Chapter XL--The Midnight Chase
 
'What human creature in the dead of night
   Had coursed, like hunted hare, that cruel distance,
Had sought the door, the window in her flight
   Striving for dear existence?'

HOOD.

On the night of the 26th of December, Clarence and Martyn, well wrapped in greatcoats, stole into the outer mullion room; but though the usual sounds were heard, and the mysterious light again appeared, Martyn perceived nothing else, and even Clarence declared that if there were anything besides, it was far less distinct to him than it had been previously. Could it be that his spiritual perceptions were growing dimmer as he became older, and outgrew the sensitiveness of nerves and imagination?

We came to the conclusion that it would be best to watch the outside of the house, rather than within the chamber; and the dinner-party facilitated this, since it accounted for being up and about nearer to the hour when the ghost might be expected. Egress could be had through the little garden door, and I undertook to sit up and keep up the fire.

All three came to my room on their return home, for Emily had become aware of our scheme, and entreated to be allowed to watch with us. Clarence had unfastened the alarum bell from my shutters, and taken down the bar after the curtains had been drawn by the housemaid, and he now opened them. It was a frosty moonlight night, and the lawn lay white and crisp, marked with fantastic shadows. The others looked grave and pale, Emily was in a thick white shawl and hood, with a swan's down boa over her black dress, a somewhat ghostly figure herself, but we were in far too serious a mood for light observations.

There was something of a shudder about Clarence as he went to unbolt the back door; Martyn kept close to him. We saw them outside, and then Emily flew after them. From my window I could watch them advancing on the central gravel walk, Emily standing still between her brothers, clasping an arm of each. I saw the light near the ruin, and caught some sounds as of shrieks and of threatening voices, the light flitted towards the gable of the mullion rooms, and then was the concluding scream. All was over, and the three came back much agitated, Emily sinking into an armchair, panting, her hands over her face, and a nervous trembling through her whole frame, Martyn's eyes looking wide and scared, Clarence with the well-known look of terror on his face. He hurried to fetch the tray of wine and water that was always left on the table when anyone went to a party at night, but he shivered too much to prevent the glasses from jingling, and I had to pour out the sherry and administer it to Emily. 'Oh! poor, poor thing,' she gasped out.

'You saw?' I exclaimed.

'They did,' said Martyn; 'I only saw the light, and heard! That was enough!' and he shuddered again.

'Then Emily did,' I began, but Clarence cut me short. 'Don't ask her to-night.'

'Oh! let me tell,' cried Emily; 'I can't go away to bed till I have had it out.'

Then she gave the details, which were the more notable because she had not, like Martyn, been studying our jottings, and had heard comparatively little of the apparition.

'When I joined the boys,' she said, 'I looked toward the mullion rooms; I saw the windows lighted up, and heard a sobbing and crying inside.'

'So did I,' put in Martyn, and Clarence bent his head.

'Then,' added Emily, 'by the moonlight I saw the gable end, not blank, and covered by the magnolia as it is now, but with stone steps up to the bricked-up doorway. The door opened, the light spread, and there came out a lady in black, with a lamp in one hand, and a kind of parcel in the other, and oh, when she turned her face this way, it was Ellen's!'

'So you called out,' whispered Martyn.

'Dear Ellen, not as she used to be,' added Emily, 'but like what she was when last I saw her; no, hardly that either, for this was sad, sad, scared, terrified, with eyes all tears, as Ellen never, never was.'

'I saw,' added Clarence, 'I saw the shape, but not the countenance and expression as I used to do.'

'She came down the steps,' continued Emily, 'looking about her as if making her escape, but, just as she came opposite to us, there was a sound of tipsy laughing and singing from the gate up by the wood.'

'I thought it real,' said Martyn.

'Then,' continued Emily, 'she wavered, then turned and went under an arch in the ruin--I fancied she was hiding something--then came out and fled across to the steps; but there were two dark men rushing after her, and at the stone steps there was a frightful shriek, and then it was all over, the steps gone, all quiet, and the magnolia leaves glistening in the moonshine. Oh! what can it all mean?'

'Went under the arch,' repeated Clarence. 'Is it what she hid there that keeps her from resting?'

'Then you believe it really happened?' said Emily, 'that some terrible scene is being acted over again. Oh! but can it be the real spirits!'

'That is one of the great mysteries,' answered Martyn; 'but I could tell you of other instances.'

'Don't now,' I interposed; 'Emily has had quite enough.'

We reminded her that the ghastly tragedy was over and would not recur again for another year; but she was greatly shaken, and we were very sorry for her, when the clock warned her to go to her own room, whither Martyn escorted her. He lighted every candle he could find, and revived the fire; but she was sadly overcome by what she had witnessed, she lay awake all the rest of the night, and in the morning, looked so unwell, and had so little to tell about the party that my mother thought her spirits had been too much broken for gaieties.

The real cause could not be confessed, for it would have been ascribed to some kind of delirium, and have made a commotion for which my father was unfit. Besides, we had reached an age when, though we would not have disobeyed, liberty of thought and action had become needful. All our private confabulations were on this extraordinary scene. We looked for the arch in the ruin, but there was, as our morning senses told us, nothing of the kind. She tried to sketch her remembrance of both that and the gable of the mullion chamber, and Martyn prowled about in search of some hiding-place. Our antiquarian friend, Mr. Stafford, had made a conjectural drawing of the Chapel restored, and all the portfolios about the house were searched for it, disquieting mamma, who suspected Martyn's Oxford notions of intending to rebuild it, nor would he say that it ought not to be done. However, he with his more advanced ecclesiology, pronounced Mr. Stafford's reconstruction to be absolutely mistaken and impossible, and set to work on a fresh plan, which, by the bye, he derides at present. It afforded, however, an excuse for routing under the ivy and among the stones, but without much profit. From the mouldings on the materials and in the stables and the front porch, it was evident that the chapel had been used as a quarry, and Emily's arch was very probably that of the entrance door. In a dry summer, the foundations of the walls and piers could be traced on the turf, and the stumps of one or two columns remained, but the rest was only a confused heap of fragments within which no one could have entered as in that strange vision.

Another thing became clear. There had once been a wall between the beech wood and the lawn, with a gate or door in it; Chapman could just remember its being taken down, in James Winslow's early married life, when landscape gardening was the fashion. It must have been through this that the Winslow brothers were returning, when poor Margaret perhaps expected them to enter by the front.

We wished we could have consulted Dame Dearlove, but she had died a few years before, and her school was extinct.