It happened ten years ago, and it stands out, and ever will stand out, in my memory like some dark awful barrier dividing the happy gleeful years of girlhood with their foolish petulant sorrows and eager innocent joys, and the bright loveful life which has been mine since. In looking back, that time seems to me shadowed by a dark and terrible brooding cloud; bearing in its lurid gloom what, but for love and patience the tenderest and most untiring, might have been the bolt of death, or, worse a thousand times, of madness. As it was, for months after "life crept on a broken wing," if not "through cells of madness," yet verily "through haunts of horror and fear." O the weary, weary days and months when I longed piteously for rest!—when sunshine was torture, and every shadow filled with horror unspeakable; when my soul's craving was for death; to be allowed to creep away from the terror which lurked in the softest murmur of the summer breeze, the flicker of the shadow of the tiniest leaf on the sunny grass, in every corner and curtain-fold in my dear old home. But love conquered all, and I can tell my story now, with awe and wonder, it is true, but quietly and calmly.
Ten years ago I was living with my only brother in one of the quaint ivy-grown red-gabled rectories which are so picturesquely scattered over the fair breadth of England. We were orphans, Archibald and I; and I had been the busy happy mistress of his pretty home for only one year after leaving school, when Robert Draye asked me to be his wife. Robert and Archie were old friends, and my new home, Draye's Court, was only separated from the parsonage by an old gray wall, a low iron-studded door in which admitted us from the sunny parsonage lawn to the old, old park which had belonged to the Drayes for centuries. Robert was lord of the manor; and it was he who had given Archie the living of Draye in the Wold.
It was the night before my wedding-day, and our pretty home was crowded with the wedding guests. We were all gathered in the large old-fashioned drawing-room after dinner. When Robert left us late in the evening, I walked with him. as usual to the little gate for what he called our last parting; we lingered awhile under the great walnut-tree, through the heavy sombre branches of which the September moon poured its soft pure light. With his last good-night kiss on my lips and my heart full of him and the love which warmed and glorified the whole world for me, I did not care to go back to share in the fun and frolic in the drawing-room, but went softly up-stairs to my own room. I say "my own room," but I was to occupy it as a bedroom to-night for the first time. It was a pleasant south room, wainscoted in richly-carved cedar, which gave the atmosphere a spicy fragrance. I had chosen it as my morning room on my arrival in our home; here I had read and sung and painted, and spent long sunny hours while Archibald was busy in his study after breakfast. I had had a bed arranged there, as I preferred being alone to sharing my own larger bedroom with two of my bridesmaids. It looked bright and cosy as I came in; my favourite low chair was drawn before the fire, whose rosy light glanced and flickered on the glossy dark walls, which gave the room its name, "The Cedar Closet." My maid was busy preparing my toilet table; I sent her away, and sat down to wait for my brother, who I knew would come to bid me good-night. He came; we had our last fireside talk in my girlhood's home; and when he left me there was an incursion of all my bridesmaids for a "dressing-gown gossip."
When at last I was alone I drew back the curtain, and curled myself up on the low wide window-seat. The moon was at its brightest; the little church and quiet churchyard beyond the lawn looked fair and calm beneath its rays; the gleam of the white headstones here and there between the trees might have reminded me that life is not all peace and joy—that tears and pain, fear and parting, have their share in its story—but it did not. The tranquil happiness with which my heart was full overflowed in some soft tears which had no tinge of bitterness; and when at last I did lie down, peace, deep and perfect, still seemed to flow in on me with the moonbeams which filled the room, shimmering on the folds of my bridal dress, which was laid ready for the morning. I am thus minute in describing my last waking moments, that it may be understood that what followed was no creation of a morbid fancy.
I do not know how long I had been asleep, when I was suddenly, as it were, wrenched back to consciousness. The moon had set, the room was quite dark; I could just distinguish the glimmer of a clouded starless sky through the open window. I could not see or hear anything unusual, but not the loss was I conscious of an unwonted, a baleful presence near; an indescribable horror cramped the very beatings of my heart; with every instant the certainty grew that my room was shared by some evil being. I could not cry for help, though Archie's room was close, and I knew that one call through the death-like stillness would bring him to me; all I could do was to gaze, gaze, gaze into the darkness. Suddenly—and a throb stung through every nerve—I heard distinctly from behind the wainscot against which the head of my bed was placed a low hollow moan, followed on the instant by a cackling malignant laugh from the other side of the room. If I had been one of the monumental figures in the little churchyard on which I had seen the quiet moon-beams shine a few hours before, I could not have been more utterly unable to move or speak; every other faculty seemed to be lost in the one intent strain of eye and ear. There came at last the sound of a halting step, the tapping of a crutch upon the floor, then stillness, and slowly, gradually the room filled with light—a pale, cold, steady light. Everything around was exactly as I had last seen it in the mingled shine of the moon and fire, and though I heard at intervals the harsh laugh, the curtain at the foot of the bed hid from me whatever uttered it. Again, low but distinct, the piteous moan broke forth, followed by some words in a foreign tongue, and with the sound a figure started from behind the curtain—a dwarfed deformed woman, dressed in a long loose robe of black sprinkled with golden stars, which gave forth a dull fiery gleam in the mysterious light; one lean yellow hand clutched the curtain of my bed; it glittered with jewelled rings; long black hair fell in heavy masses from a golden circlet over the stunted form. I saw it all clearly as I now see the pen which writes these words and the hand which guides it. The face was turned from me, bent aside, as if greedily drinking in those anguished moans; I noted even the streaks of gray in the long tresses as I lay helpless in dumb bewildered horror.
"Again!" she said hoarsely, as the sounds died away into indistinct murmurs, and advancing a step she tapped sharply with a crutch on the cedar wainscot; then again louder and more purposeful rose the wild beseeching voice; this time the words were English.
"Mercy, have mercy! not on me, but on my child, my little one; she never harmed you. She is dying—she is dying here in darkness; let me but see her face once more. Death is very near: nothing can save her now; but grant one ray of light, and I will pray that you may be forgiven, if forgiveness there be for such as you."
"What, you kneel at last! Kneel to Gerda, and kneel invain. A ray of light? Not if you could pay for it in diamonds. You are mine! Shriek and call as you will, no other ears can hear. Die together. You are mine to torture as I will; mine, mine, mine!" and again an awful laugh rang through the room. At the instant she turned. O the face of malign horror that met my gaze! The green eyes flamed, and with something like the snarl of a savage beast she sprang towards me; that hideous face almost touched mine; the grasp of the skinny jewelled hand was all but on me; then—I suppose I fainted.
For weeks I lay in brain fever, in mental horror and weariness so intense, that even now I do not like to let my mind dwell on it. Even when the crisis was safely past I was slow to rally; my mind was utterly unstrung. I lived in a world of shadows. And so winter were by, and brought us to the fair spring morning when at last I stood by Robert's side in the old church, a cold, passive, almost unwilling bride. I cared neither to refuse nor consent to anything that was suggested; so Robert and Archie decided for me, and I allowed them to do with me as they would, while I brooded silently and ceaselessly on the memory of that terrible night. To my husband I told all one morning in a sunny Bavarian valley, and my weak frightened mind drew strength and peace from his; by degrees the haunting horror were away, and when we came home for a happy reason, nearly two years afterwards, I was as strong and blithe as in my girlhood. I had learned to believe that it had all been, not the cause, but the commencement of my fever. I was to be undeceived.
Our little daughter had come to us in the time of roses; and new Christmas was with us, our first Christmas at home, and the house was full of guests. It was a delicious old-fashioned Yule; plenty of skating and outdoor fun, and no lack of brightness indoors. Towards New Year a heavy fall of snow set in which kept us all prisoners; but even then the days flew merrily, and somebody suggested tableaux for the evenings. Robert was elected manager; there was a debate and selection of subjects, and then came the puzzle of where, at such short notice, we could procure the dresses required. My husband advised a raid on some mysterious oaken chests which he knew had been for years stowed away in a turret-room. He remembered having, when a boy, seen the housekeeper inspecting them, and their contents had left a hazy impression of old stand-alone brocades, gold tissues, saques, hoops, and hoods, the very mention of which put us in a state of wild excitement. Mrs. Moultrie was summoned, looked duly horrified at the desecration of what to her were relics the most sacred; but seeing it was inevitable, she marshalled the way, a protest in every rustle and fold of her stiff silk dress.
"What a charming old place!" was the exclamation with variations as we entered the long oak-joisted room, at the further end of which stood in goodly array the chests whose contents we coveted. Bristling with unspoken disapproval, poor Mrs. Moultrie unlocked one after another, and then asked permission to retire, leaving us unchecked to "cry havock!" In a moment the floor was covered with piles of silks and velvets.
"Meg," cried little Janet Crawford, dancing up to me, "isn‘t it a good thing to live in the age of tulle and summer silks? Fancy being imprisoned for life in a fortress like this!" holding up a thick crimson and gold brocade, whaleboned and buckramed at all points. It was thrown aside, and she half lost herself in another chest and was silent. Then—"Look, Major Froude! This is the very thing for you—a true astrologer's robe, all black velvet and golden stars, if it were but long enough; it just fits me."
I turned and saw—the pretty slight figure, the innocent girlish face dressed in the robe of black and gold, identical in shape, pattern, and material with what I too well remembered. With a wild cry I hid my face and cowered away.
"Take it off! O Janet—Robert—take it from her!"
Every one turned wondering; in an instant my husband saw, and, catching up the cause of my terror, flung it hastily into the chest again, and lowered the lid. Janet looked half offended, but the cloud passed in an instant when I kissed her, apologising as well as I could. Rob laughed at us both, and voted an adjournment to a warmer room, where we could have the chests brought to us to ransack at leisure. Before going down Janet and I went into a small ante-room to examine some old pictures which leant against the wall.
"This is just the thing, Jeanie, to frame the tableaux," I said, pointing to an immense frame at least twelve feet square. "There is a picture in it," I added, pulling back the dusty folds of a heavy curtain which fell before it.
"That can be easily removed," said my husband, who had followed us.
With his assistance we drew the curtain quite away, and, in the now fast-waning light, could just discern the figure of a girl in white against a dark background. Robert rang for a lamp, and when it came we turned with much curiosity to examine the painting, as to the subject of which we had been making odd merry guesses while we waited. The girl's face was young, almost childish—very lovely, but O, how sad! Great tears stood in the innocent eyes and on the round young cheeks, and her hands were clasped tightly round the arm of a man who was bending towards her; and —did I dream?—no, there in hateful distinctness was the hideous woman of the Cedar Closet—the same in every distorted line, even to the starred dress and golden circlet. The swarthy hues of the dress and face had at first caused us to overlook her. The wicked eyes seemed to glare into mine. After one wild bound my heart seemed to stop its beating, and I knew no more. When I recovered from a long deep swoon, great lassitude and intense nervous excitement followed; my illness broke up the part, and for months I was an invalid. When again Robert's love and patience had won me back to my old health and happiness, he told me all the truth, so far as it had been preserved in old records of the family.
It was in the sixteenth century that the reigning Lady of Draye Court was a weird deformed woman, whose stunted body, hideous face, and a temper which taught her to hate and vilify everything good and beautiful for the contrast offered to herself, made her universally feared and disliked. One talent only she possessed; it was for music, but so wild and strange were the strains she drew from the many instruments of which she was mistress, that the gift only intensified the dread with which she was regarded. Her father had died before her birth—her mother did not survive it; near relatives she had none; she had lived her lonely loveless life from youth to middle age. When a young girl came to the Court, no one knew more than that she was a poor relation. The dark woman seemed to look more kindly on this young cousin than on any one that bad hitherto crossed her sombre path; and indeed so great was the charm which Marian's goodness, beauty, and innocent gaiety exercised on every one, that the servants ceased to marvel at her having gained the favour of their gloomy mistress. The girl seemed to feel a kind of wondering, pitying affection for the unhappy woman; she looked on her through an atmosphere created by her own sunny nature, and for a time all went well. When Marian had been at the Court for a year, a foreign musician appeared on the scene. He was a Spaniard. and had been engaged by Lady Draye to build for her an organ said to be of fabulous power and sweetness. Through long bright summer days he and his employer were shut up together in the music-room—he busy in the construction of the wonderful instrument, she aiding and watching his work. These days were spent by Marian in various ways—pleasant idleness and pleasant work, long canters on her chestnut pony, dreamy mornings by the brook with red and line, or in the village near, where she found a welcome everywhere. She played with the children, nursed the babies, helped the mothers in a thousand pretty ways. gossiped with the old people, brightening the day for everybody with whom she came in contact. Then in the evening she sat with Lady Draye and the Spaniard in the saloon, talking in that soft foreign tongue which they generally used. But this was but the music between the acts; the terrible drama was coming. The motif was of course the same as that of every life drama which has been played out from the old, old days when the curtain rose upon the garden scene of Paradise. Philip and Marian loved each other, and having told their happy secret to each other, they, as in duty bound, took it to their patroness. They found her in the music-room. Whether the glimpse she caught at a beautiful world from which she was shut out maddened her, or whether she, too, had loved the foreigner, was never certainly known; but through the closed door passionate words were heard, and very soon Philip came out alone and left the house without a farewell to any in it. When the servants did at last venture to enter, they found Marian lifeless on the floor, Lady Draye standing over her with crutch uplifted, and blood flowing from a wound in the girl's forehead. They carried her away and nursed her tenderly; their mistress locked the door as they left, and all night long remained alone in darkness. The music which came out without pause on the still night air was weird and wicked beyond any strains which had ever before flowed even from beneath her fingers; it ceased with morning light; and as the day were on it was found that Marian had fled during the night, and that Philip's organ had sounded its last strain—Lady Draye had shattered and silenced it for ever. She never seemed to notice Marian's absence, and no one dared to mention her name. Nothing was ever known certainly of her fate; it was supposed she had joined her lover.
Years passed, and with each Lady Draye's temper grew fiercer and more malevolent. She never quitted her room unless an the anniversary of that day and night, when the tapping of her crutch and high-heeled shoes was hard for hours as she walked up and down the music-room, which was never entered save for this yearly vigil. The tenth anniversary came round, and this time the vigil was not unshared. The servants distinctly heard the sound of a man's voice mingling in earnest conversation with her shrill tones; they listened long, and at last one of the boldest ventured to look in. himself unseen. He saw a worn travel-stained man; dusty, footsore, poorly dressed, he still at once recognised the handsome gay Philip of ten years ago. He held in his arms a little sleeping girl; her long curls, so like poor Marian's, strayed over his shoulder. He seemed to he pleading in that strange musical tongue for the little one; for as he spoke he lifted, O so tenderly, the cloak which partly concealed her, and showed the little face, which he doubtless thought might plead for itself. The woman, with a furious gesture, raised her crutch to strike the child; he stepped quickly backwards, stooped to kiss the little girl, then, without a word, turned to go. Lady Draye called on him to return with an imperious gesture, spoke a few words, to which he seemed to listen gratefully, and together they left the house by the window which opened on the terrace. The servants followed them, and found she led the way to the parsonage, which was at the time unoccupied. It was said that he was in some political danger as well as in deep poverty, and that she had hidden him here till she could help him to a better asylum. It was certain that for many nights she went to the parsonage and returned before dawn, thinking herself unseen. But one morning she did not come home; her people consulted together; her relenting towards Philip had made them feel more kindly towards her than ever before; they sought her at the parsonage, and found her lying across its threshold dead, a phial grasped in her rigid lingers. There was no sign of the late prevsence of Philip and his child; it was believed she had sped them on their way before she killed herself. They laid her in a suicide's grave. For more than fifty years after the parsonage was shut up. Though it had been again inhabited no one had ever been terrified by the spectre I had seen; probably the Cedar Closet had never before been used as a bedroom.
Robert decided on having the wing containing the haunted room pulled down and rebuilt, and in doing so the truth of my story gained a horrible confirmation. When the wainscot of the Cedar Closet was removed a recess was discovered in the massive old well, and in this lay mouldering fragments of the skeletons of a man and child!
There could be but one conclusion drawn: the wicked woman had imprisoned them there under pretence of hiding and helping them; and once they were completely at her mercy, had come night after night with unimaginable cruelty to gloat over their agony, and when that long anguish was ended, ended her odious life by a suicide's death. We could learn nothing of the mysterious painting. Philip was an artist, and it may have been his work. life had it destroyed, so that no record of the terrible story might remain. I have no more to add, save that but for those dark days left by Lady Draye as a legacy of fear and horror, I should never have known so well the treasure I hold in the tender unwearying faithful love of my husband—known the blessing that every sorrow carries in its heart, that
"Every cloud that spreads above
And veileth love, itself is love."
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