Chantry House by Charlotte M. Yonge
Chapter XIV--The Mullion Chamber
'A lady with a lamp I see, Pass through the glimmering gloom, And flit from room to room.' LONGFELLOW.
For want of being able to take exercise, the first part of the night had always been sleepless with me, though my dear mother thought it wrong to recognise the habit or allow me a lamp. A fire, however, I had, and by its light, on the second night after Christmas, I saw my door noiselessly opened, and Clarence creeping in half-dressed and barefooted. To my frightened interrogation the answer came, through chattering teeth, 'It's I--only I--Ted--no--nothing's the matter, only I can't stand it any longer!'
His hands were cold as ice when he grasped mine, as if to get hold of something substantial, and he trembled so as to shake the bed. 'That room,' he faltered. ''Tis not only the moans! I've seen her!'
'I don't know. There she stands with her lamp, crying!' I could scarcely distinguish the words through the clashing of his teeth, and as I threw my arms round him the shudder seemed to pass to me; but I did my best to warm him by drawing the clothes over him, and he began to gather himself together, and speak intelligibly. There had been sounds the first night as of wailing, but he had been too much preoccupied to attend to them till, soon after one o'clock, they ended in a heavy fall and long shriek, after which all was still. Christmas night had been undisturbed, but on this the voices had begun again at eleven, and had a strangely human sound; but as it was windy, sleety weather, and he had learnt at sea to disregard noises in the rigging, he drew the sheet over his head and went to sleep. 'I was dreaming that I was at sea,' he said, 'as I always do on a noisy night, but this was not a dream. I was wakened by a light in the room, and there stood a woman with a lamp, moaning and sobbing. My first notion was that one of the maids had come to call me, and I sat up; but I could not speak, and she gave another awful suppressed cry, and moved towards that walled-up door. Then I saw it was none of the servants, for it was an antique dress like an old picture. So I knew what it must be, and an unbearable horror came over me, and I rushed into the outer room, where there was a little fire left; but I heard her going on still, and I could endure it no longer. I knew you would be awake and would bear with me, so I came down to you.'
Then this was what Chapman and the maids had meant. This was Mrs. Sophia Selby's vulgar superstition! I found that Clarence had heard none of the mysterious whispers afloat, and only knew that Griff had deserted the room after his own return to London. I related what I had learnt from the old lady, and in that midnight hour we agreed that it could be no mere fancy or rumour, but that cruel wrong must have been done in that chamber. Our feeling was that all ought to be made known, and in that impression we fell asleep, Clarence first.
By and by I found him moving. He had heard the clock strike four, and thought it wiser to repair to his own quarters, where he believed the disturbance was over. Lucifer matches as yet were not, but he had always been a noiseless being, with a sailor's foot, so that, by the help of the moonlight through the hall windows, he regained his room.
And when morning had come, the nocturnal visitation wore such a different aspect to both our minds that we decided to say nothing to our parents, who, said Clarence, would simply disbelieve him; and, indeed, I inclined to suppose it had been an uncommonly vivid dream, produced in that sensitive nature by the uncanny sounds of the wind in the chinks and crannies of the ancient chamber. Had not Scott's Demonology and Witchcraft, which we studied hard on that day, proved all such phantoms to be explicable? The only person we told was Griff, who was amused and incredulous. He had heard the noises--oh yes! and objected to having his sleep broken by them. It was too had to expose Clarence to them--poor Bill--on whom they worked such fancies!
He interrogated Chapman, however, but probably in that bantering way which is apt to produce reserve. Chapman never 'gave heed to them fictious tales,' he said; but, when hard pressed, he allowed that he had 'heerd that a lady do walk o' winter nights,' and that was why the garden door of the old rooms was walled up. Griff asked if this was done for fear she should catch cold, and this somewhat affronted him, so that he averred that he knew nought about it, and gave no thought to such like.
Just then they arrived at the Winslow Arms, and took each a glass of ale, when Griff, partly to tease Chapman, asked the landlady--an old Chantry House servant--whether she had ever met the ghost. She turned rather pale, which seemed to have impressed him, and demanded if he had seen it. 'It always walked at Christmas time--between then and the New Year.' She had once seen a light in the garden by the ruin in winter-time, and once last spring it came along the passage, but that was just before the old Squire was took for death,--folks said that was always the way before any of the family died--'if you'll excuse it, sir.' Oh no, she thought nothing of such things, but she had heard tell that the noises were such at all times of the year that no one could sleep in the rooms, but the light wasn't to be seen except at Christmas.
Griff with the philosophy of a university man, was certain that all was explained by Clarence having imbibed the impression of the place being haunted; and going to sleep nervous at the noises, his brain had shaped a phantom in accordance. Let Clarence declare as he might that the legends were new to him, Griff only smiled to think how easily people forgot, and he talked earnestly about catching ideas without conscious information.
However, he volunteered to sit up that night to ascertain the exact causes of the strange noises and convince Clarence that they were nothing but the effects of draughts. The fire in his gunroom was surreptitiously kept up to serve for the vigil, which I ardently desired to share. It was an enterprise; it would gratify my curiosity; and besides, though Griffith was good-natured and forbearing in a general way towards Clarence, I detected a spirit of mockery about him which might break out unpleasantly when poor Clarry was convicted of one of his unreasonable panics.
Both brothers were willing to gratify me, the only difficulty being that the tap of my crutches would warn the entire household of the expedition. However, they had--all unknown to my mother--several times carried me about queen's cushion fashion, as, being always much of a size, they could do most handily; and as both were now fine, strong, well-made youths of twenty and nineteen, they had no doubt of easily and silently conveying me up the shallow-stepped staircase when all was quiet for the night.
Emily, with her sharp ears, guessed that something was in hand, but we promised her that she should know all in time. I believe Griff, being a little afraid of her quickness, led her to suppose he was going to hold what he called a symposium in his rooms, and to think it a mystery of college life not intended for young ladies.
He really had prepared a sort of supper for us when, after my father's resounding turn of the key of the drawing-room door, my brothers, in their stocking soles, bore me upstairs, the fun of the achievement for the moment overpowering all sense of eeriness. Griff said he could not receive me in his apartment without doing honour to the occasion, and that Dutch courage was requisite for us both; but I suspect it was more in accordance with Oxford habits that he had provided a bottle of sherry and another of ale, some brandy cherries, bread, cheese, and biscuits, by what means I do not know, for my mother always locked up the wine. He was disappointed that Clarence would touch nothing, and declared that inanition was the preparation for ghost-seeing or imagining. I drank his health in a glass of sherry as I looked round at the curious old room, with its panelled roof, the heraldic devices and badges of the Power family, and the trophy of swords, dirks, daggers, and pistols, chiefly relics of our naval grandfather, but reinforced by the sword, helmet, and spurs of the county Yeomanry which Griff had joined.
Griff proposed cards to drive away fancies, especially as the sounds were beginning; but though we generally yielded to him we could not give our attention to anything but these. There was first a low moan. 'No great harm in that,' said Griff; 'it comes through that crack in the wainscot where there is a sham window. Some putty will put a stop to that.'
Then came a more decided wail and sob much nearer to us. Griff hastily swallowed the ale in his tumbler, and, striking a theatrical attitude, exclaimed, 'Angels and ministers of grace defend us!'
Clarence held up his hand in deprecation. The door into his bedroom was open, and Griff, taking up one of the flat candlesticks, pursued his researches, holding the flame to all chinks or cracks in the wainscotting to detect draughts which might cause the dreary sounds, which were much more like suppressed weeping than any senseless gust of wind. Of draughts there were many, and he tried holding his hand against each crevice to endeavour to silence the wails; but these became more human and more distressful. Presently Clarence exclaimed, 'There!' and on his face there was a whiteness and an expression which always recurs to me on reading those words of Eliphaz the Temanite, 'Then a spirit passed before my face, and the hair of my flesh stood up.' Even Griff was awestruck as we cried, 'Where? what?'
'Don't you see her? There! By the press--look!'
'I see a patch of moonlight on the wall,' said Griff.
'Moonlight--her lamp. Edward, don't you see her?'
I could see nothing but a spot of light on the wall. Griff (plainly putting a force on himself) came back and gave him a good-natured shake. 'Dreaming again, old Bill. Wake up and come to your senses.'
'I am as much in my senses as you are,' said Clarence. 'I see her as plainly as I see you.'
Nor could any one doubt either the reality of the awe in his voice and countenance, nor of the light--a kind of hazy ball--nor of the choking sobs.
'What is she like?' I asked, holding his hand, for, though infected by his dread, my fears were chiefly for the effect on him; but he was much calmer and less horror-struck than on the previous night, though still he shuddered as he answered in a low voice, as if loth to describe a lady in her presence, 'A dark cloak with the hood fallen back, a kind of lace headdress loosely fastened, brown hair, thin white face, eyes--oh, poor thing!--staring with fright, dark-- oh, how swollen the lids! all red below with crying--black dress with white about it--a widow kind of look--a glove on the arm with the lamp. Is she beckoning--looking at us? Oh, you poor thing, if I could tell what you mean!'
I felt the motion of his muscles in act to rise, and grasped him. Griff held him with a strong hand, hoarsely crying, 'Don't!--don't-- don't follow the thing, whatever you do!'
Clarence hid his face. It was very awful and strange. Once the thought of conjuring her to speak by the Holy Name crossed me, but then I saw no figure; and with incredulous Griffith standing by, it would have been like playing, nor perhaps could I have spoken. How long this lasted there is no knowing; but presently the light moved towards the walled-up door and seemed to pass into it. Clarence raised his head and said she was gone. We breathed freely.
'The farce is over,' said Griff. 'Mr. Edward Winslow's carriage stops the way!'
I was hoisted up, candle in hand, between the two, and had nearly reached the stairs when there came up on the garden side a sound as of tipsy revellers in the garden. 'The scoundrels! how can they have got in?' cried Griff, looking towards the window; but all the windows on that side had peculiarly heavy shutters and bars, with only a tiny heart-shaped aperture very high up, so they somewhat hurried their steps downstairs, intending to rush out on the intruders from the back door. But suddenly, in the middle of the staircase, we heard a terrible heartrending woman's shriek, making us all start and have a general fall. My brothers managed to seat me safely on a step without much damage to themselves, but the candle fell and was extinguished, and we made too heavy a weight to fall without real noise enough to bring the household together before we could pick ourselves up in the dark.
We heard doors opening and hurried calls, and something about pistols, impelling Griff to call out, 'It's nothing, papa; but there are some drunken rascals in the garden.'
A light had come by this time, and we were detected. There was a general sally upon the enemy in the garden before any one thought of me, except a 'You here!' when they nearly fell over me. And there I was left sitting on the stair, helpless without my crutches, till in a few minutes all returned declaring there was nothing--no signs of anything; and then as Clarence ran up to me with my crutches my father demanded the meaning of my being there at that time of night.
'Well, sir,' said Griff, 'it is only that we have been sitting up to investigate the ghost.'
'Ghost! Arrant stuff and nonsense! What induced you to be dragging Edward about in this dangerous way?'
'I wished it,' said I.
'You are all mad together, I think. I won't have the house disturbed for this ridiculous folly. I shall look into it to- morrow!'