Chapter XV--Rational Theories
 
'These are the reasons, they are natural.'

Julius Caesar.

If anything could have made our adventure more unpleasant to Mr. and Mrs. Winslow, it would have been the presence of guests. However, inquiry was suppressed at breakfast, in deference to the signs my mother made to enjoin silence before the children, all unaware that Emily was nearly frantic with suppressed curiosity, and Martyn knew more about the popular version of the legend than any of us.

Clarence looked wan and heavy-eyed. His head was aching from a bump against the edge of a step, and his cold was much worse; no wonder, said my mother; but she was always softened by any ailment, and feared that the phantoms were the effect of coming illness. I have always thought that if Clarence could have come home from his court- martial with a brain fever he would have earned immediate forgiveness; but unluckily for him, he was a very healthy person.

All three of us were summoned to the tribunal in the study, where my father and my mother sat in judgment on what they termed 'this preposterous business.' In our morning senses our impressions were much more vague than at midnight, and we betrayed some confusion; but Griff and I had a strong instinct of sheltering Clarence, and we stoutly declared the noises to be beyond the capacities of wind, rats, or cats; that the light was visible and inexplicable; and that though we had seen nothing else, we could not doubt that Clarence did.

'Thought he did,' corrected my father.

'Without discussing the word,' said Griff, 'I mean that the effect on his senses was the same as the actual sight. You could not look at him without being certain.'

'Exactly so,' returned my mother. 'I wish Dr. Fellowes were near.'

Indeed nothing saved Clarence from being consigned to medical treatment but the distance from Bath or Bristol, and the contradictory advice that had been received from our county neighbours as to our family doctor. However, she formed her theory that his nervous imaginings--whether involuntary or acted, she hoped the former, and wished she could be sure--had infected us; and, as she was really uneasy about him, she would not let him sleep in the mullion room, but having nowhere else to bestow him, she turned out the man-servant and put him into the little room beyond mine, and she also forbade any mention of the subject to him that day.

This was a sore prohibition to Emily, who had been discussing it with the other ladies, and was in a mingled state of elation at the romance, and terror at the supernatural, which found vent in excited giggle, and moved Griff to cram her with raw-head and bloody-bone horrors, conventional enough to be suspicious, and send her to me tearfully to entreat to know the truth. If by day she exulted in a haunted chamber, in the evening she paid for it by terrors at walking about the house alone, and, when sent on an errand by my mother, looked piteous enough to be laughed at or scolded on all sides.

The gentlemen had more serious colloquies, and the upshot was a determination to sit up together and discover the origin of the annoyance. Mr. Stafford's antiquarian researches had made him familiar with such mysteries, and enough of them had been explained by natural causes to convince him that there was a key to all the rest. Owls, coiners, and smugglers had all been convicted of simulating ghosts. In one venerable mansion, behind the wainscot, there had been discovered nine skeletons of cats in different stages of decay, having trapped themselves at various intervals of time, and during the gradual extinction of their eighty-one lives having emitted cries enough to establish the ghastly reputation of the place. Perhaps Mr. Henderson was inclined to believe there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in even an antiquary's philosophy. He owned himself perplexed, but reserved his opinion.

At breakfast Clarence was quite well, except for the remains of his sore throat, and the two seniors were gruff and brief as to their watch. They had heard odd noises, and should discover the cause; the carpenter had already been sent for, and they had seen a light which was certainly due to reflection or refraction. Mr. Henderson committed himself to nothing but that 'it was very extraordinary;' and there was a wicked look of diversion on Griff's face, and an exchange of glances. Afterwards, in our own domain, we extracted a good deal more from them.

Griff told us how the two elders started on politics, and denounced Brougham and O'Connell loud enough to terrify any save the most undaunted ghost, till Henderson said 'Hush!' and they paused at the moan with which the performance always commenced, making Mr. Stafford turn, as Griff said, 'white in the gills,' though he talked of the wind on the stillest of frosty nights. Then came the sobbing and wailing, which certainly overawed them all; Henderson called them 'agonising,' but Griff was in a manner inured to this, and felt as if master of the ceremonies. Let them say what they would by daylight about owls, cats, and rats, they owned the human element then, and were far from comfortable, though they would not compromise their good sense by owning what both their younger companions had perceived--their feeling of some undefinable presence. Vain attempts had been made to account for the light or get rid of it by changing the position of candles or bright objects in the outer room; and Henderson had shut himself into the bedroom with it; but there he still only saw the hazy light--though all was otherwise pitch dark, except the keyhole and the small gray patch of sky at the top of the window-shutters. 'You saw nothing else?' said Griff. 'I thought I heard you break out as Clarence did, just before my father opened the door.'

'Perhaps I did so. I had the sense strongly on me of some being in grievous distress very near me.'

'And you should have power over it,' suggested Emily.

'I am afraid,' he said, 'that more thorough conviction and comprehension are needed before I could address the thing with authority. I should like to have stayed longer and heard the conclusion.'

For Mr. Stafford had grown impatient and weary, and my father having satisfied himself that there was something to be detected, would not remain to the end, and not only carried his companions off, but locked the doors, perhaps expecting to imprison some agent in a trick, and find him in the morning.

Indeed Clarence had a dim remembrance of having been half wakened by some one looking in on him in the night, when he was sleeping heavily after his cold and the previous night's disturbance, and we suspected, though we would not say, that our father might have wished to ascertain that he had no share in producing these appearances. He was, however, fully acquitted of all wilful deception in the case, and he was not surprised, though he was disappointed, that his vision of the lady was supposed to be the consequence of excited imagination.

'I can't help it,' he said to me in private. 'I have always seen or felt, or whatever you may call it, things that others do not. Don't you remember how nobody would believe that I saw Lucy Brooke?'

'That was in the beginning of the measles.'

' I know; and I will tell you something curious. When I was at Gibraltar I met Mrs. Emmott--'

'Mary Brooke?'

'Yes; I spent a very happy Sunday with her. We talked over old times, and she told me that Lucy had all through her illness been very uneasy about having promised to bring me a macaw's feather the next time we played in the Square gardens. It could not be sent to me for fear of carrying the infection, but the dear girl was too light-headed to understand, and kept on fretting and wandering about breaking her word. I have no doubt the wish carried her spirit to me the moment it was free,' he added, with tears springing to his eyes. He also said that before the court-martial he had, night after night, dreams of sinking and drowning in huge waves, and his friend Coles struggling to come to his aid, but being forcibly withheld; and he had since learnt that Coles had actually endeavoured to come from Plymouth to bear testimony to his previous character, but had been refused leave, and told that he could do no good.

There had been other instances of perception of a presence and of a prescient foreboding. 'It is like a sixth sense,' he said, 'and a very uncomfortable one. I would give much to be rid of it, for it is connected with all that is worst in my life. I had it before Navarino, when no one expected an engagement. It made me believe I should be killed, and drove me to what was much worse--or at least I used to think so.'

'Don't you now?' I asked.

'No,' said Clarence. 'It was a great mercy that I did not die then. There's something to conquer first. But you'll never speak of this, Ted. I have left off telling of such things--it only gives another reason for disbelieving me.'

However, this time his veracity was not called in question,--but he was supposed to be under a hallucination, the creation of the noises acting on his imagination and memory of the persecuted widow, which must have been somewhere dormant in his mind, though he averred that he had never heard of it. It had now, however, made a strong impression on him; he was convinced that some crime or injustice had been perpetrated, and thought it ought to be investigated; but Griffith made us laugh at his championship of this shadow of a shade, and even wrote some mock heroic verses about it,--nor would it have been easy to stir my father to seek for the motives of an apparition which no one in the family save Clarence professed to have seen.

The noises were indisputable, but my mother began to suspect a cause for them. To oblige a former cook we had brought down with us as stable-boy her son, George Sims, an imp accustomed to be the pet and jester of a mews. Martyn was only too fond of his company, and he made no secret of his contempt for the insufferable dulness of the country, enlivening it by various acts of monkey-mischief, in some of which Martyn had been implicated. That very afternoon, as Mrs. Sophia Selby was walking home in the twilight from Chapman's lodge, in company with Mr. Henderson, an eldritch yell proceeding from the vaults beneath the mullion chambers nearly frightened her into fits. Henderson darted in and captured the two boys in the fact. Martyn's asseveration that he had taken the pair for Griff and Emily would have pacified the good-natured clergyman, but Mrs. Sophia was too much agitated, or too spiteful, as we declared, not to make a scene.

Martyn spent the evening alone and in disgrace, and only his unimpeachable character for truth caused the acceptance of his affirmation that the yell was an impromptu fraternal compliment, and that he had nothing to do with the noises in the mullion chamber. He had been supposed to be perfectly unconscious of anything of the kind, and to have never so much as heard of a phantom, so my mother was taken somewhat aback when, in reply to her demand whether he had ever been so naughty as to assist George in making a noise in Clarence's room, he said, 'Why, that's the ghost of the lady that was murdered atop of the steps, and always walks every Christmas!'

'Who told you such ridiculous nonsense?'

The answer 'George' was deemed conclusive that all had been got up by that youth; and there was considerable evidence of his talent for ventriloquism and taste for practical jokes. My mother was certain that, having heard of the popular superstition, he had acted ghost. She appealed to Woodstock to prove the practicability of such feats; and her absolute conviction persuaded the maids (who had given warning en masse) that the enemy was exorcised when George Sims had been sent off on the Royal Mail under Clarence's guardianship.

None of the junior part of the family believed him guilty, but he had hunted the cows round the paddock, mounted on my donkey, had nearly shot the kitchen-maid with Griff's gun, and, if not much maligned, knew the way to the apple-chamber only too well,--so that he richly deserved his doom, rejoiced in it himself, and was unregretted save by Martyn. Clarence viewed him in the light of a victim, and tried to keep an eye on him, but he developed his talent as a ventriloquist, made his fortune, and retired on a public-house.

My mother would fain have had the vaults under the mullion rooms bricked up, but Mr. Stafford cried out on the barbarism of such a proceeding. The mystery was declared to be solved, and was added to Mr. Stafford's good stories of haunted houses.

And at home my father forbade any further mention of such rank folly and deception. The inner mullion chamber was turned into a lumber- room, and as weeks passed by without hearing or seeing any more of lady or of lamp, we began to credit the wonderful freaks of the goblin page.