"THAT was a strange sound amongst the rafters! Did you hear it?"
This question was eagerly asked of his nearest neighbour by one of a little group of travellers who had gathered round the embers of a pine-wood fire at a wayside inn in one of the remotest parts of wild Bohemia.
"I heard nothing," replied the traveller thus addressed, casting up his eyes suspiciously, nevertheless, to the hollow roof above their heads, black and grim with the smoke of many a winter's day and night.
"It was strange," said a quiet voice from the opposite corner of the huge chimney, "but not so strange as sounds that I have heard and sights that I have seen."
This was enough, and more than enough. His fellow-travellers unanimously veered round in the direction of the speaker, and entrusted him to communicate something of what he had seen and what he had heard, hoping for the worst as to its being a something very ghastly and horrible.
The speaker, evidently by his accent a native of some part of Germany, was a middle-age man, and bore the appearance of an artist; just such a one as might have been sent in his early days, by the great man of his native town or village, to study art in Rome, and to return from thence—like how many others?—doing little more, or perhaps even less, than before he sought the oracles which now vouchsafe no answer. He was a wonderfully strange imaginative looking being (though by no means an unprepossessing one either), with a wild blue eye, an absent smile, and an odd way of speaking, as it were to persons who were not present, and not to those who were so; a peculiarity that displayed itself more than once in the course of the following strange narrative, which also affords a striking proof of the well-known power of a predisposed imagination to invest with a frightful reality the phantoms of its own creation, and which I am now about to repeat as nearly as possible in the very same words as those of the narrator himself.
"Years ago," began the stranger, with something of a sigh—"years ago, in the springtime of my life. but in the autumn of the year, I followed the wanderings of the Rhine. One evening I found myself, weary and sore-footed, sitting in the shadow of one of those far-famed relics of a stormy past, whose still powerful outline, as it crowns and seems to ennoble the common vineyard-hill, yet arrests the gaze of the thoughtful traveller, or of one like myself, a pilgrim on the face of the earth, in search of the Beautiful.
"I was a grand dreamer in those days; and as I lay gazing musingly up at those stern old walls, still keeping faithful watch in spite of time and weather, the life of its own day seemed to be restored to the lung silent stronghold. There it was, all before me: the steel-clad knight on his steed of raven black; the slender form of the gentle minstrel, moontipped amongst the falling shadows; the wayworn pilgrim who stopped to shake the dust from his hempen sandal at the castle-gate. I saw them all. Music, too, there was: wild daring snatches of warrior-song from the halls within, and bursts of clarion-callings from the rampart walls without, and harpstrings that trembled on the car as a ray of light on water. All this I seemed to see and hear; but whilst I yet lingered, spellbound, to the spot, a team of oxen, followed by its peasant driver, came hurrying down to drink at the oft-sung river, and the trampling of the beasts and the shouts of the driver soon scared my visions far away.
"But how well do I remember that evening and that hour! Star after star came trembling forth in the purple-and-amber sky—the whole world seemed to sink into one soft unbroken slumber; some late-returning pigeons fluttered wearily home to their holes amongst the castle buttresses, and an ancient-lookiug man, who sat and smoked his pipe on one of the drawbridge walls, came forth from his shadowy corner to have a word with the passing stranger.
"I have seldom seen a more weird-looking being than the old man then before me. His hair was white and long; his heard was white and long; his pipe was whitest and longest of all; and he had no sooner wished me 'good-evening' than he showed his anxiety to rid himself of my company by wishing me 'good-night.' The road before me was, he said, a lonely one (no company all along it but the storks), and he recommended me to lose no time in starting, so u not to be overtaken by the night; a storm, too, he thought, was brewing, but if I set off at once I might reach the nearest village before it burst. 'No sleeping here, you know, sir,' he added impressively, seeing that I still lingered; "no sleeping here. You wouldn't like it, nor I either; you'd best be off, sir.'
"There was a something mysteriously imperative in the old fellow's tone and gestures as he said this. I neither understood nor relished it. I was very young then, and wayward, as one is apt to be in the golden days of one's life. Had the old man pressed me to stay, or even merely invited me to pass the night in his skeleton of a dwellingplace, I should most likely, like a free horse taming his shoulder to the stable-door, have turned my back on its mouldering walls, and my face to the open fields; but he wished me away, he churlishly urged my departure from the precincts of his little kingdom; and therefore I simply determined to remain.
"Just at this crisis some raindrops began to fall with a heavy splash on the broad gray stones of the bridge beside which we were standing.
"'See!' I exclaimed to the unwilling host; 'the storm has begun already. Surely there must be some one habitable corner in your huge castle there, in which you could allow me to wait for morning; for it's vain to think of reaching the nearest sleeping-place before midnight, with all this wind and rain, and my poor tired feet.'
"'Habitable corners! repeated the old man with an air of offended pride, closely followed, however, by an approach to a facetious chuckle, which, as it tucked up his gray moustache, revealed the single tooth left behind it; 'habitable corners!' Why, the whole of one of the towers, the western one, had lately been repaired and fitted up, and even slept in, for a time, at least. Only he wondered, for his part, at my caring to stay in so dull a place; some persons wouldn't fancy it at all. As for himself, he was used to it,—and an honest man... They never never troubled him....
"I had not at first attended to the closing words of this soliluquy; but, as will sometimes happen, their meaning came back upon me a moment later, and I asked my guide, who still half reluctantly led the way into the interior of the castle, to what species of molestation he alluded. My query was, however, unheard, or he didn't care to answer it, as a gruffish 'Hein!' followed by a caution to look down at my feet and not up at the stars, as we passed by the sunken well at the corner of the court, was the only reply it received, and I scarcely liked to try again.
"We had By this time entered a wonderfully fine desolate old place (sadly out of keeping with its traditonary and festive name, however—"the knights' feasting-hall," as my conductor called it), and where rude arches, still powerful in their extreme old age, and massive pillars of unpolished stone, cast rough rich shadows all around, whilst half the stars in heaven peeped in through the lofty but dismantled roof.
"All this grand preface led to nothing more, however, than a few narrow and empty passages. How often have grand prefaces to other things in life done just the same! Who won the first pupil's prize at Düsseldorf? To which amongst all those pupils did Peter Cornelius intrust the finishing of Lazarus's winding-sheet that time in Rome? Not to Rothman, not to Wilhelm, not to Franz; but to me! There was a fair beginning—preface, if you will—and to what did it all lead? To nothing at all, or to poor empty passages at best."
Here the narrator paused, recalled his wandering thoughts, shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and then went on.
"We passed then," continued he, "straight from the grand old feasting-hall to tho low-roofed cell, niched-in amongst the buttresses, which the guardian called his own. Here a sable cat, with witch-like eyes, sat pensirely beside the hearth; and a gaudy red-and-yellow print of the holy St. Cundegonde, pinned awry over the mantelpieee, gave what we call the only touch of colour to the place.
"It was now beginning to grow dark, and my unwilling host took down from the shelf a damaged mineral-water bottle, with a candle-end stuck in it, which he lighted at the embers. Then, turing to me, 'Good sir,' said he, 'as it seems no other inn will serve your turn this night, I suppose you must try mine;' and he led the way accordingly to the apartments of the western tower, in which, he once more repeated, accommodation was not the one thing wanted. ("What was it, then?" I thought.) The rooms of the western tower had, he said, been refitted with old family furniture only two years ago, by his master, Baron G— of Manheim, who was himself partial to the place, and had tried, had in fact spent, some weeks at the castle last vintage-time, with other members of the family; but, he added, 'none of the young ladies throve there, nor indeed my honoured mistress either. The wind blows cold and damp from the river of a night. They said it was always blowing their candles out as they crossed the gallery to their chambers, so one fine day they all went back to Manheim.'
"There was something in this one particular passage of the old retainer's discourse which took my fancy—for I was then still fancy free, and neither your charming face, my Margaret, nor that dear smile of years, had yet taken possession of my every thought—and as I followed my old guide up the creaking staircase, I seemed to see before me those fair young maidens, with their wind-blown lights, wreathed together in their graceful fear, nymph-like as the exquisite creations of the English artist Flaxman. But all this, you will say, is little to our purpose.
"When we had got to the top of the old stone stairway, Fritz, as he told me he was called by friends and foes alike, fumbled in some hidden corner, and having found a rusty key there, applied it to the lock of a black-panelled door, which opened to his touch, as doors are apt to do that are not often asked to take that trouble, slowly and unwillingly, nay, even more than that, as if some one held it back from within. 'Who's in there?' said I in a low voice to Fritz. 'Hein!' was his sole reply. At last, however, the door yielded to his pushing. In we went, and there was no one there after all.
"It was a dismal chamber, and a large one. It had tapestries, and a set of ponderous high-backed benches, and seemed destined to serve as antechamber to the rest. Through it we passed on into another, and another after that, and yet one more—all dim, chill, and silent as the grave; and at last we came to the farthest one of all, in which a huge unwieldy-looking bed of antique form, with sweeping draperies of dark-green serge, o'er-shadowed half the floor. A quivering mountain-ash that grew without chequered the lozenge-shaped lattice-panes with the shadow of its trembling leaves, for ever, as it were, pleading for admittance; whilst the chill autumn wind, toying with some loose rubbish in the grim old chimney-corner, seemed to stir up a kind of false dreary life within its hollow.
"This, however, was all. There was no mysterious family portrait with pursuing eye upon the wall; no stern suit of hollow armour in the angle of the room; no desperate, bloody single combat on the faded arras.
"I have seen before and since, in many a Roman palace or ancient Florentine dwelling-house, chambers of a far more striking aspect, which brought before one more vividly the character and traditions of the romantic ages, and were more fitting scenes for dark domestic tragedies and hidden family history; but never, no never, have I beheld any human habitation having about it precisely what this one had. The first glance at it sent an ice-like chill through all my veins. The very remembrance of it does so still.
"'This, then,' said the old retainer, lifting, as he spoke, a fold of the sombre curtain of the bed—'this will be your bed to-night, and it is perhaps better after all to lie here than at the mercy of the thieves and the winds by the riverside.' And having arrived at this conclusion, he added more cheerfully, 'Now then, sir, if you will come down-stairs again with me, and share my bit of sausage and my fire, you are welcome to both.'
"I gladly accepted the offer, and we returned accordingly to his humble cell, transformed by comparison into a perfect snuggery. We supped together by his little, fragrant, pine-wood fire; we drank to the health of the baron and his fair daughters in a flask of his own good Rhenish; but it failed to make my heart merry. My spirits had been damped, unaccountably damped, by the impression made upon me by the mere sight of that dreary sleeping-chamber, and the still more dreary perspective of having to pass a night within its walls; so that when the hour came for me to borrow the mineral-water bottle with the candle-end, and to light myself up-stairs again, my heart sank within me.
"Old Fritz, who had accompanied me as far as the antechamber-door, took leave of me there, with many a " gate nacht," and left me defenceless on the threshold.
"I am not a coward where real flesh and blood are concerned, but am a very maid for ghosts, and would have given worlds to have called him back. I did indeed make a faint attempt at some deplorable condescension of the kind, and even thoughtlhearda retreating 'Hein!' from the foot of the staircase; but nothing more came of it, and I turned to meet my fate.
"As I did so something nose up before the door as if to prevent my passing. I thrust my candle down towards it (for it stood low), and found it was only a dog; still, gaunt, and unnatural as he looked, at least to my eyes, it was no comfort to see him there and then. The thing struck me as odd too, for I remembered having asked old Fritz if he never kept a dog in this lone place, for protection or for company, and that he had answered 'Never!' I now looked hastily around me for some loose hit of wood or stone, or something, to fling at the unsightly animal, and found it close at hand; but whilst I stooped to pick it up the creature disappeared. How it contrived to creep in with me unseen, I knew not, but I saw it. again in the room immediately preceding the sleeping one, crouching Sphinx-like on the red-tiled floor, with its seal's eyes immovahly fixed on me.
"I hurried past, nor turned to look behind me. Persons in similar situations seldom care to do so, and I closed the door of the room firmly behind me as I entered. But I was not alone in my chamber; I felt sure of that. Some one or some thing was there before me. A low rustling sound ran stealthily round the walls behind the arras, and then all was suddenly still.
"Fritz had piled some logs upon the hearth and thoughtfully prepared a fire, and having stirred up the red embers into so bright a blaze that the quaint old shepherdesses on the folding-screen beside me danced and capered quite wildly in the fitful light, I drew forward a huge chair of faded damask, and, taking a favourite volume from the pocket of my blouse, endeavoured to read. But I could not read for trying to listen, and could not listen for the beating of my heart.
"Of what avail was it then, Goethe, immortal Goethe, that the treasures of thy thought lay unlocked before met?
"Suddenly it struck me that I would try to find refuge in sleep—sleep which would fold me safely in its wings until the coming of the blessed light of day; and in a desperate moment I made a headlong plunge into the dismal bed, which yawned to receive me, and—and—but why be ashamed to confess this, whilst we openly confess so many worse things?—and I hid my head under the bedclothes. Why sheets and blankets should be deemed impenetrable to the subtle essence of supernatural beings, I know not, but such is the popular belief and practice.
"Well, then, I did sleep at last, but I dreamt as well. The old hollow voice of Fritz sounded in my car in spite of all the coverings drawn over me, and it said, 'I was a child at the time it happened, sir, and I'm an honest man. They never trouble me."
"I awoke and sat up, and gazed with awe around me; but if ever the old guardian had been at. my bedside, he was not there then. I looked shudderingly towards the door; it was closed, just as I had left it, but an irresistible attraction drew and riveted my stony gaze on the spot.
"It was a cold, dim, morning moonlight, struggling with a still colder dawn, and the fire had long ceased to burn. The floor of the chamber was uneven; there was a space between it and the bottom of the door; and whilst I kept looking, looking, always looking in that one direction, as I live, gentlemen, something horrible came and placed itself on the other side of the open chink.
"It was a foot; but such a foot! white, shupcless, belonging to no one human—not of this world. It stopped before the chink. Then came its fellow. They passed, repassed, and stopped again.
"O, how I did long to shout out, to shriek, to make the place ring again! But I could not. I would have held my eyes fast closed against the horrible sight, but could not keep them from staring wide. The door seemed to heave on its hinges, and to sway backwards and forwards as if the awful visitor were coming in. It did come in; something or some one pursuing it. I knew not what or who. I felt it at the foot of my bed. It climbed and swung itself up by the curtain. It had such long, damp, tangled hair, such miserable eyes! It sobbed and clung to me. I swooned beneath the deadly touch.
"When I recovered my consciousness I found myself in one of the sleeping-rooms of an inn at Andernach. The evening sunshine was coming in gaily through the red-check curtains of the window; my walking-staff and knapsack were carefully deposited on the table by the bedside; and the good woman of the house, who kindly administered cordials to me, answered my wondering glances by stating that. an old peasant man from a neighbouring castle had driven me over that morning in his covered cart, and had recommended me to the care of the people of the gasthaus as a sick and overitired traveller whom chance had thrown in his way the day before.
"'It was Hanz Scheffman, in fact,' added the old Woman. 'though he didn't choose to name himself, he is so shy and solitary like; but I remember him of old, when I myself was but a child and he a boy. There was a sad piece of work up at the old castle-place there where he lives. A girl was found drowned in the water of the moat, and they do say his master did it—the old baron of all, father to the present one. The poor thing had a dog who tried to save her, but. he soon made an end of him too...leastways they say 'twas he who did it all... He was a bad man, he was, at any rate, and only just took himself off in time to save his trial—here below, that's to say, for he's sure enough to have it elsewhere in the end. However, to this very day no one knows how or whither he went, and neither Christian man or woman can live there in peace ever since, saving Hana, the foster-brother, who keeps it for the family. You surely didn't sleep there last night, did you, sir?'
"'I did,' said I; 'and may the saints preserve me from ever again passing such a terrible night as the one I spent under the roof of that accursed dwelling!'
"'Amen!' said the old woman."
Here the artist ceased, and more than one incredulous smile mingled with the acknowledgments of his auditors for the ready good-nature with which he had gratified their curiosity. Notwithstanding this lack of faith, however, there was a visible and very general disposition amongst, the party to migrate in a body to the sleeping-chambers. No one seemed inclined either to move on first or to remain behind the others, and in an insane attempt to scale the narrow staircase five abreast, two of the party rolled down it, and so did the lantern.
As for myself, I will truthfully confess to a perfect. panic, when, after mechanically teasing my boots as usual from my room into the passage, I perceived them a little while later looking in at me, as it were, from under the chink of the deer. The recent impression left by the artist's strange narrative, and above all by his own sincere conviction of its truth, made this sightso unpleasing to me that l instinctively drew the bedcluthcs somewhat higher up than usual; but I had had a weary day's journey, and, soon forgetting it all in sleep, was infinitely relievedin the morning to find that I had escaped a repetition of his "Terrible Night."
The above story is in the public domain and can be copied or distributed freely. Credit to this site appreciated, but not necessary.