There can be no doubt that Mr. Paul Withers is constitutionally nervous. Mrs. Withers says so; and as a man's wife ought to know something about his weak points, the fact may be considered indisputable. Not that Withers himself seeks to conceal or deny this peculiarity; on the contrary, he makes rather a parade of it; just as some people do with their cynicism, their bad temper, or any other feature which they think gives them distinctiveness of character. Withers, being an author, is in the habit of declaring that he considers his nervousness an advantage; but when he tries to define this position, he gets too misty to follow very closely. Mrs. W., it need scarcely be said, takes the opposite view, and invariably clinches the discussion by declaring, that if Paul hadn't been so absurdly nervous he would never have seen the ghost at Laburnum Villa. As Paul believes devoutly in the one spectral experience of his life, he does not find the illustration convincing; but out of respect for his wife's strength of scepticism, changes the subject.
Was there a ghost at Laburnum Villa, or was it merely a creation of Withers' over-excited brain? Our readers shall judge for themselves.
The "neat detached villa-residence" in question was situated in a semi-rural suburb of London. The agent's advertisement, just quoted, farther described it as being "elegantly furnished," and within five minutes of a railway-station. If anything more antagonistic to the supernatural than this can be imagined, we shall be glad to hear of it. The advertisement attracted the attention of Mrs. Withers while seated at breakfast with her family in a remote Welsh watering-place; and in the evening of the same day, just as the heavy twilight of a dull September was changing into night, Withers stood at the gate of Laburnum Villa with a small travelling-bag in his hand, and the key of that residence in his pocket.
It had been a miserable day. In the first place, his breakfast had been spoiled by the "impetuosity" of Mrs. Withers. That worthy lady had been for some time bringing a legitimate pressure to bear to secure a month or two's stay in London. When she saw the advertisement, she became immediately and completely possessed by the idea that the neighbourhood in question combined every advantage attainable in this necessarily imperfect state of existence. To resolve and act being with her one and the same impulse, she began at once to pack Withers' travelling-bag in spite of his almost pathetic remonstrances. Finding pathos of no use he tried argument, and from that drifted into what he called "firmness" and Mrs. W. "stupidity." At this point, when there was just ten minutes to catch the mail-train from Holyhead, Mrs. W. asked in a tone of assumed calmness, if he intended to go to London in his slippers. His only reply was to put on his boots with a gloomy frown, snatch up his bag, and depart without even a "good-morning." That circumstance, however, did not in the least affect the appetite with which Mrs. Withers continued her interrupted breakfast. Withers meantime speeding Londonwards, and suffering as only nervous men can suffer from the irritating strain of an express journey, was brooding over a terrible scheme of vengeance. He would take the house—O yes, he would take it at any risk; if it was steaming with damp, infested with the most formidable rats, overrun with speci mens of natural history, with a leaky cistern and defective drains, broken-windowed, dilapidated, ay, even roofless! "His great revenge had stomach for them all!" But he never for a moment contem plated the possibility of its being "haunted."
Arrived in London, shattered in body and mind, but with his gloomy purpose strong upon him, he enlisted the obstructiveness of a maddening cabman to place as many difficulties as possible in the way of his finding the house-agent. After this slave of the rank had shut him in a rickety and strong-smelling box on wheels, he displayed an amount of obtuseness about the required address that nearly made Withers jump through the window with rage. Then, when he had acquired some dim notion of where his fare wanted to go, he proceeded with great deliberation in an entirely wrong direction. After two or three false starts of this sort, and the consequent dissipation of a good deal of valuable time, the right office was found at last; and the agent himself discovered in the act of closing his labours for the day, in order to retire to the "bosom of his family." This is never a good time to meet a man who hates doing things in a hurry. Therefore Withers had expended some energy against the impassible composure of Mr. Leese in vain, until he happened to mention the name of the house he wished to occupy. The words "Laburnum Villa" seemed to act like a spell; and in ten minutes more Withers found himself in possession of the key of that "neat detached villa-residence." Confiding himself once more to the care of cabby, he soon forgot the temporary gleam of elation produced by this small success in gloomy reflections on the probability of his being obliged to spend the night wandering aimlessly about the suburbs in that strong-smelling cab. Then he remembered a newspaper controversy about conveying hospital-patients in public vehicles. Unpleasant impressions began to crowd upon him, and he was on the point of stopping the cab and jumping out, when it was pulled-up with a violent jerk, and he was informed that he was "there."
When he found himself alone in a front garden of tolerable size, he began to find the situation singular. Then a lurking suspicion that it might prove disagreeable obtruded itself. He glanced up at the front of the house, which was of the usual commonplace bow-windowed pattern, and was struck by the fact that there was no appearance of occupation. To resolve this doubt at once he knocked at the door. The sound seemed to raise a dozen melancholy echoes in the neighbourhood; but after these had died away in a low-spirited style, there was no response from the interior of Laburnum Villa. At this point a servant, in full evening dress of light cotton print, fluttered across from one of the nearest villas for the purpose of informing him that, "Please, sir, no one lives in that 'ouse."
"No one! Is it left to take care of itself?"
"O no, sir. There's a person—leastways an old woman—comes in the daytime, but she don't live there regular. No one has lived there regular since Miss Steel died."
After imparting these agreeable facts, the servant fluttered genteelly away again, leaving Withers standing on the door-step with an awkward consciousness that, from the drawing-room window of the nearest villa, eyes were bent upon him through the laths of the venetians. It would be absurd to retreat. He took the key from his pocket and entered.
Falling over a pail, happily empty, which had been carelessly left in the little hall, did not tend to put him in a good temper, or to decrease the nervousness that had been growing upon him all day. He sat down on the pail, rubbed his shins, and tried to realise the situation. Alone in a strange house, with nothing to eat, and with that faint sickness upon him which comes of the fatigue and semi-starvation of express travelling. Obviously, the thing to do was to look for the kitchen. There might be something to eat: at any rate the chance was worth trying. Fortunately the kitchen was not far off, on the ground-floor, and he groped his way there without much difficulty. Here he was rejoiced by discovering the remains of a good fire, and received a momentary shock from a woman's dress, which was hanging from a hook in a way suggestive, in the dim light from the grate, of the person—"leastways the old woman"—having made a violent end of herself. A box of matches was the next fortunate discovery made by Withers, who began to feel himself a sort of Crusoe; but after burning two or three in a vain attempt to light the gas, he was forced to the unpleasant conclusion that it was either turned off at the meter, or "cut off" by the gas company. Deferring farther experiments in this direction for the present, he began, with the aid of a candle, to search for provisions. The prosecution of this laudable object naturally took him into the pantry. He was standing here, holding the candle above his head, and peering anxiously about the shelves, when he heard close to him, as it seemed, the shrill treble shout in which boyhood proclaims its eternal war with mankind. "Yah! yah! the post!" the cry sounded like. What did they mean by "post"? Withers opened the window a little way, and listened more intently. The juvenile destroyers of peace were some distance across the field by this time, so he couldn't be sure whether his ears deceived him or not; but he certainly thought he heard "Yah! yah! the ghost!" It was very absurd, of course; but still Withers felt "queer" as he closed the window again and continued his search. He was rewarded by a magnificent "find"—a half-consumed meat-pie in prime condition, doubtless the personal property of the "person" before mentioned. It was evident that she, at least, was no ghost, which was so far satisfactory. With the help of the brandy in his travelling-flask, Withers made a hearty supper off the meat-pie; and, strange to say, never bestowed a thought on the probability of its "disagreeing" with him—a subject upon which, on ordinary occasions, he was wont to be discreetly but pathetically eloquent.
"Now for the meter," thought Withers, after finishing supper by the light of his solitary candle. He had always entertained rather a high opinion of himself, had Withers, in a modest self-contained way; but now, under the combined influence of meat pie, brandy, and a pipe of cavendish, he began to think he had done himself scanty justice. "Strange," he mused over his pipe, "how a novel situation, strange conditions, bring out what is self-reliant in a man. How soon a fellow with any stuff in him grasps and subdues unfamiliar surroundings! The curled and scented military darling of drawing-rooms becomes a hero in war and a Spartan in the camp. The refined son of metropolitan civilisation, the polished cynic of club smoking-rooms, goes to the diggings, and straightway becomes 'hail fellow well met' with navvies, and a thoroughgoing advocate of Lynch law." And then Withers began to think pleasantly of his own fertility of resource, though he had, after all, only gone into an unoccupied house, and consumed another person's provisions. Rousing himself from such meditations with a gentle melancholy upon him, as became a person never destined to be thoroughly appreciated, he went to look for the meter. He found the place where the meter had been, but that was all. This being an emergency to which his resources were by no means equal, he began to doubt the absolute sufficiency of self-reliance under all circumstances. At any rate, no tolerably efficient substitute for the missing meter suggested itself to him, so he determined to distinguish himself in another unfamiliar direction. Returning upstairs, he occupied an hour or so very pleasantly, blacking his face and hands to an impossible extent, in the attempt to light a fire in the dining-room. He had chosen the dining-room to pass the night in in preference to running the risk of damp beds, because it was compact, not to say diminutive, in its proportions, and therefore more easily warmed and lighted by a fire and a couple of candles. Here, then, after the completion of his arrangements, he will be left to continue the story in his own words.
I do not know what the general experience in such cases may be, but I never can feel on thoroughly good terms with other people's furniture; there is a sense of antagonism which I find it impossible to subdue. Even while lounging in the very comfortable easy-chair in the dining-room of Laburnum Villa, I felt as strongly as possible that I was being seated under protest. The companion easy-chair balancing mine on the opposite side of the fire-place had, to my sensitive mind, a distinctly disparaging expression in its arms, and a shrug, as of contempt, in its well-stuffed back. A fiercely-gilt warrior, who was careering at a terrible rate on the top of a clock (run down and silent) decorating the mantelpiece, seemed to point his weapon at me in an openly threatening manner, and challenge me to mortal combat. Even the engravings on the walls rejected me as an alien. "Shakespeare and his Contemporaries" were evidently engaged in discussing me in an unfavourable spirit; and Frith's "Merrymakers" ignored me so completely that I ought to have sunk terribly in my own esteem. There was a portrait in oil, too, of a gentleman, which it was impossible to escape, because it hung opposite the chimney-glass; so that whenever I raised my head, I caught it apparently looking at me over the mantelpiece with an unmistakable expression of indignant surprise. I could almost hear it saying in an injured tone, "What the deuce is that fellow doing in my dining-room!"
This state of feeling was becoming intensified to a most disagree able pitch, when a framed photograph "caught my eye"—if I may be permitted to use the phrase—and gave a new turn to my thoughts. It was a full-length of a young lady with one of the most singular faces I ever saw in my life; not a pleasant face by any means, but full of decided character, though the mouth and chin were weak without being feminine. I thought, with something like a shudder of repugnance, that Elsie Venner—that curious creature with the reptile taint in her blood—must have looked like this girl, who seemed to have nothing of girlhood about her but its physical weakness. The small colourless face, with its retreating chin, unsmiling mouth, and slightly prominent nose, its sloping narrow forehead and brilliant black eyes, had such a repellent unsympathetic character, that it created the most disagreeable impressions. I returned to my seat, from which I had risen to examine the portrait; but I found it im possible to shake-off the feeling it had produced. It was as repugnant to me as if it had been some noxious thing endowed with a sluggish vitality which found expression in the glittering eyes alone: they seemed to hold me with a triumphant consciousness of their power, though they were looking in another direction, out of the picture, but not at the spectator. I got up under an uncontrollable impulse, and turned the face to the wall. In doing so, I discovered that on the back of the frame there was pasted one of those "funeral cards" which some people are in the habit of sending to their friends on the occasion of a death in the family. That there might be no mistake as to the identity of the "Laura Steel" here mentioned, a miniature photograph was affixed at the top of the card. So Laura Steel was the name of the unprepossessing young lady, and she was dead. All the nameless fascination went out of those singular orbs at the thought, and I felt something like remorse for my fancies about her.
I ought to have begun to feel fatigued by this time; but though I lay back as comfortably as possible in the easy-chair, put my feet on the fender, and stared at the fire, no drooping of the eyelids hinted at an approaching doze. It was no use trying to persuade myself that I wanted to take "forty winks." The fact was not to be disguised that I was most distressingly wakeful, restless, and listening; distinctly listening, for I caught myself in the act. It was very plain that nature was revenging itself for my ill-spent day in the abnormal activity of my nervous system. I got up, and going to a book-case in a recess, took down a volume at random. It proved to be a collection of German plays of the sanguinary school: Lessing's Emilia Galotti, Schiller's Robbers, and others of the same type. This proved a fortunate speculation; and I soon found myself going through the most harrowing and bloodthirsty scenes with that luxurious sense of suspended attention which is the first phase of an inevitable doze. Emilia was about to stab herself, and I was just nodding my admiration of her courage and virtue, when suddenly I started up broad awake, and let the book fall. I glanced almost involuntarily at the photograph, and saw, or fancied I saw, in the averted glittering eyes the same indefinable expression revived that had struck me so un pleasantly at first. What was it that had startled me? I did not know. Still less could I explain the intensity of a new sensation, possessing me completely, which seemed to hold all my being in the one act of listening.
A house does not need to be old and dilapidated in order to supply plenty of mysterious noises; indeed, new houses are more prolific in this respect than old ones. I heard any quantity of the usual creaking, straining, and flapping in Laburnum Villa, but nothing to which I felt inclined to give any special significance. After a few minutes, therefore, the acute tension of my nerves began to relax, and I turned once more to my book. Here I met with a disappointment; for I soon became sensible that the horrors of the German dramatist had lost their soporific effect, and, inexplicably enough, were acting as an irritant. I was reading with sharpened senses, and realising what I read. It was another disagreeable surprise to find that the late Miss Steel—or, at least, my idea of her—was getting involved in the scenes, identifying herself with the sanguinary interest as a pervading evil influence. The criminal personages seemed to gleam at me from the page with the snake-like brilliancy of her eyes, and the malignant bitterness of the wicked speeches to come from the same lax unsmiling lips. I threw down the book impatiently, and began to trim the candles; but though I smiled while doing so at the idea of being reduced to candles in this age of gas, I could not help noticing that my hands trembled violently. I was so awkward about my work that I nearly extinguished the light. I poked the fire into a blaze, and set myself resolutely to think.
Some considerable time passed in a vain attempt to resume the mastery of myself; but I gave up the struggle at last, and resigned myself passively to wait and listen. I was sensible of no alarm, or even anxiety; I was simply held down, physically and mentally, and kept quiet. An imperious expectation of something, I did not know what, absorbed every sense and faculty of my being. How long I half sat, half lay thus, I do not know. Nature seemed to stand still; there was no time, and everything came to a breathless pause.
Then over this dead peace there came stealing a subtle infection of terror. The air was charged with it as with a plague. This horror gathered and thickened, like the darkness before a storm, until it became a palpable oppression. My body was paralysed; only my soul struggled feebly against the threatenings of madness or death.
It came at last. With my quickened senses, I could hear the stir in the air that heralded its approach, as if the atmosphere of Nature recoiled from the awful thing. It was in the room, and I recognised the figure at once, though the face was turned from me: the girl of the portrait with the snake-like eyes. I felt that if those eyes met mine, I should go mad; and yet I was powerless to look away, or move, or cry out. My heart stood still, and life was slipping away from my paralysed grasp. It was kneeling before the drawers in the lower part of the book-case, and appeared to be searching anxiously in one of them. Suddenly it recoiled, and threw its arms wildly above its head. It arose swiftly, and in the instant it stood erect was confronted by another figure, that of an old man. It seemed to read a sentence of condemnation in the face of this second comer, for it sank into a kneeling position, and clasped the other despairingly by the knees. There were savagely-rapid blows rained upon the face of the petitioner, upturned in an agony of entreaty, and a furious thrusting away. With a long wailing scream, it rolled writhing almost at my feet, and the awful eyes glared full into mine. Merciful oblivion came upon me, and I fell into a death-like unconsciousness.
When I revived, it was to find myself in a state of physical prostration as great as if I had just been recovering from a severe illness. The nervous restlessness from which I had suffered in the early part of the night had completely disappeared. It seemed that I had exhausted my powers of endurance, and my capacity for receiving violent mental impressions. I could only lie still and try, in a feeble groping way, to renew my hold upon the familiar every-day life which had become so distant and indistinct. I endeavoured to remember the incidents that had preceded my arrival at the villa; but I could only do so in a confused wandering style, without sequence or coherency. Mr. Leese the house-agent got mixed up with the cab man, and both receded into some indefinite past, the duration of which it was impossible to calculate. And all the time I was thus trying to rearrange the history of the day, I was sensible of a shadowy horror in the background of my thoughts, which I knew, evade it as I might, I should be obliged to face by and by. That dreadful remembrance, I was conscious, would force itself upon me with returning physical strength, without any effort of mine to rouse it. Let it sleep now, like a coiled serpent; there were hours enough of depression in store in the future to be darkened by its malignant influence. Should I ever forget it? I could not help asking myself, even in my almost imbecile state of prostration. Would it be always, as it was now, a lurking horror, crouching for a spring when its victim was most helpless?
I must have sat for a long time in this state of mental suspension; for when I gained energy enough to take active note of external things, I found the candles burnt out, and the fire a black mass, with some faint red sparks here and there. My first act of vitality was to seize the brandy-bottle, and take a draught of raw spirit such as would have completely stupefied me under ordinary circumstances. As it was, it produced such an immediate effect, in my weak state, that I could just stagger to the sofa, where I fell into a heavy and dreamless sleep.
It was broad daylight when I wakened again, and found a singular-looking old woman standing by the side of my improvised couch. We stared at each other, with much bewilderment on my side, and apparently much solemn relish on hers, for several minutes. She was the first to break the awkward silence, by remarking in a husky tone, "Lor' a-mussy!" Then I sat up, and became aware that I had a very active collection of steam-hammers at work in my head. This indisposed me for conversation, especially with an old woman who seemed to breathe gin, and I lay down again. She wheezed interrogatively, and did not appear to have any intention of going away. I turned towards her, and she repeated the exclamation or observation before quoted. "What do you want?" I asked at last, feeling under an obligation to say something. This simple question confused her so much, that she could only wheeze louder than ever, and rub her hands aimlessly with a very dirty duster. "I suppose you are the person who takes care of the house?" I added, with the benevolent design of assisting her comprehension. "Yes, sir; Mrs. Panting, sir, as Mr. Leese allus 'as engaged, me bein', as 'e says, trustworthy, with the 'ighest of characters, as was wrote out most beautiful by Mr. Leese's young man; an' I 'ope, sir, if you've took the 'ouse, as your good lady'll keep me on, sir, bein' easy satisfied, with a pore appetite, through bein' a widow, sir, with a small fambly, as allus did the charin' and washin' for pore Mr. Steel, and giv' the 'ighest satisfaction." I had collapsed at first, under this sudden shower-bath of information; but the name of Steel roused me, and I determined to extract what information Mrs. Panting possessed about the family. She possessed a great deal, as it proved, and no doubt invented whatever was necessary to fill-up the gaps in her knowledge; but in its broad outlines the story was probable enough.
Miss Steel's was one of those histories, commonplace in appearance to the outside spectator, the external features of which may be summed-up in a few lines, while an internal analysis would fill volumes. Mrs. Panting's amplified, decorated, and very discursive history may be told in a few words. Laura Steel had conceived a violent and unreasoning passion for a man who was utterly and hopelessly unworthy of the slightest public notice from any woman who valued her reputation. There had been a clandestine correspondence, and a regular series of stolen meetings, before her father discovered the state of affairs. Then came a sickening struggle for supremacy between the father and daughter: she bold, defiant, and reckless; he mad with passionate rage and the bare possibility of social disgrace. There was a short and deceitful truce, but it was only the sullen calm that precedes the fury of the storm. It came to a sudden end one day, for he had been searching among her papers during her absence, and found a certificate of marriage dated about seven months before. There was a terrible scene when she returned home at night; a scene which even imaginative Mrs. Panting trembled at the mere recollection of. He cast his daughter off with such frightful imprecations as raving demons might have uttered, and swore a horrible oath of hatred even beyond the grave. A few days after, she died in giving birth to a still-born child. The terrible passion of the old man was too much for his enfeebled frame; and he too succumbed soon after to an attack of paralysis, which, though it deprived him of speech, could not quench the hatred that burned in his eyes to the last.
When Mrs. Panting had finished her story, she exhibited as corroborative evidence a manuscript volume, much burned on the outside, which she had picked up from under the grate the morning after the tragedy. As she could not read, however, she had no idea how irresistible that corroboration was. It was Miss Steel's diary, or at any rate all that was left of it. A more appalling production, for a woman's hand, I never met before, and devoutly hope never to meet again.
How is it that the worst women, if they have the power of expression, are always the most eager to make a morbid analysis of their wickedness on paper? Let philosophers answer, if they can. Miss Steel's diary was not one of incident; about her personal surroundings she wrote little beyond the facts that her mother had died while she was an infant, and that she had never loved her father. The "sentiment," as she considered it, of filial affection was the subject of her most caustic sarcasms. Her father, on the other hand, had reciprocated her indifference most thoroughly, and thus she had grown in a state of complete isolation. An intelligence so acute and observant that it only wanted a touch of human sympathy to produce the fruits of genius, had been perverted by indiscriminate and unwholesome reading into a field for the growth of the wildest and most unhealthy fancies. No question was too high, or too low, or too sacred for the effrontery of her amazing speculations. Themes that mankind have been accustomed to approach with reverent awe were treated with revolting flippancy, as almost unworthy of serious thought. But it was when she had passed under the dominion of a new passion that all the distorted strength of her character was put forth. It was simply raving, with few intervals of lucidity; and I was compelled to give up the task of reading it from sheer inability to bear the painful feeling of mental irritation it produced. I need only add, that I felt it a duty to superintend carefully the process of reducing it by fire to a harmless pile of feathery ashes.
Human nature, even nervous human nature, will bear a great deal, we know; and I must have got over the effects of my night's experience to some extent when I could feel a sort of grim satisfaction in despatching the following telegram to Mrs. Withers at Llanfairfechan: "Don't come. Laburnum Villa won't do."
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