was contracted over her thin nose; and once and again her shining forefinger went up to her temple as if she were pondering some deep problem of humanity. How long I stood gazing at her I do not know, but at last I withdrew to my bed, and left her struggling to solve that which she could never solve thus. It was the symbolic problem of her own life, and she had failed to read it. I remember nothing more. She may be sitting there still, solving at the insolvable.
“I should have felt no inclination, with the broad sun of the squire’s face, the keen eyes of James, and the beauty of Laetitia before me at the breakfast table, to say a word about what I had seen, even if I had not been afraid of the doubt concerning my sanity which the story would certainly awaken. What with the memories of the night and the want of my spectacles, I passed a very dreary day, dreading the return of the night, for, cool as I had been in her presence, I could not regard the possible reappearance of the ghost with equanimity. But when the night did come, I slept soundly till the morning.
“The next day, not being able to read with comfort, I went wandering about the place, and at length began to fit the outside and inside of the house together. It was a large and rambling edifice, parts of it very old, parts comparatively modern. I first found my own window, which looked out of the back. Below this window, on one side, there was a door. I wondered whither it led, but found it locked. At the moment James approached from the stables. ‘Where does this door lead?’ I asked him. ‘I will get the key,’ he answered. ‘It is rather a queer old place. We used to like it when we were children.’ ‘There’s a stair, you see,’ he said, as he threw the door open. ‘It leads up over the kitchen.’ I followed him up the stair. ‘There’s a door into your room,’ he said, ‘but it’s always locked now.–And here’s Grannie’s room, as they call it, though why, I have not the least idea,’ he added, as he pushed open the door of an old-fashioned parlour, smelling very musty. A few old books lay on a side table. A china bowl stood beside them, with some shrivelled, scentless rose-leaves in the bottom of it. The cloth that covered the table was riddled by moths, and the spider-legged chairs were covered with dust.
“A conviction seized me that the old bureau must have belonged to this room, and I soon found the place where I judged it must have stood. But the same moment I caught sight of a portrait on the wall above the spot I had fixed upon. ‘By Jove!’ I cried, involuntarily, ‘that’s the very old lady I met in Russell Square!’
“‘Nonsense!’ said James. ‘Old-fashioned ladies are like babies–they all look the same. That’s a very old portrait.’
“‘So I see,’ I answered. ‘It is like a Zucchero.’
“‘I don’t know whose it is,” he answered hurriedly, and I thought he looked a little queer.
“‘Is she one of the family?’ I asked.
“‘They say so; but who or what she was, I don’t know. You must ask Letty,” he answered.
“‘The more I look at it,’ I said, ‘the more I am convinced it is the same old lady.’
“‘Well,’ he returned with a laugh, ‘my old nurse used to say she was rather restless. But it’s all nonsense.’
“‘That bureau in my room looks about the same date as this furniture,’ I remarked.
“‘It used to stand just there,’ he answered, pointing to the space under the picture. ‘Well I remember with what awe we used to regard it; for they said the old lady kept her accounts at it still. We never dared touch the bundles of yellow papers in the pigeon-holes. I remember thinking Letty a very heroine once when she touched one of them with the tip of her forefinger. She had got yet more courageous by the time she had it moved into her own room.’
“‘Then that is your sister’s room I am occupying?’ I said.
“‘I am ashamed of keeping her out of it.’
“‘Oh! she’ll do well enough.’
“‘If I were she though,’ I added, ‘I would send that bureau back to its own place.’
“‘What do you mean, Heywood? Do you believe every old wife’s tale that ever was told?’
“‘She may get a fright some day–that’s all!’ I replied.
“He smiled with such an evident mixture of pity and contempt that for the moment I almost disliked him; and feeling certain that Laetitia would receive any such hint in a somewhat similar manner, I did not feel inclined to offer her any advice with regard to the bureau.
“Little occurred during the rest of my visit worthy of remark. Somehow or other I did not make much progress with Laetitia. I believe I had begun to see into her character a little, and therefore did not get deeper in love as the days went on. I know I became less absorbed in her society, although I was still anxious to make myself agreeable to her–or perhaps, more properly, to give her a favourable impression of me. I do not know whether she perceived any difference in my behaviour, but I remember that I began again to remark the pinched look of her nose, and to be a little annoyed with her for always putting aside my book. At the same time, I daresay I was provoking, for I never was given to tidiness myself.
“At length Christmas Day arrived. After breakfast, the squire, James, and the two girls arranged to walk to church. Laetitia was not in the room at the moment. I excused myself on the ground of a headache, for I had had a bad night. When they left, I went up to my room, threw myself on the bed, and was soon fast asleep.
“How long I slept I do not know, but I woke again with that indescribable yet well-known sense of not being alone. The feeling was scarcely less terrible in the daylight than it had been in the darkness. With the same sudden effort as before, I sat up in the bed. There was the figure at the open bureau, in precisely the same position as on the former occasion. But I could not see it so distinctly. I rose as gently as I could, and approached it, after the first physical terror. I am not a coward. Just as I got near enough to see the account book open on the folding cover of the bureau, she started up, and, turning, revealed the face of Laetitia. She blushed crimson.
“‘I beg your pardon, Mr. Heywood,’ she said in great confusion; ‘I thought you had gone to church with the rest.’
“‘I had lain down with a headache, and gone to sleep,’ I replied. ‘But,–forgive me, Miss Hetheridge,’ I added, for my mind was full of the dreadful coincidence,–‘don’t you think you would have been better at church than balancing your accounts on Christmas Day?’
“‘The better day the better deed,’ she said, with a somewhat offended air, and turned to walk from the room.
“‘Excuse me, Laetitia,’ I resumed, very seriously, ‘but I want to tell you something.’
“She looked conscious. It never crossed me, that perhaps she fancied I was going to make a confession. Far other things were then in my mind. For I thought how awful it was, if she too, like the ancestral ghost, should have to do an age-long penance of haunting that bureau and those horrid figures, and I had suddenly resolved to tell her the whole story. She listened with varying complexion and face half turned aside. When I had ended, which I fear I did with something of a personal appeal, she lifted her head and looked me in the face, with just a slight curl on her thin lip, and answered me. ‘If I had wanted a sermon, Mr. Heywood, I should have gone to church for it. As for the ghost, I am sorry for you.’ So saying she walked out of the room.
“The rest of the day I did not find very merry. I pleaded my headache as an excuse for going to bed early. How I hated the room now! Next morning, immediately after breakfast, I took my leave of Lewton Grange.”
“And lost a good wife, perhaps, for the sake of a ghost, uncle!” said Janet.
“If I lost a wife at all, it was a stingy one. I should have been ashamed of her all my life long.”
“Better than a spendthrift,” said Janet.
“How do you know that?” returned her uncle. “All the difference I see is, that the extravagant ruins the rich, and the stingy robs the poor.”
“But perhaps she repented, uncle,” said Kate.
“I don’t think she did, Katey. Look here.”
Uncle Cornelius drew from the breast pocket of his coat a black-edged letter.
“I have kept up my friendship with her brother,” he said. “All he knows about the matter is, that either we had a quarrel, or she refused me;–he is not sure which. I must say for Laetitia, that she was no tattler. Well, here’s a letter I had from James this very morning. I will read it to you.
“‘MY DEAR MR. HEYWOOD,–We have had a terrible \shock this morning. Letty did not come down to breakfast, and Lizzie went to see if she was ill. We heard her scream, and, rushing up, there was poor Letty, sitting at the old bureau, quite dead. She had fallen forward on the desk, and her housekeeping-book was crumpled up under her. She had been so all night long, we suppose, for she was not undressed, and was quite cold. The doctors say it was disease of the heart.’
“There!” said Uncle Cornie, folding up the letter.
“Do you think the ghost had anything to do with it, uncle?” asked Kate, almost under her breath.
“How should I know, my dear? Possibly.”
“It’s very sad,” said Janet; “but I don’t see the good of it all. If the ghost had come to tell that she had hidden away money in some secret place in the old bureau, one would see why she had been permitted to come back. But what was the good of those accounts after they were over and done with? I don’t believe in the ghost.”
“Ah, Janet, Janet! but those wretched accounts were not over and done with, you see. That is the misery of it.”
Uncle Cornelius rose without another word, bade them good-night, and walked out into the wind.