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The Australian authoress Mary Helena Fortune (ca. 1833-1911) was one of the first women to write detective fiction, and probably the first to write it from the viewpoint of the detective. Her opus includes several novels and over 500 stories, many of which feature a detective by the name of Mark Sinclair. She wrote under the pseudonyms "Waif Wander" and "W.W."
I MET my old chum Tom Mason in the street the other day, and he gave me a blowing up for not telling the public a ghost story at Christmas time.
"I don't know what has come over people of late years," he said, irritably, "for they don't seem to think it judicious to own to a liking for a good genuine ghost story."
"Don't you think it's mostly because they don't, as a rule, believe in the genuineness of either the ghosts or the stories about them?" I asked.
"Oh, of course! People are what is called too well informed to believe in anything that they can't see and feel and heft, ay and make money of—hang such practical people! I like a ghost story as well now as I did forty years ago!"
"Do you believe in them, Tom?"
"Don't you, Mark?"
"That's no answer to my question. Mason."
"That's no answer to mine, Sinclair."
"No sane man can deny that there are things in heaven and earth"
"Oh, for any sake, spare us Horatia! Have you forgotten Calandra?"
"And does your philosophy go the length of accounting for that affair?"
"I don't say it does."
"And you don't say it doesn't eh? Well, just you write an account of Calandra in your next album, and see if folks won't like it without trying their philosophy on solving the mystery. You can embellish it up a bit, you know—stick a lie in where the truth won't fit, as the saying is."
So now, in pursuance of Mason's hint, I present this story to the readers of the Australian Journal.
It is fully twenty years ago, that I was stationed at a miserable up-country camp on the borders of a river to which I need not give a name, but the name of the few houses about two miles off was Calandra, and it had once been a digging that had stretched promisingly toward the spot where the police station had been built, and then died out as suddenly as it had arisen, and leaving us poor troopers in a wild spot all by ourselves and with scarcely a habitation within sight.
I never was in a duller station than that of Calandra. Of all the wretched sights a man can picture I think a deserted diggings is one of the most depressing, and I had nothing to do but go to the door to see one in all its misery of decay. Deep, treacherous shafts, with their mouths wreathed and half-hidden by wild green growth, through which the glimmer of unwholesome water could be seen when the sun shone into the depths, and great holes where paddocking had been done and left the heaped-up stuff to be filtered slowly back at each fall of rain during many months, were there in that gully by hundreds, with the rotting windlass props and slant, and decaying posts of some long-ago tent creaking when the wind blew like the wailing cries of some dead digger who had lost his soul for gold.
"If I am not removed I'll resign," I had said to myself over and over as days and weeks went by, and there was nothing but feigned duty to be done; and I said it again on the very evening that the first page of the story I am going to tell was opened in my hand.
It was an unusually wretched evening, even for Calandra. There was thunder in the air, and heavy, gloomy clouds in the sky. A damp wind was floating up from the dark river, and the long branches of the yellow box-trees were swaying to and fro in it with a sad monotony. Along the river, low down where the sedges were thick and rustling lonely, a curlew was crying out his awful "Murder!" while along the bush track, so faintly lined to and from the miserable township, not a living speck could be discerned.
"There are places in which any sane man would become mad, and Calandra is one of them," I muttered to myself. "No wonder that black pile remains empty and almost ownerless, for who would live, if he could choose his residence, with such a dreary desolate hillock as that tower must command?"
I was looking at the only wall within view from the door of the station, a three-storied tower that formed part of a building of some pretensions called by the unusual title of "The Moat." The property belonging it had been originally a pre-emptive right affair, but the diggers had rushed it in search of the precious metal, and there only remained belonging to and surrounding it about a hundred acres of purchased land. The house was on a rise near the river and hemmed almost in by timber; a gloomy stone building it was, with its nailed up windows and dark walls streaked with the green slimy damp of broken spouting, and there was nothing to be wondered at in the few neighbours avoiding it, as there was nothing pleasant to see or steal, entirely outside the report of its being (as all empty houses most certainly are) haunted.
"Ugh!" I said with a shudder, "I hate to look at that place!" and I looked no more just then, for a black moving spot became visible on the distant track, and very soon also the sound of horse's feet preceded my recognition of the rider, who was no other than my friend Tom Mason.
"This is a doleful sort of a country," he said as he dismounted; "and I don't wonder that your face is as long as a fiddle."
"Don't you?" I growled. "I hope they've sent you to relieve me, for I'm sick of the blessed place."
"No relief for you, me boy; I'm only going on to Carryl's with dispatches."
"A—hem the dispatches! Talk of wasting the country's money! I'd like to know what else it is to keep a police station in a place like this."
"Resign," Mason said philosophically, as he unstrapped his rug and prepared to make his horse comfortable for the night. "Resign, by all manner of means, me bhoy."
"I'm going to when I'm ready. What news have you?"
"None. Oh, bedad, I forgot I have. You're going to have a new neighbour to-morrow."
"A new neighbour? In the name of goodness how can that be? There isn't a place to live in within ten miles."
"There is a gentleman coming to live in some place called the Moat. He's driving a trap and baited at York's, but one of the horses wanted shoeing, or something, so he decided on stopping all night."
"Well, I wish him joy of the place—you can see it over there —and if of his own free choice he comes to live there he quite deserves being eat up by rats, or frightened out of what small remains of sense he may be possessed of by the spirits that haunt the Moat."
"Is it haunted? By George, but that's jolly, Mark! I'll call and ask him for a night's lodging as I come back, for I have an awful craving to see a ghost."
"Stuff! What kind of chap is this Moat man?"
He gave me a card.
"There it is. Mr. T. Cyrus, not a bad name, eh? And when he sticks 'The Moat' after it it will be quite too awfully aristocratic."
"What sort of a man is he?"
"Why, he's a dark-haired, white-faced fellow, with a haunted look about him, and I'm sure the ghosts of the Moat will cotton to him as a spiritual mate at once when they see him."
That was all the description I could get from my then volatile friend, but when Mr. Cyrus alighted at the station on the following day I found that it to a certain extent applied to his appearance. He was dark-haired and dark-whiskered, and his pallid face made his great eyes look darker than even they were. He was gentlemanly though and quietly spoken, while his well-chosen words and low musical voice were indicative of a man of culture and intelligence.
"A trooper I had the pleasure of travelling some miles with yesterday advised me to call at the station," he said. "Is he here?"
"Mason has gone about an hour, but he mentioned you, Mr. Cyrus, and I have been looking out for you."
"That is kind. Your name is Sinclair, I think?"
"Is that the Moat?" and he pointed toward the dark tower that floated, as it were, on the gloomy tops of the dense wood.
"Yes, that is the Moat. I am afraid you will find it a dull residence."
"Yes, I expect that. Have you any idea what sort of condition it is in?"
"The very worst, I should say. I was over there but once, and it gave me the idea of a decayed and desolate dwelling indeed."
"But it is furnished!" he said, in apparent astonishment.
"Furnished? I should never have guessed that, but if it is the furniture must of necessity have suffered from neglect. At all events, you must not dream of putting up there without some previous fire-making."
"There is no place else," he said.
"There is the police station. I shall be happy to give you room for a little."
"But I should be taking advantage of your kindness by accepting your offer," he said, hesitatingly.
"If you knew the life of loneliness I lead in this miserable hole, you would know how thankfully I see a break in upon it in a visitor's face. Pray say no more, but let us put your horses in the stable, and after you have had something to eat and drink, I will ride over to examine the Moat with you."
It was so arranged, and as we lunched together I had an opportunity of more closely examining the appearance of my new acquaintance, as, when his hat was removed, I found him a much handsomer and a much younger man than he had appeared before. I don't think he was over thirty, yet there were white hairs among his dark locks. He was a naturally silent man, I should say; or some great sorrow which had to be confined to his own breast had made reticence habitual to him.
"I am more than surprised at what you tell me about this property of mine," he observed after a longer period of silence than usual, "for I had reason to suppose that there was a caretaker living on it, in the house in fact."
"I have been here some months and never heard of any one being in charge of the Moat," I said. I could almost count the residents within a mile of it on my fingers. "What was the man's name you were led to expect to find taking care of it?"
"There is a man of that name living in the township—a strange, sullen customer he is; but I never heard that he had anything to do with the Moat."
"He has been drawing the pay for taking care of it, at all events," Mr. Cyrus said; "and I think we had better see him before going over. The township is not far away?"
"Just beyond the bend of the road."
"Then we will go and try to see this Neilson, if you will be so good as to accompany me. Are you alone here?"
"Oh, no; I have a mate to help me do nothing. He is gone on some little business of his own, but will be back this evening."
"I am glad of that, for I can hope to see a good deal of you without leaving the police station destitute of a policeman."
We started for Calandra quite early, for it was not an hour past noon, both mounted and riding easily as the day was young. The very first hut on entering the little collection of dwellings was that of the man we were in search of, and, as it happened, he was at his door when we came within sight of it, doing something to a strong fishing-rod, to which a suitable line was attached.
As I had told Mr. Cyrus, the man was of strange, sullen manner, and I never took to him. He spent a good deal of his time on the river, I had always heard and he was a grey haired man of fully sixty years. When we drew rein before him he looked at us inquiringly but he did not speak or cease his work.
"This gentleman has some business with you I think, Neilson," I said, introducing my companion as it were.
"Ay? I can't guess what that may be."
"I will tell you," the gentleman began. "I have come to reside at the Moat House, and I have come to you for the key."
"Ye are come to live in the Moat House, and ye want the key? Ye'll have an order to that effect?"
"I have," and a paper was quietly passed to the man, who laid down his rod and took it with an expression of some far deeper feeling than surprise in his dark face.
"You know the signature and the writing?"
"Ay, I ken baith. And so ye've bought the Moat place!"
"I have bought it, yes."
"Weel, much good may it do ye, for I never thought that any man could be found to live of his own free will in siccan an awfu' house, and I think ye'll maybe be glad to get oot o't again afore very long."
"What do you mean, man?" I asked, for Neilson's manner was, to say the least of it, disagreeable, and his visage had an unpleasant scowl on it as he handed the order for the key back to Mr. Cyrus.
"Ye know well enough what I mean, constable, a' the country knows that the place is haunted visibly."
"Visibly?' asked Mr. Cyrus inquiringly. "Have you yourself seen any spiritual manifestation?"
"Ay, have I seen that which has made me cold to the very heart"—and he shuddered as he spoke—"seen the faces of dead men and heard their groans and their cries."
"You knew, and were in the service of the late Mr. Malbraith, the owner of the property, I understand?" said Mr. Cyrus as he keenly watched Neilson's bowed face.
"Ay, I knew him and worked for him for many a year."
"Is it his spirit that haunts the Moat?"
Neilson lifted his eyes and looked full into his questioner's face as he drew a rusty key from his pocket and held it toward Cyrus.
"There is the key, take it, and find out for yourself who and what it is that haunts the Moat. I wouldn't own it or live in it to be made Emperor of Australia."
"Yet I was just going to ask you if you would enter my service, as you are used to the property."
"Your service—in what capacity?"
"That to be decided on. Of course I shall want a man to look after things generally, but I can talk to you again about that if you should think any arrangement possible between you and me." Neilson was silent for a little as he steadily scanned the speaker's countenance, and then he spoke in a strangely suspicious tone—
"Have I ever seen you before?"
"No; it is impossible. I have but now arrived from a far land in which most of my life was spent, and I am at least sure that I have never looked in your face until to-day. Why do you ask?"
"Because I seem to ken your features, and there's something in your eyes that reminds me o' I kenna what."
He passed his hand over his face as he spoke, and then, as if on a sudden thought, he offered to go with us to the Moat.
"I might be able to give ye some useful information, as I ken the place so long, and if ye like I'll go with you to see it."
Cyrus willingly agreeing to this, we rode on our way to the old place, Neilson taking a short cut through the bush that would lead him there in time to open the gate for us.
"You know that man, Mr. Cyrus!" I observed to that gentleman as we left.
"I assure you I have never seen his face before," he said with an approach to a smile, as his eyes met mine. "I have heard of him though, and some day I may be able to tell you how and when."
"Ay, and what," I returned, "for there is something not over good to know."
"You guess that?" he asked, quietly, and then no more was said until we neared the rusty iron gate that was just creakingly opening to the hand of Neilson, who awaited our entrance.
We rode in, and I noticed that my companion's eyes were never removed from the building from the moment it came within view at a bend of the gloomy avenue, grass-grown and shadowed by great tangled branches of the old trees that grew beside it. The tower I have previously alluded to stood nearest the river, and a stout stone wing of one story joined it to landward, as it were. The dark stone of the building, on which summers and winters of years had traced many stains and discolourations, with its boarded-up windows and weed-grown threshold, formed as gloomy a picture as any man need to avoid, and I could scarcely wonder at Neilson's disinclination to live in the weird-looking house.
"If ye will open the door," Neilson said as we dismounted, "I will get some tool at the back, and ding aft some o' these boards frae the windows; it winna be hard to do for they're gey rotten."
And so in a quarter of an hour many scattered boards were lying on the grass, and once more light and air penetrated to the interior of the decayed mansion.
I was surprised to find that the house was, after a way, furnished, but on every article of old-fashioned use and garniture the dust of time and decay lay thickly. There was a large dining room to the south, and several smaller apartments, as well as sitting-rooms, in the principal part of the house; but it was to the tower that the attention of Cyrus was most closely directed. This tower was two stories higher than the other portion of the dwelling, and its whole contents above the roof of the wing consisted of two rooms, one on each story. The upper or top room was arranged as a bedroom, and from its windows a wide and not unpleasant view of river and hill and forest was commanded, whilst the apartment under it was fitted up as a study, in which cobwebs wreathed the books on the shelves, and the dust lay thickly on the writing-table and large couch that stood in one corner of the room. On this couch I noticed Cyrus turn his eyes strangely ere he turned to Neilson, who stood at the door, and spoke—
"It was in this room that the last owner of this house died," he said, and Neilson's face was expressive of more than astonishment as he heard the observation.
"How do ye know that?"
"The agent told me."
"Aye, it was in this room and on that vera couch he died."
"You were here at the time?"
"Aye, I was here at the time."
"How long is that ago?" I asked myself.
"Nearly five years."
"And his brother—Mr. George Malbraith—where did he die?" the strange gentleman asked.
"The brother? Why, he dinna die at all that I ken o'. Mr. George, the late maister's elder brother, just walked oot ae day, and never was seen or heard o' aifter. Mr. Matthew inherited the property under will from Mr. George."
"He may not be dead at all then," I said, "and if he should turn up, your purchase would be valueless."
"Oh, he's dead, sure enough; he'll never come back again to trouble the living or the dead," and as he spoke the man drew back and looked behind him, as if he heard something on the stairway, while Cyrus regarded every look and movement of the gloomy caretaker with the deepest interest.
"Neilson," he said suddenly, "surely you need not be afraid of ghosts in the daylight? Couldn't you and I come to terms about work here in the daytime, and you might go home to sleep? You will lose something by this place being sold, and it might not be inconvenient to you to earn something in another way."
"It's not the money," the man replied, with a quick look out to the stairway again. "Mr. Malbraith put my name down in his will, and I've enough to live on, but I have a hankering after the auld place, so I've no objection to give ye a helping hand till ye get a better on the terms ye propose."
"All right then. Go to work and make up good fires in every part of the house, and open every window and every door. I shall go back and bring up my trap, and sleep here this very night."
"Here? No in this room?"
"Yes, in this very room. I have a fancy for it."
"I warn ye again doing it. I warn ye no to live in this room."
"Why? Listen even now! I can hear the feet o' dead men and the cauld air wafting roun' their white faces! But ye must hear and see for yourself ere ye'll believe, but dinna ask me to come up here by day or by night," and with white cheeks and trembling limbs the speaker hurried downstairs, and out into the air, where we could see him from the window, with his hat raised and his mouth agape, as of a man suffering from a deadly oppression.
"The man is crazy!" I said, with disgust, as we followed him downstairs.
"No, I think he's sincerely afraid."
"Of ghosts? Faugh!"
We were riding back toward the police station as I emitted these sneering words, and Cyrus turned on me such a queer look that I met it with one of wonder.
"Don't you believe in ghosts, then?" he asked, seriously.
"Surely it is unnecessary to ask any person of common sense such a question; of course I do not believe in any such chimeras."
"Do you accredit me with any portion of common sense?"
"Well, as far as I can see, I presume—"
"That I am at least not quite mad? Well I can assure you that I firmly believe in spiritual appearances, for I have myself been three times visited by one. But as I am about to make a request of you, we will leave the further discussion on this point. Will you spend tonight with me at the haunted house?"
"Certainly, if my mate returns, nothing would give me more pleasure; for, not believing in spirits revisiting the earth, I am of course not afraid of them."
That settled, the conversation turned on matters connected with Mr. Cyrus's domestic arrangements, and I was surprised to find that after all he proposed to make no long stay at the Moat House, and his remark to me on driving in his trap from the station was—"I suspect you will know all about it tonight; mind and be over before dark this evening!"
One would require to have lived the lonely uneventful life I had been doomed to at Calandra to understand what an impression the unusual break in upon it had upon me during the latter hours of the day. Until my mate returned I was in a fever lest I should be disappointed, and when all was right in that quarter every hour I had to wait seemed interminable. I don't know what I hoped or expected to see or hear, or could I account for the attraction that drew me to the Moat, but I walked toward the house when evening fell in an abnormally pleasant state of imagination, and found Mr. Cyrus awaiting me on the threshold.
In the dull light of evening the place looked even more dismal and gloomy than it had done in the day, but all the windows were still open, while smoke was issuing from every chimney in the house. Only in the tower the flue against which the weather-stained flag-staff leaned, exhibited no signs of life, for Neilson would not go up the awful stairs, nor indeed had Mr. Cyrus urged it on him so to do.
"I am so glad to see you," was the greeting from my host; "and I have waited for so many long and anxious months for this night, that I am sure it will bring me some dread revelation. I pray you do not look at me so suspiciously, for I am as sane as you are yourself, and you will acknowledge it when you hear what I have to tell you!"
I must now follow Richard Nielson's movements so as to relate some matter connected with this story which were afterward detailed in evidence by a man named Connel Craig, who has not yet made his appearance in these pages.
Connel Craig was the owner of a few acres on the banks of the river on the opposite side to the Moat House, and about a mile above it. He was an apparently industrious widower, with one grown up girl, who kept his household matters right, and he eked out his living by fishing, the produce of his line being of ready disposal within about ten miles of his hut.
On the evening of the day when the new proprietor had taken possession of the Moat, Connel was sitting in his old boat, making ready for a fishing excursion, when the familiar sound of oars caused him to raise his head. Another boat was coming in view from another shaded band of the river and Connel at once recognized the rower as Richard Neilson.
"It is him, by Jupiter!" he muttered aloud, "and the Devil's to pay when he ventures to pass that spot after sundown."
"Yes, something is wrong, I see it in his hangdog face," and the speaker bent his deep-set sharp eyes on the approaching boat.
Neilson truly rowed as a man ill at ease; every now and then he cast backward glances over his shoulder, and pulled so hard as if from pursuit that when he laid his skiff by the side of Connel's the sweat was pouring from his face and dropping from his brawny arms.
"What the hell is the matter?" asked Connel, as Neilson drew a great breath, and began to wipe the damp from his face. "Are the bobbies after you?"
"Curse you, shut up, you and your bobbies!"
"Oh, not my bobbies if you please, Mister. I thank the Lord I have nothing to do with the police or laws, unless, indeed, it might be for keeping my mouth too close about other people's business."
"Keep it closer yet, damn you! You're paid for holding your tongue, ain't you?"
"No, I'm not. I haven't seen the colour of your money this month yet, Richard Neilson, and all the money you have wouldn't pay me for your jaw, so I'll take none of it. Who the mischief are you that you're to come here and denounce a decent man that wouldn't put his finger to murder if—"
"By god I'll brain you if you don't shut up!"
The man Neilson had stood up and seized one of the sculls. As he stood with it raised in a fierce, threatening posture and the whiteness of an awful rage in his distorted face, he was a fearful sight; but Connel Craig was not afraid of him. Before the oar was poised a revolver was presented at Neilson, and the fierce order rang out on the river—
"Down with that oar, or I'll put a bullet through your treacherous brain!"
The oar was dropped as suddenly as it had been lifted, and Neilson fell to his seat with a groan.
"I am mad," he said—"clean mad."
"You never spoke a truer word, mate; but, mad or not mad, you shan't murder me unawares. Ever since I knew of that job I've carried this day and night. But what is up! What put up your dander? And, above all things, what gave you courage to tempt the water when the shadows of night cross it?"
"Danger!" was the stern reply; "danger to me, and loss to you."
"Loss to me? That's comin' home, Neilson, so you'd better tell me the why and the wherefore."
"The Moat House is sold."
"Sold, is it? Well, I don't see how that can affect either you or me."
"You will know soon. The owner is in the house, and is going to live there. If I had had any warning, if that cursed town agent had sent me proper notice, all would have been would have been well, but the first I heard of it was the order for the key this day."
"I suppose you've lost your billet, eh? Is that the trouble?"
"Fifty times worse, for I have lost all I sinned for—every piece of gold is in the house."
"What of that! Nothing can be easier than to get it out."
"That's where you are mistaken; I can't without your help in some way or other. I planted the gold in Malbraith's room, and you know well that I daren't go into that room except in daylight even to save my life."
"You can go in by day then, surely?"
"I thought so. I meant to have done it today, as I will tell you presently, but when I went up to the room it was locked. That confounded policeman is in it too, for he has knocked up an acquaintance with the new owner, and it is time for me to clear out, Connel"—the man spoke this ultimatum with a great sigh and a deep gloom on his dark bowed face "—not that I think he or any man has the least suspicion, but how do I know the hour that all may be revealed by themselves?"
"By the spirits you mean?"
"Yes, by the spirits of the dead."
"Nonsense, I don't believe in such trash! I wonder at you."
"I do, for I have seen them—ugh!" and he trembled as with cold, though a warm air was rippling the water at his boat's keel.
"But what has this all to do with me or my gains?" Connel Craig asked, with a keen look into his companion's face. "It is nothing to me what you have done with your ill-gotten money; my part of the business is to take my share of it for keeping your secret; if I don't get my share I don't keep the secret, that is all."
"And you would betray me after all the payments I have made you?"
"Betray you? I would have betrayed you when your accomplice was alive to share your punishment, if you had not forked out double, so as to have him under your own thumb; and you may believe I won't think twice about it when you begin to talk about my losing over the bargain."
"I thought that you would help me," Neilson said, "as it is to your own benefit. I thought you would try to get the money out for me."
"Me! Me make a robber of myself to save you! No, thank you, I have kept myself free of the law as yet, and I mean to do the same while I hold out. And now I want to talk no more about this matter, but I won't be hard on you, for I'll give you a week to pay up in full. If you don't, you know what will be the consequence."
"Yes, I know," replied the man Neilson; and his deep-set eyes blazed with rage as he answered, "I know you for the first time, Connel Craig, and I see that it is with you my money or my life, eh?"
"Any way you like to put it, mate; you know well what I mean."
"All right, it is as well that you have spoken out at last;" and Neilson resumed the sculls and pushed his boat into the river.
"There goes my murderer, if he can manage it," muttered Craig, as he looked after the boat; "but he's too big a coward to try it on single-handed; he'll bolt for it I guess, and so let him for all I care."
And meanwhile Neilson rowed on his way down the river, along whose banks the shadows of tree and verdure were darkening more and more with each passing moment; but for once the man felt not his accustomed terror as he passed a spot from whence he could lift his eyes and see the old Moat tower looming dim in its surrounding of heavy forest land. He was in too fierce a rage to shudder as he passed one awful spot on the bank, or to fancy, as he had many a time done before, that a terrible white face gleamed at him among the surging sweep of his own oar. Fearful oaths were on his lips, and threats that would have made a hearer's blood run cold were flung on the breeze that swept his hot face without cooling it any more than if it had been the plates of a furnace within which the fires of a great force were trying to expend themselves.
If one believes at any time in the ubiquitous power of the Evil One, surely it must be when occasions such as those to which my story has reached lay to the hands of evil-doers the most suitable tools to assist them in working an evil deed. The heart of Richard Neilson was boiling with impotent revenge; and his grip on the oars was as on his enemy's throat, when a soft but peculiar whistle from the left bank of the river held his hands as he let the boat drift and looked eagerly shoreward. He saw no one, but some one saw his pause, and the whistle was repeated when the suspended oars dipped again into the water and the boat was propelled toward the sound.
As he laid his boat alongside the reedy shore, and drew in his oars, an exclamation that was almost a shout escaped from his lips, and Neilson bounded ashore. A man was standing on the grass in the shelter of some undergrowth—a man stout of form and coarse of face, with worn and dusty attire and tangled hair and beard.
"By god it is you!" Neilson had said. "The devil helps his own. If of all the world I could have had my wish this moment, I should have wished to see your face."
"Hold your mad yells!" the surly man replied, as he stepped into the boat and sat down. "If you had a rope round your neck you would not make such a row. Get in and get home."
"In trouble again?" asked Neilson, as he obeyed and seized the oars.
"Ay, and will be as long as there is money to be made by a blow. I was at your hut, but guessed you were up the river when I missed the boat. How are things working with you, Dick?"
"Badly, damned badly just now, and if ever a man wanted a helping hand I do, and I know you're game to give it to me, Dan Whelan."
"Ay am I, 'in for a penny in for a pound' is my motto, mate; so spit out your trouble, Dick, for there can't be listeners on the river. Pull out more into the stream and then go ahead."
The speaker struck a match as he spoke and lit his pipe, in readiness to listen to Neilson's story, which was told as the water rippled by them in silvery sparkles, where the nearly full moon crept through the trees to its bosom, and while the sweet breeze from the Bugong Hills softly touched the cheeks of the plotters in a vain attempt to whisper of a sweetness and a purity they could not comprehend. As further events will reveal the result of their plans, I need not enter into them more fully, but leave them in the hut of Neilson at Calandra until a later hour.
"We may as well go upstairs," Cyrus said to me after we had lingered long in front of the haunted house, and when the moon was beginning to throw her pale light freely over the forest tops. "It is getting late, and I have a story to tell you."
So I followed him in and up the stairs, after he had carefully seen to the fastenings of the door. There was no light save what struggled through the uncurtained windows on the staircase, and I confess that I did not feel at ease, even though I was no believer in ghosts, and was glad when Cyrus had struck a match and lighted the candles ready placed on the writing-table in the room he had selected to occupy.
"You would never think of living altogether alone in this place?" I said, as he placed a decanter and some refreshments on the table. "Putting spirits entirely out of the question, the loneliness and gloom of this house would set a man crazy."
"I never meant to be here long," he answered; "indeed I hope my business will not take many days. You see my preparations are but slight," and he pointed to his bedding as it lay on the old-fashioned couch I have mentioned before; "but although my belief in spirits is entire, I am not afraid, for I know that those who revisit this house will not harm me."
"No, I am sure they won't!" I replied, as though I should say "for there are no such things;" but my new friend looked so solemn as he drew the dusty curtain far back from the window and let the moonlight through the dim panes, that I helped myself to a glass from the decanter, and sat down to hear the story he had promised me.
Cyrus took out his watch and laid it on the table. The hands marked half-past ten as he detached the albert from his vest.
"I am impressed with the belief," he said seriously, "that whatever of a supernatural seeming occurs here this night will take place between half-past eleven and twelve o'clock, so that I have more time to relate my tale to you than its length will require. Shall I begin?"
"If you will be so obliging. I confess that my curiosity is great."
"I want to tell you a little of the history of the brothers who both lived and both died in this house. You are already aware that the family name of these gentlemen was Malbraith; the youngest of them, George Malbraith, was a single man; the eldest was a widower, with one son, but a disowned one in consequence of an unhappy marriage to which I need not revert. Mr. Matthew Malbraith was a man of property, and on the disunion and separation between him and his son taking place he took up a closer intimacy with his brother, who was very many years younger than himself, and a poor man. The result of this intimacy was their emigration together to this country and the purchase of this property. There was, however, no house on it then, and Matthew Malbraith designed and had the Moat built, calling it after his English home, and designing to pass the remainder of his days in it, as indeed he eventually did.
"For ten years before his death Matthew Malbraith heard no word of his banished son, yet his brother had betrayed the absent youth so far as to hide all knowledge of the letters he received from him from the unhappy father, who, in his loneliness, repented him sadly of his son's loss, and would have made him amends in all ways could he only have found out the whereabouts of his ill-used lad. When I tell you that the name of the dead man's son was Cyrus Malbraith, you will anticipate my story in a measure."
"Yes," I replied. "You are the son of Mr. Matthew Malbraith yourself?"
"I am; I am Cyrus Malbraith."
"Pray go on, for I am more and more interested now that I know that."
"You are, of course, but now comes the part of my narrative that will most astonish you. I had been for years in San Francisco, the father of a happy family, and in prosperous circumstances, when I, one night, awakened from a strange dream. I had dreamed that I had heard my father's voice crying aloud to me, "Come! O, Cyrus!' and in, as it sounded, the most awful bodily agony. I awoke with my heart beating with abnormal rapidity, and moisture breaking through every pore of my body, and it was some moments before I could compose myself in the belief that I had not really heard my own name uttered loudly.
"Well, I slept again, and was awakened by the same call, but the cry, 'Cyrus, O, Cyrus!' was fainter. I sprang from my bed and drew on some clothes, determined to keep awake and reason myself out of the nightmare that seemed to have taken possession of me, so I sat down in an armchair by the bed.
"As I sat there with my hand on my forehead, that felt hot and throbbing, I raised my eyes and saw between me and the door a man's form lying, as it seemed, upon the floor, with a bruised and bloody face turned toward me with its appealing eyes fixed on mine. The face was my father's, and I got up to stagger toward the form, but it was gone, and I fell forward on my face to the spot where it had appeared. I was found there insensible, and lay for many weeks after in the grasp of a violent illness, to the approach of which I was constrained to ascribe the fancied appearance and voice of my parent."
"Doubtless you were already delirious when you dreamt of the call," I said.
"I do not think so; nor, I think, will you when you are aware that it was on that very night and at that very hour my poor father was murdered in this house, but it was not for long after that I knew that, or that it was my Uncle George's hand that struck the death-blow. That news reached me in this letter that was delivered to me in due course by the foreign mail, and the contents of which brought me to Australia—read it."
He placed the letter before me, and I read—
From The Moat House,
29th October, 18—
I cannot die without confession of my great sin to you before I go hence and am no more. I write this from my deathbed in this house, that my hands desecrated with the blood of my brother, Cain that I am, and was accursed and deprived of hope. Here I lie in grievous and sore pain, and with none to close mine eyes save him who aided me in my crime, and from whom I have to hide the knowledge of this my confession, lest he should with his own hands avenge your father's death by adding to the stains already upon them that of the poor blood that courses so feebly in the veins of these fingers with which I now for the last time hold this pen. In the tower room above this where my bed is we despoiled foully my brother and your unhappy father of his life, and here I expiate in pain of body and despair of soul a deed done on the 29th day of October, 18—, at between half-past eleven and twelve o'clock at night. My life has been one long misery since that hour, which has never been repeated upon the dial that our victim's form has not haunted my bed. I do not ask your forgiveness, for I have forfeited that of the God who made me.—
Your unhappy uncle,
I raised my eyes as I finished the perusal of this letter, and saw that the gaze of Cyrus Malbraith was fixed on the dial plate of his watch, and that the hands were approaching the hour I was now awaiting with the strangest feelings.
"What do you think now?" he asked. "The very hour of the month there confessed to was that in which I heard my father's call and saw his face."
"I do not know what to think. My God! What is that?"
We both arose to our feet as a heavy fall seemed to take place on the floor above us, and a dreadful sound of scuffling and stamping of feet, as though a deadly struggle for life were going on in that long closed room. We neither spoke or moved until cries and stifled shrieks for mercy gave place to one loud call, and "Cyrus, O—Cyrus!" was heard as plainly as though uttered by human lips.
"I am here, father; I am coming!" shouted the poor son, as he darted toward the door and opened it just as the very silence of death itself succeeded the previous noise above.
"You forget, you forget!" I cried, as I also ran to the door with the intention of closing it; "you cannot help the dead." But he waved me off and whispered, "Hush! It is not over," as the door above opened and heavy steps seemed to bear some heavy burden, tramp, tramp down the stairs and past the open door where we stood.
I don't know what came over me, but I suppose it was the courage of desperation. The brilliant light from the pair of candles on the table poured out into the landing as I dashed outside and planted myself in the middle of it. My revolver was in my hand, and its muzzle was pointed up the stairs, down which I yet heard the approaching tramp.
"In the name of Heaven, stand back; it is close upon you!" said the horrified watcher; but I saw nothing and only heard the heavy footsteps as they sounded nearer and nearer.
"Where is it? I see nothing!" I said, as a strange rustle seemed to pervade the air around me and my outstretched hand encountered the cold features of a dead body. Yet there was nothing. My hand was stretched into a space fully illuminated by the candles, yet I felt the dead features and the damp hair and heard a faint groan that might have been the last from a dying man's lips, and then there was a silence unbroken save by my own hard and terrified breathing"
I drew back into the apartment and closed and locked the door behind me. Cyrus had already gone, and was leaning weakly against the window through which the moonlight streamed. He indeed seemed incapable of speech, but all at once he beckoned me to his side.
"Look, is this the end?" he whispered.
I went to his side and looked out. Beneath the tower lay the grass-grown garden with its overgrown shrubberies casting dark, heavy shadows across the white patches of moonlight, and straight down toward the river was an opening in the trees, through which the broad gleam of water was visible as it sparkled in the moonbeams or hid in the shelter of sedge and willow. As I followed the eyes of Cyrus, mine rested on the apparent figure of a man staggering, as it seemed, under a heavy burden that hung limply over his shoulders.
This dead apparition crossed the grass and moved down the vista toward the river, disappearing suddenly by the bank just as the edge of a great cloud touched the moon and covered her up with a pall of sable. It was as though between us and the awful scene a curtain of darkness had been suddenly dropped to shut a deed of blood from the sight of man for ever. Cyrus turned and, dropping into his chair, hid his face with his hands.
I did not know what to think or how to persuade myself that I had been the victim of some cheat, for how could my sense of sight as well as my sense of touch be at fault! Had I not felt the touch of cold features, with which my hands yet trembled, in a spot occupied by nothing as my eyes assured me? Had I not heard noises and voices where there was no one? What was I to think or believe?
"I should like to visit that room above us," I said abruptly, and Cyrus got up and took a light in his hand.
"There is nothing to prevent you, there is the key," and he handed me a key as he spoke. Seizing the other candle I preceded him, going up the stairs, however, with a tremor I should not like to have avowed.
The door was on the side of the small landing, in exactly the same position as that of the room beneath it, and I satisfied myself that it was fastened before I unlooked it.
"Stop a moment before you open," said my new friend, as he laid a hand on my arm, "I want to tell you the condition in which I left it a few hours ago when I thoroughly examined it. The room was in perfect order save for the dust of years that lay even upon the dark bed-cover, so that a touch left the impress of fingers upon it and the fingers brought away impurity.
"You think it will be changed now, then?" I asked.
"How can I help thinking so? No struggle such as we heard could take place without leaving traces."
"The struggle was but of sound; I saw nothing on the stairs, though I felt it."
"But I saw it; I saw the dead face of my father that you felt, and I saw but too well the features of the man who bore the corpse on his shoulder—it was my uncle's and it was awful in its terror of the burden so close to it."
I opened the door and we entered, to find that my companion's suspicion was correct, the room bearing every trace of a mortal struggle in which blood had been spilled. In fact, the tale could almost be gathered from the indications left in the haunted chamber. The bed-clothes were disordered and partly dragged to the floor, as if with the grasp of the victim who had been torn from his slumber to die. A small night-stand was overturned, a chair fallen on its back, and the bits of carpet that had lain decently on the floor were shuffled about and, in one spot, exposed the bare boards, on which red spots and stains were visible as though but a week old. The very atmosphere felt heavy as if with death, and a shudder went through me as though from a chill wind.
"In the name of Him who can alone understand these mysteries, let us get out of this!" I exclaimed; and, far more rapidly than I had ascended, I went down again to the comparatively safe shelter of the lower apartment, the door of which I carefully locked, as if that could be any security against the spirits of the tower.
"Are you not a bit nervous?" I asked of my host, as I hastily replenished my glass and emptied it.
"Not in the least. I believe that I have been especially summoned from a far land to avenge my father's death, and that the things we have seen and heard and felt have been as especially sent to guide me in securing that vengeance."
"How so? There was nothing to show more than you already know."
"Oh yes, there was a great deal. I know the particulars now. I know that my father was dragged from his bed and foully murdered, and that his own brother carried the corpse down those stairs and down that avenue toward the river. I shall search in that spot for the remains of a murdered man."
"You may have a satisfaction in interring the bones," I said; "but no more, since your uncle is dead."
"You forget there was an accomplice," he said impressively.
"Ah, yes! I had forgotten that; but I see now, you think the name of that accomplice is—"
"Richard Neilson. Yes, I do."
"But you can prove nothing against him?"
"Not yet; but I feel that I shall be able to do so. I was not brought all these long watery miles on a futile errand."
Now I am going to rejoin the suspected Neilson and the unscrupulous man he had called Dan Whelan. It was between eleven and twelve of the same night that Neilson's boat containing them both was pushed from the shore at the back of Calandra and rowed into the stream. It was Neilson who handled the sculls, and in the stern sat Whelan, grim and uncompromising looking, while his companion was white as chalk and weak as a young child.
"You will have to row, Dan, I can't do it!" he said, as the shadows along the shore deepened into the overhanging bush; "my grip will not hold on the sculls."
"You are the damned coward!" the other muttered, as he rose and changed seats with Neilson, "and you have nearly half a gallon of spirits in you too. If I had as weak a liver as you I'm damned if I would ever dip my fingers in anything thicker than muddy water."
"I can't help it, but God forbid that I should ever again feel the blood of a murdered man on my hands. More to the right, Dan—keep close to the bend to keep out of Connel Craig's sight, his hut is just opposite."
"Once more I say what is the use of bothering with this dead man? I could cut that Craig's weazand before half a grave could be dug. Say the word, Dick, and I'll go ashore and do it."
"No! No! I say, never again, never again, no more blood, never again!" and the miserable, trembling wretch half rose in his terror to stay the hand that would have directed the boat toward the opposite bank of the stream.
"Faugh!" he cried with disgust, as he shook off the limp hand of Neilson. "If ever a man deserved to die for his cowardice you do, and if I didn't owe you more than one good turn I'd jolly quick leave you to do your own resurrection work. Waken up, man, and point out the place to me. How the deuce do you expect me to row there when I don't know a foot of the way?"
"Steer for that fallen tree and run your boat up against it. The place is not fifty yards from that."
Following these instructions the boat was soon fastened in the shadow of the log, and picks and shovels, with a dark lantern, a coil of rope, and a huge bottle, were taken from it to the land. It was in a wild spot of tangled scrub and fallen timber, and with great sprawling branches straggling out over it for many acres of uncultivated forest, through which Richard Neilson led the way with a desperate courage supplied him anew by a fresh attack at the spirits ere he left the boat.
In this tangle the shadows were deeper, and the spots which the moonlight reached through the straggling branches were few and far between, but they lay bright and full upon a green hillock as soft and rounded as though it had been raised on some sunny green lawn.
"This is the place," whispered Neilson, "for I know it by that cut I put in the log; but who has dragged the branches from it, or planted the grass to grow so green!"
"The ghosts you talk about of course," said Dan, with a sneer. "Put down the rope and fall to work with your mouth shut, for the sooner this job is over the better it will be for us both."
"How deep is it?" he asked again, when the mould had been flying from their shovels for some time. "Ah! You needn't answer, I can see we are near by your white face. Get up, man, and take your shaking carcass out of that. I can't bear the sight of you."
Only too glad to obey the mandate, Neilson crawled out of the grave, while Whelan carefully scraped the soil from a rough coffin that now became partly visible, and on which the strokes of the shovel sounded awfully in the murderer's ears. Once Dan came to the surface, and took a long pull at the big bottle before he went down again, carrying the coil of rope with him.
"Now the course is clear," he cried, as he returned to his companion's side. "Pull away at your rope, and we'll have him up. Steady—steady. Hold fast! My end's caught. All right. There we are!" And the clay-soiled box that hid its awful secret lay on the grass, while drops of agony fell heavily from the murderer's face over his victim's breast.
It was then, as it lay by the rifled grave which Whelan was rapidly filling up, that the curtain-like cloud that obscured our view from the tower window fell over the moon and blotted out its light. It was by the pale glimmer of stars that the two men bore their dread burden through the wood, and laid it in the bottom of the boat, and when they had shoved out once more into the stream it was Whelan who held the sculls, while Neilson had fallen weakly and speechlessly into the stem.
He did not seem to see anything but the awful object that lay at his feet, or to hear anything but the death groans of the man whose blood he had spilled treacherously. In vain his companion addressed him words of inquiry. He did not speak, for the cold grip on his heart seemed to him the grasp of a dead man's hand.
All at once he shuddered and looked up. Right before him on the slope above the river gleamed the star-like light in the tower window of the Moat House, and the rays from it appeared to point directly to him as he sat in the boat, with his rigid knees drawn up to avoid contact with the terrible coffin. Suddenly, and with a gasping breath, he started to his feet, and, dragging the nearest oar from Whelan's grasp, waved it above his head frantically, as if about to strike his companion.
"You did it on purpose," he shouted wildly, "you did it that I might see him again on the very spot where the water was red with his blood as he sank! My God, he is there, with his awful face and his glassy eyes staring at me!" and with an awful cry of agonized despair, Neilson dropped the oar and fell backwards into the water.
A horrible imprecation grated from between Whelan's teeth as he tried to steady the boat that was nearly overturned by the sudden disappearance of Neilson. On the spot where the miserable man had disappeared unsteady ripples spread, circles and big bubbles arose and burst upon the surface, but the form whose struggles as he died must have moved the waters into unholy shapes never re-appeared on its surface again, though Dan's eyes were strained in every direction to see and succour him. But all at once a sense of his own insecurity overwhelmed him, as he heard distinctly the sound of horse's feet on the road that skirted the river.
"A trooper's horse, by Jove!" he muttered, "and here I am to account for two dead men. Curses on my luck! I'll have to swim for it, or I'll get into this job of Neilson's myself!"
As he spoke he had slipped over the side of the boat, leaving it and its dread burden to drift helplessly where it listed, while he himself made his escape to Neilson's now-deserted hut to secure a change of clothing and such money as he could find to help him in his further flight—for he was far on his way from Calandra when daylight broke over the Moat House.
Fair and sweet broke the morning around the Moat House, with the dewdrops glittering on the verdurous river banks, and the sparkling water rippling along the sedges by the cool refreshing breeze of early day. Connel Craig rowing leisurely down the river and thinking of his interview of yesterday with Richard Neilson, felt uneasy as he looked toward the tower and saw its window open, and a faded curtain flapping outside it in the soft wind.
"That Dick will come to no good end, and I am a fool to trust him," he was thinking; "yet I can't bear to get him into such heavy trouble after hiding it so long."
Thus as he was looking up toward the tower and the curtain flapping in the open window, and then, as he was getting too far in shore, he plied one oar and turned his head over his shoulder to see his course, what he did see was the awful boat of the previous night, as it drifted strangely to and fro, yet scarcely ever left for many yards the spot from which Richard Neilson had fallen.
The astonished man made a few strokes and then drew in his oars.
"It's Neilson's boat," he said aloud, though there was no living man to hear him. "What can have happened?" And then his eyes caught sight of the oar the man had dropped in his last horrible vision of his victim; it was lying against a bed of hedges, whose sad rustling might have been the whisper of ghostly voices mourning for the sins of men.
"What can have happened?" Craig repeated, as his boat sidled up to the other, and he rose to his feet and looked into the unmanned boat, where he saw the rough coffin with the damp clay yet clinging to its sides, and the horrified man fell back with dread cry as he recognized it; for it was his own hands that had rudely put its boards together.
"The hand of Heaven is in it," he gasped, "for it has come back to the very spot from whence I dragged it myself!"
We were at breakfast at the Camp when Craig, whose face was white as ashes, came into the room. I had persuaded Mr. Cyrus Malbraith to return with me and share the meal, and I was relating to Mason the terrible events of the night, as he had returned sometime during the small hours, when Connel entered. No one could doubt that something out of the common had happened when they looked at his face, and I asked him what it was as I rose, from the table.
"Yes, it is something terrible," he replied; "and although I have had something to do with it, I can't keep it on my mind any longer. You have heard of Mr. Matthew Malbraith, of the Moat? Well, his dead body is lying in Richard Neilson's boat in the river, within sight of the tower; you had better see to securing it, for I would not touch it again, and the boat seems adrift."
Cyrus started to his feet.
"Do you mean my father's body?" he cried as he laid his trembling hand on Craig's arm.
"If you are the son of Mr. Matthew Malbraith, former owner of the Moat, yes, I do mean it; and I will tell you all I know about it as soon as the police have got hold of that awful boat."
Having made all arrangements, we went down to the river where Craig's boat awaited us, and after a short spell at the oars we came in sight of the strangely moored craft as it swayed to and fro, lapping the water with its sucking bows as they rose and dipped among the sun-gleamed ripples.
"She is moored in some peculiar way sure enough," said Mason, who was bending over the bows as we neared the silent boat of the dead man, "for there is a rope overboard from the stern, and the end of the rope is fastened under the coffin."
"Steady, Connel, and we will haul it in."
As I said the words I lifted the wet rope and tried to draw it to me, but vainly, though it seemed attached to something that swayed strangely back and forth beneath the water; another pair of hands were added to the rope, and with a strong pull the hold gave way and up to the surface we dragged the dead body of Richard Neilson.
The staring eyes glared with an awful vacancy, and in the clutched hands were grasped the roots of reeds and water-weeds that had held him to the bottom until our united strength had broken them. The rope by means of which his body had moored the boat containing Malbraith's remains over the very spot to which they had been first consigned by the murderers had become entangled with Neilson's legs as he fell out of the boat, and remained so wound and warped around him that it was with difficulty we freed him from its folds.
All due investigation ordered by law having taken place, the bodies were buried, the one lying far distant from the other, as was but right; and now, when I have given you Craig's evidence almost in his own words, I shall have finished this story of the Moat House.
"I was out fishing late one night four years ago," he related, "and, as my ill luck would have it, happened to be in the shade of the trees opposite the Moat, with my lines set, when I saw two men coming down to the bank. I guessed they were up to no good, especially when I saw that one of them bore something like a human figure on his back, and that the other one was Richard Neilson. I was too far away to hear what was whispered, but the moon was bright and I saw them sink the body in the river and then go back to the house.
"I wondered what I would do. There was no police at Calandra then, and besides I guessed that the secret would be worth money to me. Once I thought of raising the body without a word and so disposing of it that I should at all times and seasons have the murderers under my thumb; but then, again, I reflected on the danger I might run of having myself done the deed I had only been in part a witness of, so I watched my chance to see Neilson alone, and I told him he was in my power.
"'I did not do it,' he declared; 'it was my master. Surely you wouldn't hang an innocent man so?'
"'I know nothing of your master,'" was what I answered him. 'Yours is the only face I could swear to, and it is to you I shall look for what may shut my mouth; get it how you like, but money I will have, and you know that money you can get.'
"'I will do my best,' he said; 'but the secret must be between us two.'
"'All right, so long as I agree with you no one else shall ever know from me. But there is one thing I say, and that is that the poor man must be decently buried, and not lie down there to be food for fishes. His body must be raised and buried like a Christian.
"He pleaded hard to let the awful thing lie, but I would not listen, and I would not help him to touch it; but I made the coffin as I best could, and brought it down the river in my boat, and when he put the corpse in I helped him to take it up the river again and bury it in Marshland Scrub. I wish I had never had a hand in it, for I shall never pass that spot again without fancying I see Neilson's boat floating there silently, with one dead man anchoring it to the ground, and the other floating in his coffin over the place where his corpse was first plunged."
"WELL," I asked Mason, as he laid this story aside after perusing it, "have I told it to please you?"
"Pooh! I could have done it far better myself;" and I need not inform my respected readers that Mason's opinion is apt to be a very general one among perusers of "light literature."
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