“A Modern Ghost Story” From Our Archive

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We don’t feature many ghost stories in “The People’s Friend”, but this one is too atmospheric to leave out!

It was first published in the magazine in December 1877. It’s a little lengthy, so we’ll have to split it into three parts!

Oh, and there was no author listed . . . spooky!

What a very exclusive and particularly respectable person is the average ghost, despising the parvenu, and clinging, with slightly embarrassing fondness, to old families and old houses.

Indeed, a pedigree of any pretensions ought certainly to include a ghost; for like the cobwebs on a bottle of old wine, it is an indispensable evidence of antiquity.

For this reason perhaps many decayed families, their substance being gone, display a great affection for the shadows of their once powerful ancestors. Thus was it with the last scion of the house of N—, long the proud lairds of Broom Hall, in Upper Lanarkshire.

Three improvident generations had left no more of the family estate than a few acres of barren moorland, which could neither be sold nor mortgaged.

On a slight undulation, just raised from the dead level around, stood the old house, mocked rather than protected from the winds that swept across the open moor by a few miserable, starved-looking trees.

It was a solid, grey pile, with a dreary, prison-like aspect, unrelieved by any attempt at ornament, having a short square tower over the principal entrance.

The garden was a wilderness of weeds, the park a marshy quagmire, and the avenue — for it was in winter I first saw the place — a muddy ditch.

Here in a corner of the gaunt barrack, bivouacked rather than dwelt the last of his time-honoured race. He did not realise the grand idea one is apt to conceive of such a man. The last oak standing where once a spreading forest waved should be a noble tree; the last remaining arch of some old Roman viaduct should be great in ruin, strong even in decay.

But this old man had nothing very noble about him, except, perhaps, the despairing pride with which he clung to the home of his ancestors. Age had dealt severely with him.

His sharp-featured face was pinched and miserly, and on its closely shaven surface time had traced in countless lines and wrinkles a story of meanness, care, and misery.

He had begun life with a few thousand pounds left him by a distant relative. Never having put forth one manly effort to redeem the fortunes of his house, he had managed during a long dull life of scraping and economy to double his little store.

At last, however, covetousness overmastered prudence, and the miser was tempted to risk his hoarded gains in the game of speculation.

Once fairly in the hands of the practised gamblers of the Stock Exchange, his ignorance and greed rendered him easy prey. He had lost all, and now the old house to which he had clung so long and tenaciously must follow the estates.

I was a junior partner in an old and respectable firm of writers in Glasgow, and my mission to Broom Hall was to arrange about the purchase of it for a client of ours, a retired merchant, and a very jolly old fellow, who had taken a fancy to the house, goodness only knows why, unless his old liking for a bargain had followed him out of business, for it was both big and cheap.

The laird, as his one servant still called him, was terribly cut up about the sale, but starvation was the only alternative, and so the deeds were signed, and Broom Hall became the property of a man whose pedigree was as short as his purse was long.

I spent the night with the miserable old man, who grew garrulous over the grandeur of his remote ancestors, and his own misfortunes. So low did my spirits sink under the chilling influence of his conversation, that I actually shivered as, in his shrill tones, he told of how the house was haunted by the shade of an unhappy predecessor.

With a sort of fiendish delight he dwelt on the horrid story, as if his only comfort in parting from the home of his fathers was the reflection that the spirit of his ancestor, in which he firmly believed, would haunt and terrify its new possessor, in spite of that honestly earned wealth which the old miser so keenly envied.

His story ran thus. In the good old days, when death was the penalty of a hasty word, or a misconstrued action; when a cool heart and an iron wrist weer the only arguments that never failed, a merry party were gathered round the board in the great dining hall, when a word, lightly spoken by a warm-hearted, fair-haired boy, the heir of the house of N—, awakened a deep resentment in the duel-hardened bosom of a veteran soldier, who honourably murdered the son of his friend and patron under his father’s roof, and fled, with his untarnished honour, leaving the poor boy pierced through the breast on the floor of the long dark tower-gallery, a cold dead sacrifice on the altar of gratified vengeance.

The silver light of the moon was shining through a narrow window on the pure pale face of the dead boy, when his father, whose whole heart and life had been locked up in that broken casket, left the merry circle and sought his chamber in the gateway tower.

I cannot, if I would, reproduce the tone of tremulous and thrilling emotion in which the old laird described the speechless horror of the father when he saw the moonlight gleaming on the face, upturned and ghastly, of his light-hearted boy, or the scene of awful agony which followed, when the one long, heart-broken cry pierced the ears of the revelling guests and brought a scared and horrified crowd of witnesses to the spot.

The intense concentration of the narrator increased as he told of how the father’s outraged spirit leaped from its broken prison-house and left the rigid body, with livid face and glaring eyeballs, erect by the side of its ruined hopes, a curse vibrating on its scarce cold lips, a terrible oath of vengeance still-born in its lifeless heart.

At this point the excitement of the tale proved too much for the old man’s withered frame. Overcome with emotion, he covered his face with his hands and sank slowly back in his chair. A moment or two afterwards he looked up and said deliberately —

“Yes, sir, that is the darkest page in the history of the house that must now pass away from its ancient race for ever. Every year, on the night of the terribly tragedy, the figure of the agonised father comes with a lighted taper in its hand along the old tower-gallery, and stands as it stood that awful night over the body of the murdered lad, a fearful, freezing sight.

“Yes,” he cried, and his voice grew hard and loud, “this is no wild delusion of a disordered brain, no phantom raised to feed the vanity of an ancient name; I have seen it — have stood, while terror froze the blood in my withered veins and palsied the muscles of my frame, and felt a cold, dull feeling creep over heart and brain as I saw the livid figure, bearing in its leaden hand the weird light of another world, come slowly nearer to where, paralysed and rooted to the spot, I crouched and gazed.”

Here the old man paused, and his eyes, which while he spoke had pierced with intense earnestness the empty air, looked curiously in mine, as if seeking there a reflection of his own emotion.

Despite my matter-of-fact city training, the lateness of the hour, the earnestness of the speaker and the horror of the tale, added to the perfect quiet and loneliness of the house, had produced an uncomfortable, uneasy sensation, which I vainly endeavoured to hide from the searching gaze of his small grey eyes. A look of satisfaction gleamed in them as he resumed —

“You are young, and have a long life before you, but Heaven grant that you may never for a single moment feel the concentrated horror of such a sight.

“May no other cares than those of this world whiten your hair or furrow your brow. Warn your client that he, too, may avoid the fatal sight. Tell him an old house is best in the hands of its rightful owners.

“And now goodbye, for you will not see me tomorrow. You take the old house and you leave a broken heart.”

Take a look at this video of Illustrations Editor Manon creating the fantastic design for this story!

As he stood, candle in hand, at the open door, and spoke these few words, he seemed to grieve over the lost home of his fathers, as his ancestor had done over his lost child, and I feared what I afterwards knew, that fortune had dealt him as fatal a blow.

He turned away, and I never saw him more.

My sensations were anything but comfortable when the old serving-man left me, full of morbid and unusual thoughts, alone in the great empty bed-chamber.

After putting out the light, it required a powerful effort of my will to grope steadily across the broad apartment to where a stately four-post bedstead looked as cold and repellent as a bed could look.

Once under the blankets my truant courage returned, and, wrapping myself up head and all in their friendly shelter, I was able to laugh at my folly in safety till sleep relieved my over-wrought imagination.

I left the dismal habitation early next morning, and though for along time I heard no more of the house, or its late owner, I did forget either.

About the end of the year, in the beginning of which the purchase of Broom Hall had been effected, I was hard at work in my chambers when a clerk announced the client who had bought the place.

When we had transacted our business together we fell into a friendly chat, in the course of which I said —

“By the bye, Morley, I was deeply interested in the old man from whom we bought your house. He seemed to feel the parting from his old home terribly. Have you heard anything of him since he left it?”

“Dead,” was the solemn answer; “died, I firmly believe, of a broken heart. If I had thought the poor fellow would have been so down about it, I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get the house.

“I never saw him, I only heard of his death from an old servant of his I kept about the place as a sort of gardener, not that he’s of any use, either in the garden or the house, but of course we can’t turn him out to starve.

“He’s been a fixture some time now, and seems to be a great favourite with the youngsters. He’s stuffed their wise heads with some nonsense about a ghost that hangs about the premises.

“They tell me it only comes once a year, about Christmas, so we’re expecting it daily. Ha, ha, ha!”

I recalled the old laird’s belief in the apparition so lightly referred to, and remembered how queerly I had felt myself after listening to his thrilling story of that Christmas gathering long ago; but I only said —

“I’ve heard the story. I believe that the ghost’s a harmless fellow enough; you needn’t even lock up your plate.”

“Faith,” said Morley, “if ghosts had a leaning that way they’d be ticklish burglars to deal with; but seeing he comes so seldom it would be a pity if we hadn’t somebody to meet him.

“Suppose you come down for a week at Christmas, and see how the old place looks now; besides, as you know our distinguished visitor a little you might introduce him to us.

“Do come, will you?”

“Well,” I replied, “apart from the reception of your uninvited guest, I must confess I’d like to see the house changed into a home once more, so you may count on two unexpected visitors instead of one.

“I’ll write and let you know when to looked out for me.”

“All right, don’t forget — goodbye.” And he went off chuckling over the conceit of asking a fellow down to meet such queer company.

Thus it fell out that on Christmas morning I found myself once more at the entrance to the scanty avenue of Broom Hall.

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Iain McDonald

Iain is Digital Content Editor at the "Friend", making him responsible for managing flow of interesting and entertaining content on the magazine's website and social media channels.