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"TALK not so flippantly on matters you don't understand, Master Fred," said Mr. Gregory Singleton.
"God bless me!" exclaimed the young ensign thus addressed, "how you barrister people snap one up! A man cannot be expected to understand all he talks about."
"That would certainly prove a clog upon the conversation of some people," returned Mr. Singleton; "and on that account I would have them less positive and less contemptuous in their manner than we sometimes find them."
"Why, devil take it!"—the young gentleman, it should be borne in mind, was on the eve of joining his regiment for the first time, and expressed himself in language of proportionate strength—"Why, devil take it! you don't mean to say confound it! you don't believe in ghosts, do you?"
"That is hardly the point," rejoined the first speaker. "Many men, however, of wit and learning have done so; and even I could tell a tale—"
"A ghost story! a ghost story!" burst from a dozen pairs of lips, and ran like wild fire through the party. It was a large party —a Christmas party—need we add, a merry party? A word, a look, might sometimes perchance recall to the elder portion the image of some lost or absent one; but the light and noisy spirits around in an instant dispelled the gloom. A sigh might escape the mother's bosom; but it passed unheeded, save by him alone who knew too well its meaning. Such was the party, and as the large hand of the unrelenting clock was rapidly approaching an hour held in especial abhorrence by all good little boys and girls, the said juveniles eagerly snatched at the straw which might preserve them for a time from immersion beneath the bed-clothes.
"Pray be quiet!—Uncle Gregory is going to tell us a nice ghost story," exclaimed a demure-looking little girl, balancing herself upon that gentleman's knee; and immediately, maugre the combined efforts of papa and mamma, "Uncle Gregory" was hidden from sight by a cluster of young expectants.
"For Heaven's sake, my dear, make those children get down!" cried Mr. Singleton, senior, alarmed at the disappearance of his guest. "Box their ears, Gregory, or they'll smother you."
"Oh, papa, we must hear the ghost story," remonstrated the clamberers, contending vigorously for a good seat.
"Oh, the devil—yes, let's have it," added the son of Mars; "'pon my soul, we must. What say you, Doctor?"
The doctor was sipping a glass of port: he was a grave man, and a learned, as he needs must, being a doctor and a professor of moral philosophy to boot. The eyes of the young company sought with supplicatory expression his fiat.
"By all means," said Dr. Doddle, graciously, "by all means, let us hear it; though as to the theory of supernatural apparitions—"
"There, there, uncle!" cried the little ones, nestling closer; "Dr. Doddle says you are to begin."
"Well," replied Mr. Gregory, "I hardly bargained for this; but take your knuckles out of my neck-cloth, and I surrender at discretion."
"ALL was dark and melancholy at Heatherstone Hall. It was, indeed, a place which seldom exhibited a very lively appearance under the most favourable circumstances; but now a December storm without, and a scene of sickness within, plunged the old mansion in deeper gloom than usual. The lord of the hall, and of hundreds of acres of fair Kentish land thereunto attached, lay within its principal chamber. Stretched on a bed of antique form, his head propped up by pillows, he gazed earnestly on the mild and dignified countenance of a gentleman who sat by his side; his fixed look, clenched hands, and compressed mouth betrayed the deep anxiety with which he heard the tale, apparently wrung unwillingly from the lips of the latter.
"'On, on, on!' gasped the sick man passionately, his eyes becoming every instant more horribly prominent and ghastly. Alfred is a spendthrift, a gamester, a profligate. I might have known it. Fool, madman that I was, to hope otherwise! His wretched father was so before him.'
"'He has paid the penalty of his fault,' gently observed the other.
"'He has,' continued the invalid, increasing in vehemence, 'and so shall his son. He shall live a beggar, starve, or die by his own desperate hand, as—as—died—'
"'His father, your unhappy son,' interposed Dr. Danville, the gentleman by the bedside. He rested his chin musingly on a stout gold-headed cane, and turned his pale expressive countenance upon a shovel hat, which seemed pertly to return the look from a chair directly opposite.
"'Go on,' said Sir John; 'let me know the worst. Where is he now?'
"'I believe—that is, I have reason to fear,' continued the Doctor, 'that he is at the present moment lodged in a debtor's prison.'
"'There let him lie and rot!' exclaimed the old man fiercely, 'pine away body and spirit—not one farthing of mine shall go to save him. Doctor,' he went on, turning sharply round, and speaking in a changed and hurried tone, 'they tell me I have not many days to reckon upon here,—and I hope and believe in none hereafter;—no matter for that,—don't interrupt me, but listen. You are a prudent man,—have made money—saved money—more, perhaps, than you care the world should know. Don't answer me—I know it, and respect you for it. You see that will: by virtue of it, at my death you were to receive five thousand pounds,—the remainder of my dead daughter's fortune,—the bulk of my property was to go to her spendthrift nephew—burn it now —before my face.'
The Doctor exhibited symptoms of reluctance.
"'Consider, sir,' he began, 'the manifold afflictions of the young man. Could we but reform this lost, and perhaps repentant—'
"'No cant to me,' interrupted the baronet sharply. 'I had resolved to cast him off before. His long neglect was sufficient cause; and your present tale but explains that, and confirms my determination. Burn it, or I'll find some less scrupulous agent. In that drawer lies another, by which you are left my sole heir, on the condition—mark me—on the condition of your swearing never by act or influence, directly or indirectly, to assist with money or otherwise, my abandoned grandson. Do you accept the conditions?'
"'Why, really," stammered the Doctor, not quite prepared for such a sweeping proposition, if you would reflect for one instant—'
"'Good—you refuse!' exclaimed the sick man hastily.
"'No, no—you misunderstand me,' continued Dr. Danville, seeing clearly that the occasion did not admit of coquetting. 'If you insist, I have no alternative; but believe me my heart bleeds for the young man.'
"'Enough. Burn the instrument.' And Dr. Danville, rising deliberately, put the parchment upon the fire, forcing it between the bars with the end of his cane, as it curled and shrivelled in the flames. The sick man continued. 'The other shall be signed and witnessed in the morning. And now leave me. I feel composed, and inclined for rest. Be here to-morrow at eleven, and let Jobson, my attorney, accompany you.'
"On the following morning, at one minute and a half to the appointed hour, Dr. Danville knocked gently at the portal of Heatherstone Hall—Mr. Jobson stood respectfully behind him—his (the doctor's) shovel hat looked more glossy than ever; his plain cut coat was without a wrinkle, his black gaiters without a speck; a smile of placid and benignant satisfaction gathered on his countenance.
"'How is your master, Anne, this morning?' he inquired, in a sweetly-modulated tone. The old woman grinned. 'Better?'
"'Dead,' was the reply.
"'Dead!' gasped the Doctor, letting drop in his confusion a pair of super-fine kid gloves upon the step: 'Dead!—and the will not signed!'
"'Dead,' repeated Mistress Annie, and closed the door with a bang.
"But, uncle," interposed one of the most attentive of the little auditors, "if the old gentleman died without a will, what became of Dr. Danville?"
"Dr. Danville, my dear, was diddled," replied Mr. Singleton.
"I wish the ghost would come," observed Miss Emily; and her uncle resumed.
"The Hall and adjoining woodlands of Heatherstone had been bestowed by King Charles the Second upon one of the most licentious of his courtiers, a certain Sir Walter Thornton, surnamed 'The Handsome:' in the possession of this gentleman's descendants they had ever since continued. The late proprietor, Sir John Thornton, had experienced many mortifications in early life, which by no means contributed to mollify a temper naturally morose and revengeful. He smiled indeed in public rather more perhaps than had been his custom, but amply rewarded himself by fourfold severity at home. His daughter, the wife of Dr. Danville, died young and childless; and his son, a young man of rather extravagant habits, alone remained to sustain the baronet's increasing ill humour. He married—married directly against his father's positive commands. Sir John vowed he would never see him more. His friends laughed, said he would come round in time; but he never did. The old gentleman was as good as his word.
"The suicide of that son, weighed down by his father's continued displeasure, and the premature death of her for whom he had incurred it, has been already hinted at. She died, leaving an only son, who was readily received by a maternal aunt, an elderly unmarried lady, was placed by her at a public school, and in due course of time graduated at Oxford. He was still pursuing his studies there, when an epistle from the before-mentioned Mr. Jobson, directed to Sir Alfred Thornton, informed him of his grandfather's having died intestate, and of his consequent promotion from a fellowship of three hundred pounds per annum to a baronetage, with an income of twice as many thousands.
"Dr. Danville's account, therefore, of his nephew was not altogether correct. Perhaps the good gentleman had been himself imposed upon; perhaps—but guesses are impertinent. It was certain, however, that by his advice Alfred had never intruded upon the notice of Sir John, and had thereby incurred the imputation of marked neglect.
" The young heir, of course, bade farewell to Alma Mater, and hastened forthwith to London, whither the deceased had left directions that his body should be conveyed ; thence, the funeral having been duly performed,' Sir Alfred, after the lapse of a few weeks, set out to take possession of his inheritance. He was accompanied in his journey by a young friend, Mr. Vane, of Brazen-nose. On his arrival at the Hall, he was received with the usual demonstrations of delight. His appearance, indeed, and manners, so different from the hauteur of the stern Sir John, quickly won the affections of the warm-hearted peasantry. Even i)r. Danville met his nephew with open arms, nor once alluded to those little indiscretions, by the recital of which the late baronet had been so strongly moved.
"Two days had been spent in business ere the two friends visited the chamber in which Sir John had breathed his last. Certain mysterious hints, however, at length reached their ears, and they determined to examine it forthwith. It appeared that some absurd tradition was connected with the room, which the death that had so recently occurred in it was supposed in some way to confirm.
"It was extracted from old Annie, the housekeeper, (excellent authority on all such matters,) that the Picture Bedroom, as it was called, had, with no inconsiderable portion of the house, been built by 'the handsome Sir Walter,' and was supposed to have been the scene of many of the dark crimes laid to his charge. One thing was past doubt: he himself had in that very apartment met with a bloody death. The circumstances attending it had, however, either never been exactly known, or had been forgotten during the lapse of so many years. It was said that the brother-in-law of Sir Walter, being a guest in the house, had heard in the night shrieks and cries for assistance, proceeding from the room occupied by the lord and lady of the mansion; that he burst open the door and rushed in, but what then and there met his eyes no one ever knew; in the struggle which followed Sir Walter was shot through the head, and his opponent immediately took horse, and made his escape to France. As to the lady, who might perhaps have unravelled the mystery, she survived but a few years, which were spent in alternate fits of raving madness and childish imbecility.
"This account had been handed down of the fate of the founder of the family; but in later times certain lovers of the marvellous, Mistress Annie among the number, had discovered that this chamber was particularly fatal to the race of Thornton, and that most of the possessors of the estates had died within its precincts; on which account Mistress Annie superinduced, suo periculo, that 'never a one died a natural death; they had,' she maintained, 'drooped and pined away, without any apparent disease.'
"The chamber thus vilified was unquestionably the most comfortable one in the mansion. It was in form an oblong, lighted from the farther end by a large oriel window, opposite to which, and to the right hand of the door on entering, stood a heavy and handsomely carved bedstead. From the wainscoted walls on either side smiled or frowned, as the case might be, the portraits of the Thornton family; the founder himself, a young man of singularly beautiful and almost effeminate features, held a conspicuous situation over the mantel-piece, which, like the bedstead, was adorned with costly carving. A curious cabinet on the other side of the room, with several high-backed chairs, formed the ancient portion of the furniture. There were, besides, importations of a later date, and more fashionable structure. Such was the apartment, which Alfred no sooner viewed than he determined to appropriate it to his own use, despite the entreaties of Mistress Annie, the shrugs of old Burton the gamekeeper, and the undisguised horror of the rest of the establishment.
"'Twas a tempestuous night; the wind was heard to moan through the aged oaks, and the rain was dashed violently by fitful gusts against the casements, when Alfred retired to rest. He was in a state hovering between sleep and wakefulness, when his all but departed senses were recalled by the opening of his window; he started from his bed; the increasing storm afforded a ready solution of the mystery; and, having secured the fastenings, he again sought his pillow, half ashamed at certain vague apprehensions which so simple an occurrence had excited.
"He was aroused in the morning by Vane, who, equipped for a shooting excursion, entered his room.
"'Come, get up!' he exclaimed, 'and let us proceed to astonish the pheasants; breakfast has been ready this hour or more: but, what's the matter with you?—you don't look well;— you are as white as a sheet. You haven't seen the ghost of your grandfather, eh?—or dreamt of the devil, have you?'
"'Neither, on my word, Harry; but I certainly do not feel in spirits; I have over-fatigued myself;' and Sir Alfred rose from his bed weak and unrefreshed.
"'Nonsense,' said Vane; 'this room is haunted, depend upon it, by some disembodied ague, or immaterial jaundice; but, haunted or not, you have had a visitor last night. Don't blush, man, but look in the glass.'
"There on his neck Alfred beheld a small spot, apparently the bite of one of those interesting little animals whose education, long neglected, has of late years occupied the attention of sundry propagators of useful knowledge.
"'But, come, don't look so confoundedly dull,' continued Harry; 'everything around is bright and gay—nay, even your old great-great-great-grandfather there, over the mantelpiece, looks quite blooming this morning.'
"Alfred regarded the portrait of Sir Walter with some attention.
"'Either my eyes deceive me,' he said, after a pause, or there is some change in the tints of that picture since yesterday; the eyes, the lips, and cheeks, have a hue of life and freshness, —in short, the whole countenance appears to me brighter and more ruddy than when we before examined it together.'
"Vane stared at his friend, and uttered something very like the monosyllable 'fudge'.
"'And, do you know,' added Alfred with a little hesitation; 'I have a strong impression of having seen the original of that picture, and that very lately, or—or else I must have dreamt it.'
"'Possibly,' replied Vane drily, and the conversation dropped.
"It was not till towards evening, and after he had indulged in a more liberal allowance than usual of old port, that the young baronet recovered his cheerfulness; then, at an early hour, and no ways daunted by his want of rest on the preceding night, he a second time retired to the Picture Bedroom. He was quickly unrobed and in slumber, when, at about the middle of the night, he was awakened by a sharp pricking sensation in his throat; on opening his eyes he saw, or fancied he saw, through the gloom, a human face within a foot of his own; it was instantly withdrawn. The circumstance, however, strangely enough, did not prove sufficient to arouse Alfred's energies, and he almost instantaneously sank again into a deep lethargy. His appearance on the ensuing morning startled and alarmed the kind-hearted Vane. Sir Alfred, however, would not satisfy the anxious enquiries of his friend; all that could be drawn from him was, that some mystery did actually exist in connection with his apartment, which, at all risks, he was determined to fathom. Meanwhile, such was his weakness and lassitude that Vane, without consulting his inclination, despatched a servant to Canterbury for medical assistance.
"Mr. Shuffle (his name had once been a polysyllable) found Alfred stretched upon a sofa in a state of extreme debility; he was pronounced to be in a low fever, and Mr. Shuffle having promised to "put him up a little something," was about to take his leave, when his patient, apologising for mentioning such a trifle, called his attention to the mark in his neck. 'It was beginning,' he said, 'to give him considerable inconvenience.' The spot being examined, two small incisions were observed. Fifty different conjectures as to their origin were advanced, all equally unsatisfactory; while Mistress Annie, 'making that darker which was dark enough without,' positively declared, that a similar wound in the same place had been visible on the person of her former master. The opinion of Mr. Shuffle was the one least liable to objection: he said, 'that as near as lie could guess, he could not tell what it was,' and there the matter rested.
"Unmoved by the remonstrances of his friend, and the supplications of the old housekeeper, Alfred persisted in his resolve of spending that night also alone, in the same apartment.
"'It will be your death—it will, indeed,' blubbered Mistress Annie, as the young man, with a brace of pistols tucked under his arm, again ascended to the chamber above. Having carefully charged his weapons, he secured both door and window, and next proceeded to examine if there was any concealed means of ingress. He could discover, however, no trace of secret passage or sliding panel, and, at length satisfied with his search, placed his pistols on a chair at the right-hand side of his bed, while he once more sought his pillow. Weak and wearied as he was, he determined to spend that night in watching, and test, as far as possible, the validity of certain strange suspicions that weighed upon his mind.
"Eleven—twelve—one o'clock passed by in tedious quietness, and Alfred was on the point of abandoning his design, when a slight rattling of the casement caught his ear. One of the compartments of the window opened slowly, and a muffled figure passed into the apartment. Alfred's heart beat high; the perspiration stood in cold drops upon his brow; he watched the figure in silence; it glided noiselessly along the left-hand wall; arrived at the fire-place—it paused for an instant, and turned half round. At this moment the full moon, bursting from behind a cloud, threw a flood of pale light into the apartment, which illuminated the stranger, and the spot upon which he was standing, immediately under the portrait of 'The handsome Sir Walter:' a single glance at his features told Alfred that the picture and its original were at once before him. The eyes of both intently fixed upon his own.
"The report of a pistol, and the noise of a heavy fall, soon brought Harry Vane, armed with a poker, into the chamber. The servants also, each seizing the readiest weapon, hurried in the same direction. The door was quickly forced, and there, on the ground, with eyes starting from their sockets, and directed towards the open window, lay Sir Alfred Thornton, his right hand still grasping the discharged pistol. Some time elapsed ere a word could be elicited from him. At length, having ordered the servants to retire, he told the above tale to his bewildered guest. In continuation, he informed him that the man, ghost, devil, or whatever he might be, had proceeded to advance to his bedside, till, unable to restrain himself farther, he started up, and grasped his pistol, the figure fled precipitately towards the window, but, ere it reached it, he had fired. 'My hand and eye are, as you know, pretty steady,' he said.
"'Both have, however, failed you for once,' interrupted Vane. 'Look yonder at the picture; you have played the devil with a splendid Vandyke, but I doubt your having damaged any other representative of your illustrious ancestor.' And there, assuredly, through the very centre of the forehead of the portrait had the bullet passed. This fact, which appeared to explain the whole affair to lane, who ascribed it to the effect of a feverish dream, involved Alfred in fresh perplexity. 'He had,' he said, 'from the smoke, and from falling entangled by the clothes as he endeavoured to spring from his bed, been unable to mark the exit of the intruder;' but of his entrance into the room he was sure, and the open window seemed to corroborate the statement.
"To retire to rest again was, of course, not to be thought of; indeed Vane, sceptic as he was, began to be shaken in his incredulity. Discussion, however, was at the moment interrupted by the distant report of fire-arms. Some ten or a dozen shots were heard in rapid succession, and, shortly after, a knocking at the garden-gates. Admittance was craved on the part of Lieutenant Smith of the Coast-Guard, and of course readily granted.
"The officer, a short, stout, little gentleman, in a naval cap and pilot coat, together with several of his men, was ushered into the extensive hall. A cheerful fire was soon blazing, and abundance of solid refreshment produced. Lieutenant Smith, having taken off the edge of his appetite by devouring a pound and a half of cold meat, and some three pints of ale, pulled off his cap, stretched his legs (they needed it), and proceeded to inform his host that he had ventured so far inland in search of' certain contrabandists, of whose rendezvous at the neighbouring churchyard of Charlton he had received information; that the rascals had given him the slip, and escaped, a few shots being interchanged rather as a matter of compliment than anything else. 'However,' added the stout Smith, 'at sunrise we will search the spot, and see if our precipitate friends have in their hurry left anything behind them.'
"In the course of the examination to which the pretty little churchyard was subjected in the morning, one of the seamen observed a door at the bottom of two or three steps, directly under the chancel-window, to be ajar; it was apparently the entrance to a vault, and clearly no bad hiding-place for the sort of goods of which they were in search. An exclamation from the man drew to the spot Vane and Sir Alfred, who were present at the inquisition.
"'They have been disturbing our family vault,' exclaimed the latter, as he hastily descended the steps. On the ground surrounded by mouldering coffins, each containing some forgotten member of the house of Thornton, lay the body of a man, wrapped in a horseman's cloak; he was lying upon his face, and stretched across the marble slab that marked the earthly resting-place of the Sir Walter so often mentioned. On turning him round, a frightful wound in the forehead, which disfigured the whole countenance, was visible.
"'Stiff—decidedly stiff,' remarked the Lieutenant oracularly; 'a chance shot must have taken him as he was creeping out of his hole. Here, wipe the blood from the scoundrel's face some of ye. Umph! not a bad-looking fellow, by Jove! But, bless me, Sir Alfred, what's the matter?' Alfred, after gazing earnestly on the distorted countenance of the corpse, had fallen senseless into the arms of his companion.
"Two months after the occurrence just related, an invalid, who had been evidently suffering under severe illness, might have been seen pacing the terrace of the Donjon walk at Canterbury. He was accompanied and supported by a young man of stronger frame, and the two were engaged in earnest conversation.
"'Your arguments are useless, Harry,' said Sir Alfred Thornton, —for it was he. 'No—no; I would that I could be persuaded; but those features are too indelibly fixed upon my memory to allow of the possibility of doubt.'
"'Well, I plead guilty myself to tracing, or fancying that I traced, some kind of resemblance to the portrait,' replied Vane; 'but your notion is the wildest I ever net with. You know, my dear fellow, it is impossible—it can't be. As Smith observed, the man must have received the shot while ascending the steps to follow his companions. Nay, even admitting the existence of that most horrible of all supernatural visitants, a—'
"'Hold—hold, for Heaven's sake!' exclaimed his friend; speculations are idle. It is a subject which I shrink from contemplating, and, if you love me, Vane, it will be henceforth dropped for ever.'"
Mr. Singleton paused. A dead silence endured for upwards of a minute. The little boys and girls looked first at their uncle, then at one another. At length Emily, in a most subdued tone, ventured to enquire, "Is that all?"
"Yes, that's all," replied Mr. Singleton; "so get down, and pour me out a glass of wine, that's a darling!"
"Odd," said Mr. Singleton, senior.
"Very strange!" said his wife. "Pray, Gregory, how was the affair explained?"
"It never was explained," replied Gregory; "but both Vane and Sir Alfred Thornton—at least the gentlemen to whom I have given those names—are still alive. That portion, however, of Heatherstone Hall, which contained the Picture Bedroom, has since been burnt down, and, as no claim was ever made upon any insurance office, it has been inferred that the fire was not altogether accidental."
"Very unaccountable," muttered Mrs. Singleton.
"It is odd—very odd," repeated her spouse.
"Devil take me if I can understand it!" ejaculated the son of Mars. "What do you think, uncle?"
"Why, Fred," replied Uncle Gregory gravely, "I would rather not express an opinion upon the point."
"Pshaw!" returned Fred. "What do you say, Doctor? What's your opinion?"
"Ah! what is your opinion?" asked the Paterfamilias; in which he was backed by an inquiring glance from his lady.
"What does Dr. Doddle say?" echoed all the little olive- branches. Every eye was upon the Professor.
"Why," said the Doctor with deliberation, "the matter has, I confess, its difficulties, which it would be tedious to go into; but my own way of accounting for this strange occurrence is, —that it is a confounded lie from beginning to end."