This is part II of “A Modern Ghost Story”, first published in the “Friend” all the way back in December 1877.
What will happen at Broom Hall in the depths of December?
The change which money and energy had worked in less than a year was almost miraculous.
True, the trees were still the same poor twisted, wind-blown shrubs, but all along the avenue young, well-tended shoots were planted at regular intervals, giving promise of something better soon.
The carriage road was smooth and well drained, the turfed edges were carefully cut and trimmed. When we came near the house,t he change was till more marked.
There was an air of life and bustle about the whole that made it seem to to me anything but an “eligible residence” for a ghost of the old unsociable school.
The trim lawn and gravel walk, just sprinkled with downy snowflakes, the smoking chimneys, the open door, and above all the portly figure of my jolly host, surrounded by two or three merry youngsters, made a tout-ensemble that only looked more comfortable from the dreary uniformity of snow-sprinkled moor that stretched away on every side.
I will not dwell on the kind and cordial welcome, the merry crowd of guests, or the voices of the children ringing through the once lifeless manor-house. In a word, the change was magical.
The hall that looked so large and cold that night the laird and I suffered our dismal tête-à-tête, was not a shade too big for the jolly party at our Christmas dinner.
Brilliantly lighted, with a blazing fire at either end, whose red glare shone on the oak-panelled walls, and sent a flood of light among the uncovered beams of the arched and massive ceiling, it was the beau-ideal of space and comfort, and quite disgusted me with the cramped and insignificant dining-rooms of the second city.
Several days flew swiftly past, spent as they were in all the amusements of the most sociable time of the year, with a nice host and pleasant company.
Our apparition was almost forgotten, till one evening at dinner one of our host’s little boys startled us all by announcing solemnly that the ghost was due that night, or rather next morning, at an hour after midnight.
Of course we were all instantly absorbed int he interesting topic, and as best I might in the merry circle I had to repeat the old laird’s terrible story.
The good dinner and the old wine spoiled the effect of the weird tale. Several, made bold by the unmerciful chaffing bestowed on our shadowy visitant, vowed they would spend the night in the tower-gallery and prove the falsity of the stupid tale.
But when our host pointed out the discomfort of such a proceeding, the tower-gallery and the tower being dark, empty and unused, the heavy doors scarce ever opened, they one by one gave up the idea, protesting rather too earnestly that fear of the cold, not fear of the ghost, was their motive for doing so.
Not so with me; my mind was made up. I felt that I was more superstitious than the others, and the more I inclined to tremble at the recollection of the dark, mysterious story I had heard from the old laird, the more I thought of his prayer that I might never behold such a scene as he had witnessed — in short, the more terrible my imagination made the trial, the more resolved I was to test my courage and prove the absurdity of my superstitious fears.
I retired to my chamber about midnight, filled with this determination, and did not undress myself, but sat down before a comfortable fire to await, in feverish impatience, despite all my endeavours to be calm, the hour of action.
During the long delay my spirits sank lower and lower. My mind was prey to all the terrors of a lively fancy. The lonely feelings we always have when all the household are asleep but ourselves, the solitary situation of the house, and the intense quiet that reigned all around were not much of themselves, but when taken in conjunction with the object of my lonely waiting, and the great hold the laird’s story had taken on my imagination, they kindled every spark of latent superstition in my nature, and so excited my ordinarily strong nerves that I trembled violently, and at last, hearing some slight noise, I started so suddenly that my watch fell with a crash from my hand, and nearly frightened me out of my wits.
The hands pointed to ten minutes to one o’clock when I rose, straightened myself firmly, grasped the candlestick, and gently opened the door of my room.
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I shivered as I felt the cold air come sweeping in from the dark corridor, but I went out, and crept cautiously along in the direction of the staircase leading to the tower-gallery.
I felt almost afraid of the light of my own candle, and every time the boards creaked under my foot I started nervously.
I reached the broad staircase and went slowly up. From the landing my puny light only served to show me the dense darkness of the great well below. I shall never forget my feelings as I halted before the mighty iron-studded door of the tower-gallery.
My resolution wavered, and I almost fled, but I feared to go back over the long dark way I had come. My brain was burning, the candlestick shook in my bloodless fingers, thoughts of terror filled me, and fearful sights seemed to grow out of the surrounding darkness.
I would have given anything for the grasp of a friendly hand, for the sight of a human face. My only comfort was the thought that the gallery was long and that this was not the end by which the figure was said to appear.
I was just going to push open the door when a cold chill came over me as another thought flashed into my mind. What if it should come this way, should be behind me now, or more terrible still, what if I should open that door to find myself face-to-face with the father’s restless face?
A moment I hesitated, then with a choking sensation in my throat I flung open the door and leapt in with a desperate, mad energy. It closed behind me with a thud that called up to my distracted brain the strange simile of clods falling on a coffin lid.
When I had resolution to look around me, I saw the gallery was empty. A cold draught swept through it; the windows were closed with wooden shutters, but through the chinks a few pale moonbeams shed their ghostly light; in spite of which the whole place was shrouded in a thick, black darkness that baffled the eye and oppressed the brain.
How long I cowered almost senseless in the furthest corner of the gallery I know not, but a terrible fear shook my frame like an aspen leaf, as I thought I heard a footfall on the stair at the other end of the corridor.
I stood erect and listened.
My heart throbbed and my breath laboured as the step, slow, steady, and almost noiseless, ascended higher and higher. At last it seemed to stop at the door.
My heart ceased its loud beating, and almost stood still; my hand clutched the candlestick with terrible nervous power; the muscles of my body grew stiff and rigid; my head leant forward, listening, looking, with concentrated eagerness.
The door slowly opened; the wretched father entered, holding in his hand a light, and came towards me.
I saw it plainly advance and stand, with a face whose agony was terrible to look upon, over the spot where the murdered boy had lain. Then — horror of horrors — it turned its ghastly eyes on me, and its gaze froze me to the soul.
What I felt with that weird, searching look upon me, none can ever know. My brain whirled, my heart grew sick. I tried to cry aloud — my tongue refused to move, my lips to utter; I tried to move — any will was powerless.
The agony of an eternity was in that moment; then through the gallery rang out the wild heart-broken cry that burst from the father’s lips, as he realised the cruel truth his dead boy’s face was telling.
The wild, unearthly sound still filled the corridor, when the light sank from the figure’s hand, and all was darkness as before.
I could bear no more. My fancy pictured it stealing towards me in the darkness. I thought I felt the cold, chill arms of the dead man winding round me. Heart, brain, and mind were taxed beyond endurance, and in a moment of agony such as no pen can paint my senses gave way, and all was blank.
It must have been early morning when I found myself lying on the stone floor of the tower-gallery, with a stiff, sore feeling all over my body, and a burning sensation in my head.
The morning sunshine — for the weather was bright and clear — came dimly in through the chinks of the shuttered windows as, quite forgetful of the night’s adventure, I drowsily groped my way back to my bedroom, lay down, and almost instantly fell asleep.
The breakfast bell, always late at that season of the year, was ringing in my ears as I awoke from a short but refreshing slumber.
As far as the adventures of the night were concerned, my memory was for a moment or two a complete blank, but the pains of my body soon recalled the mind to its wonted activity.
Throbbing temples, and what is popularly called a stiff neck, besides a general feverishness, were disagreeable reminders of the manner in which I had spent the hours that should have been devoted to sleep.
Every incident of the strange, unnatural scene I had witnessed came clearly to my recollection. I tried vainly to argue myself into the belief that the whole thing was a dream, but the evidence against such a supposition was overwhelming.
I awoke in the morning dressed just as I had thrown myself into bed on returning from my mysterious expedition, wrapped in the very cloak which, when leaving my room, I had thrown round me as a protection from the cold.
My bodily sensations, bore witness to the time I had lain insensible in the cold, draughty gallery. My watch lay where it had fallen the night before, and the door had evidently not been touched by any of the servants, for it stood wide open just as I had left it when, half-unconscious I had staggered into the room.
These were sufficient links of evidence to dispel any incredulity, and prove that at least my expedition was an indisputable fact, and not a freak of fancy.
As I went drowsily about the duties of my toilet, I thought and thought, but could come to no satisfactory conclusion.
Could it be that I had really seen a ghost? At the thought, the scene in the gallery rose vividly before me, and daylight though it was, my hand slightly trembled, and I looked furtively round the empty chamber, as if to make certain that the phantom was not pursuing me still.
I was actually comforted when the looking-glass gave me the sweet assurance that my chestnut locks had not been prematurely blanched, nor was my noble and expansive forehead marred by a single additional wrinkle.
An awkwardly posed neck, and a rather interesting paleness were the only perceptible souvenirs of my nocturnal ramble.
Alas, my mind was in a more deplorable state. The jumble of doubt and conviction was such that I could make nothing of it. Sometimes I yielded shudderingly to the terrible conviction that I had indeed beheld with mortal eye the mysteries of the grave.
Then common sense with its nineteenth century wisdom would rush to my assistance and point out the ridiculous absurdity of such a supposition.
Thus harnessed with conflicting doubts, I sought the breakfast parlour, making up my mind to this at least — that, as I had said nothing of my resolution to explore the mystery, so I would keep my experience to myself, and not add the unmerciful chaffing of young and old to the list of my misfortunes.
Vain hope. I had no sooner entered than my miserable appearance was the signal for a hot fire of cross questions and facetious remarks.
“Hallo, old fellow,” roared Morley, in a voice of thunder. “Have you seen the ghost?”
In an instant they were down on me. From all sides resounded —
“What did it look like?”
“Did it come in sheets, or all at once?”
“He looks like the ghost himself!”
“His hair’s not flat yet.”
“He’s been indulging in some kind of spirit, that’s clear.”
And this exasperating of small jokes never ceased all breakfast time, in spite of my earnest protestations that I had slept like a top all night, but had evidently caught cold yesterday, and felt rather seedy and out of sorts this morning.
My only relief was that their merry sallies were divided between myself and a tall, broad-shouldered young sailor, who was evidently suffering from a bilious attack, brought on, I shrewdly suspected, by a rash seaman-like habit of attacking solids and liquids at dinner as if there were no tomorrow to be feared.
At this juncture there was a stir in the passage outside, and my friend’s footman entered the room, while all the female domestics could be seen crowding round the door, nodding and whispering mysteriously, and stretching their long necks to catch a glimpse of what transpired inside.
“Please, sir,” the footman began excitedly, “Lizzie went into the tower-gallery this mornin’ to see if the ghost had left any marks behind it, an’ she found this here, sir.”
Everybody started and looked up. The blood rushed to my forehead with shame and vexation. There stood the fellow holding away from him, as if he was afraid it would bite, the confounded identical brazen-faced candlestick I had dropped in my midnight quest.
“Ha, ha, ha!” shouted Morley. “There’s been more than a ghost here, I fancy. Who’s the owner of this pretty thing? Don’t all speak at once, please.”
Concealment was impossible. Every eye in the room seemed to turn naturally to me. So much did I feel the ridiculous position in which I had placed myself that I vaguely contemplated sheathing the butter knife in my heart.
Blushing and burning with shame and rage, I stretched out my hand towards the hateful candlestick, faintly ejaculating —
At the same instant a hoarse voice, half-choked with vexation, cried from the other end of the room —
I turned hastily round. The owner of the voice was the young sailor, who, rushing frantically across the room, seized me by the arm and cried eagerly —
“What! Were you there?”
“Good heavens,” I shouted. “Were you?”
For an instant we literally glared into each other’s eyes.
“Then it was you I saw,” cried the bold mariner, with a sigh of intense relief.
An exploring party found the gallant tar’s candlestick where it had fallen from his hand when, beholding my ghostly appearance at the other end of the gallery, he had given utterance to that horrible yell, and fled madly from the spot.
The misery of my last day at Broom Hall was unutterable. My appearance, no matter how grave the conversation might be at the time, was the signal for a general burst of merriment.
Morley tried hard to secure me a few minutes’ peace, but the task was hopeless; I was a perpetual target for small witticisms and bad puns, not one of which, however poor, failed to raise an irritating guffaw.
Never, in all my life, did I turn my steps more willingly towards the city than I did the next morning; and so tender do I still feel on the subject that to mention a ghost in my hearing is just a little more dangerous that to shake a red rag at a bull.
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