IT is now about thirty years ago that I and my husband, not long after our marriage, went on a visit to Lawford Hall, an old house near Rugby, which I had long desired to see. I remember I posted alone from Coventry, near which town we had been staying, as my husband had gone on two days before to attend some county races, where the Lawfords were running a favorite horse, and to go hunting the next day with the old baronet At the last Warwickshire house in which we had been staying, I had picked up one wet day, in the library, an old book of trials which contained allusions to Lawford Hall. For three hours in a cozy nook of that old Elizabethan room—where Vandyke's cavaliers seemed longing to come out of their frames to talk to you—I sat absorbed over a strange and terrible poisoning case which had made all Warwickshire shudder sixty years before, There are days when the brain seems unusually sensitive to impressions; and all the details of this crime, from some reason or another, became printed, or, I may rather say, photographed on my retina, with a sharpness and vividness that was almost painful. I saw the great plumed bed where the rich man lay : again the thin Hogarthian figure of the younger step-brother, in the old costume, stole with silent foot through the shadow of the broad oak staircase, and past the curtained bed to the mantelpiece where the long row of bottles stood. I saw the thin trembling white hand, with the lace ruffle all but covering it, remove half the contents of one phial and substitute the laurel water, that he had distilled, with cruel care, in his own locked-up room. I heard the dreadful cry of the dying man as his step-brother bent over him. I could hear the ringing hoofs of the doctor's horse as it came racing up the Rugby Road. I could see the grave face of the man in black as he stood by the bedside, and, raising the cold waxen head let it fall again, uttering only those few solemn words, " It is too late; he is dead." Then I followed the surgeon down to the wainscoted parlor, where the murderer with hypocritical grief told his planned story of the cause of his brother's fit, and with subtle craft evaded any examination of the body. I tracked the poisoner to the quiet autumn garden, where he eyed with a bitter smile, as he passed, the laurel from whence he had picked the fatal leaves. I heard him stop and tell with exultation the old gardener, who was resting on his spade, "that it would be easy days with the old servants now, not as in Sir Edward's time, and that he had long worked to be master of Lawford Hall, and was so at last." I watched him tremble when the letter came from his brother's friend, sternly and coldly desiring that the body should be examined; step by step, indeed, I followed that soft-spoken, decorous, cat-like, cruel villain, till I left him with irons round his small wrists, while the mourning coach was preparing that was to take him to the Warwick gibbet, still lying, still unrepentant, still denying, in spite of the countless" proofs of guilt that from earth, water, and air, had been drawn to cover him with shame. I saw him also in the dead of the night previous, when the grim keepers were asleep, steal from his pillow, throw himself on his knees, so seldom bent to God, and unite his thin fettered hands in passionate prayer to the Judge of all, and I hoped that even at that last moment he had found mercy.
These scenes again rose in my mind as, after hours of heavy rain, the sun shone out just as the post-chaise swept round a turn of the road, past Newbold, into Little Lawford. The light glittered on the yellowing leaves of the lime trees and flickered upon the wet gables of the old house. It was a stately, melancholy building, half Tudor, half classic, and the huge Elizabethan porch contrasted unpleasantly with the ugly square windows of the Georgian era, that were rendered more hideous by the picturesque oriels that here and there were left There was a solid comfort about the heavy stone mullions that the flimsy modern window-sashes of Dutch invention could not touch, and I regretted that the old house had been so awkwardly patched. Just to the right of the porch there was an old Tudor window that especially struck my eye. It was overhung with a Virginian creeper, whose leaves were already turning scarlet. The moment I glanced at that window, a scene of the old trial came again into my thoughts. It was below that room that the poisoner stood that April morning and called, in his gay, careless way, to his sister, to ask her if she was ready for the ride before breakfast She had just been to her brother's room to give him the fatal medicine, and had left him as she thought asleep. The window opened on a passage between her room and that of the murdered man, and she heard her brother call to her as she passed back from the one room to the other. "I shall be ready in a quarter of an hour," she called from the window, upon which he went to the stable, mounted his bay mare, which was already saddled, and rode off to the Wells. Five minutes after the sister returned to her brother's room, and found him in the agonies of death.
As the postchaise swept round the drive to the front entrance, I observed on the right the dial court, of which I had read, with the great iron gates, leading into the garden. It was there the poisoner had stood, the night he distilled the laurel water, talking to two tenants who had come to see his sick brother. Stately as the house was, guarded by its avenue of limes and girt with its broad gardens, I could not help fancying that a curse still rested upon it There was a malign, unhappy look about it that weighed on my too active imagination, so that a curious presentiment of some impending evil came over me, as the great bell, dragged from its socket, gave forth a clamorous jangling clang, that seemed to echo through endless passages with a querulous clamor that I thought would never cease.
* * * * *
The dinner was dull. Lady Lawford, whom I had found so delightful, so charming, so vivacious at Paris, seemed oppressed with the social difficulties of her county position, and to be unequal to the task of entertaining alone a gathering of such local pomposities. Some secret trouble, some sorrow, seemed to have fallen upon her. She had an absent manner, and often relapsed into embarrassing silences. The local doctor, the local solicitor, the rector, two or three old maids, and some shy country squires' daughters, were all that she had to amuse; but still she failed to amuse them. The Meet had been a long way off, and my husband and hers were not expected till late. Once or twice during dinner she rather alarmed me, by mentioning the dangerous country they would that day ride over. She hoped all was safe. We ladies were just rising to go, to the evident delight of the doctor, the rector, and the solicitor, when we heard a sound of voices in the hall, a scuffling, and then a groan. At that moment Sir Edward Lawford, in a soiled scarlet coat, entered hurriedly, looking rather pale and anxious, and with one arm in a sling.
"Mr. Dobson," said he to the doctor, who instantly pricked up his ears, "we want your help at once. A poor fellow has been thrown, and a good deal hurt."
Then seeing me, his face grew graver; he advanced to me and offered his hand. "My dear Mrs. H—," he said, '' you mustn't be alarmed, but your husband has been thrown in trying a gate; his shoulder is put out, and one of his ribs I'm afraid of—but it will be all right directly."
I remember no more; they told me afterwards that I fainted. By nature I was strong-nerved, but from Sir Edward's manner I formed an immediate notion that my husband was dangerously injured, and so indeed it proved.
* * * * *
It was a week before my husband was out of danger. He had dislocated his shoulder and broken two ribs, besides receiving a painful injury on his knee-cap. I watched him day and night, and gave him myself the narcotics that were required to give him the necessary sleep, for a neuralgic affection attended some of the contusions, and a low fever followed, to allay which rest was indispensable.
It was the ninth day, if I remember right, that, pale, anxious, and exhausted by want of sleep, I came for the first time since my husband's accident to take my doleful seat at the dinner table. Sir Edward was very frank and cordial; untiring in his attentions to me, and in his sympathy for me.
"Most unfortunate !" he said, "and just at the beginning of the hunting season too—at the end one would not care—and I was so anxious to show him how straight our set here rode. Tell him, poor fellow, when he gets better, that we've had to shoot Parepa—she'd broken her leg just above the fetlock—but I'd rather have shot all my stud than have had him bowled over like that."
"There is no danger now, I assure you," said the everlasting country doctor, who seemed perennial at Lawford Hall banquets. "I assure you on my honor, as a professional man, if he is only careful, and we can keep up this artificial sleep without injury to his sanguineous circulation and his digestive organs."
"Ah! this riding, like the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi, Sir Edward," said the equally perennial rector, "is very much on the increase with our country aristocracy, and is likely, I fear, to be attended with most terrible casualties. Where do you get your Moselle, Sir Edward ? "
The inevitable old-maid sisters uttered their usual exclamations whenever the accident was alluded to, of "Shocking—shocking ! Oh, dear, it is dreadful to think of! "
I bore it as long as I could, but that vast evening—a century in itself—was no bad preparation to a year at the hulks. Oh, that never-ceasing sonata of Beethoven, beaten out with remorseless exactitude by the rector's conscientious daughter, oh ! the wearisomeness of that strictly scientific rubber at which I assisted as in a dream. At last the playing grew sleepier and sleepier; Sir Edward, tired with foxhunting, fell asleep as the cards were being shuffled, and I gave an internal three times three when the servant announced the first carriage, and Lady Lawford said :
"Well, I think we're all getting sleepy together; so perhaps we'd better go to bed."
Could this be the Lady Lawford I had known in Paris, I thought, as I mounted the old oak staircase, and, with a half-alarmed look at my own shadow, entered the long corridor, in which our room was the only one inhabited. A miserable visit it had been. If past trouble weighed upon the house, was the shadow of that crime to cast a gloom upon the race forever ? I could not account for the change in people I had known so gay and pleasant, and I puzzled myself in vain to invent a reason. Extravagant I might have expected to find them, their life a ceaseless whirl of excitement; but careworn, humdrum—it seemed impossible. One would really have thought that Sir Edward's father had been the murderer, instead of some grandfather's cousin, who had left no children. Oh, that George was well! I thought, that we could get away from this dreadful place.
I uttered these words aloud as I opened the bedroom door, so loud that I almost thought they might have waked George ; but there he lay, in a deep sleep, breathing heavily, and with one bandaged arm resting upon the counterpane. There was no lamp lit in the room, but a cheerful-wood fire blazed in the grate, and merry shadows danced upon the ceiling. The medicine-bottles were drawn up in a ghastly rank and file on the mantelpiece, and the careful servant had left jelly and meat essence, and some fruit, ready for my use on a side-table.
I threw myself into a great carved chair that stood by the fire, and listened to my husband's breathing. There was no sound but that and the measured ticking of an old clock in the corridor. A bolt shot, a door slammed far away in some distant wing of the house, then the house seemed to fall into the profoundest sleep. It was still as the family vault. Once a bough of clematis at the window tapped against the glass, as if a fairy was begging admittance: once a cold breath of air—spread from I knew not where, and going no one knew whither—crept from under the door, and flowed in a cold, invisible current through the room in a ghostly kind of way. Half an hour later, as I sat and watched, the wind seemed to spring into a sudden sort of rumbling and bluster in the great chimney, then sank again to silence, gagged by some secret power which it could not resist. I was looking at the fire, thinking of I know not what, waiting for half past one, when I was to try and rouse George to give him the strengthening medicine, when my eyes all at once fell on a picture in a row of portraits I had not before especially noticed; it was one of four that hang in a dark corner of the room, very dark by day, and within the shadow of the heavy crimson curtains; but now the firelight gleamed full on it, and I could see its features as clearly as if a sunbeam had fallen full upon the spot. It represented a man of about thirty; the features were firm, but rather sharp and Voltairean ; the powdered hair, gathered into a club, was tied with ribbon ; the thin-lipped mouth wore a cold, set smile. A sudden thought, from which I could not divest myself, arose in my mind—it was the portrait of the murderer. Just such a refined serpentish face I had imagined his to be. The scene of that tragedy came again into my mind; that was the face that had bent over the dead body with affected compassion ; that had smiled in triumph upon the gardener; that had angrily rebuked the sister for complaining of his wish to rinse the fatal bottle ; that the face that, with practised courtesy, had pretended to invite every inquiry. I knew the portrait would not be there if the Lawfords knew of its existence; but still I could not help thinking that the portrait it was, and that the name of the wretch it represented had in the lapse of time been forgotten. Consigned to exile in a garret, the picture had, somehow or other, with a sort of diabolic persistency, found its way back to its old haunts. Perhaps this had been his own bedroom, and that close by was the locked-up chamber where he had distilled the poison. Per haps (and this terrible thought made me shudder in spits of myself) this was the very room where the sick man had died in agony. Oh, this terrible house! I should never feel happy in it again. My mind relapsed into its old train of associations. One special scene occurred to me : it was that where the two doctors, sent for by the murderer, came to make an examination of the body. He received them in the hall with a candle in his hand, and invited them in He was courteous and obliging. Sir William Wheeler, he said, had wished for the examination. For what purpose? they asked. Merely to satisfy the family, he said, and showed them a letter from Sir William, expressing such a wish, "merely that those who had been intimate with the dead might be beyond suspicion." Had Sir William written no other letter ? asked the more suspicious of the doctors. Yes, there had been another, equally friendly. This second letter had been by no means friendly; it had indeed words which expressed a suspicion of poison. The guilty man pretended to feel for this letter in his waistcoat-pocket, and in doing so pulled out an envelope. The doctor had only rime for one glance, but that glance was sufficient to show it was directed in Sir William's handwriting; still he said nothing. The examination did not take place, and the detection of the crime was for a time deferred, till a keener and less trustful medical man threw himself with untiring energy into the pursuit of the subtle criminal.
I looked up : it was half-past one; I went at once to the bedside and tried to rouse my husband to give him his medicine, but he only stirred once, reluctantly, gave a deep sigh, and relapsed into sleep. It was better to let him sleep; so undressing and putting on my dressing-gown, I pressed together the wood, now burnt to a white ash, and threw myself on the bed beside my husband. I was just sinking into a doze, when a slight sound disturbed me. I was highly sensitive just then from want of sleep, and in a moment I recovered my senses. It was a faint sound, like some one trying the handle of the bedroom door. I listened again—all was still. It might have been a rat scratching behind the wainscot: at night the faintest sound becomes magnified by the imagination. I sat up and listened: it was nothing. The burning wood just then gave way, and so broke into a slight blaze. I lay down again, and I think fell asleep. I was awoke, not by any sound, but by a creeping, indescribable sense of something supernatural and terrible. I looked up without moving, and saw—to my infinite horror that paralyzed every limb—the door softly, noiselessly open, and from the outer darkness the figure of an old man, dressed in an old yellow silk dressing-gown, glide in. He turned as he silently closed the door, and I saw that his thin, emaciated face was pale as the dead; that his head was bandaged and his jaw bound up as that of a corpse is bound. The vacant eyes, that seemed entirely colorless, were bent on the fireplace, and the figure seemed not to notice the bed, or those who were on it. Slowly gliding over the floor, the spirit of the murdered man—for such it seemed to me to be—moved towards the fire, and there stood for a moment, as if wrapped in thought. It then took a bottle from the row on the mantelpiece, examined it Carefully, and went through the action of filling a glass with it. The figure then sat down in the old chair by the fire, and sat there moving its thin white hands, that seemed almost transparent, before and over the flame. My courage recovering itself slowly, I began now to question myself seriously as to whether I was delirious or dreaming. To be sure I was awake—softly I stretched out my hand and pressed my husband's arm. He slightly moved, and uttered a faint groan. I looked up and counted the green and red flowers in the cornice of the bed. I recalled the position of the bell, which was out of my reach. I pulled off my rings, and put them on again. I even took out my watch, and taw the time. It was a quarter past two.
As I lay there reasoning with myself that the half-open door and the pale figure in the faded yellow silk dressing-gown were only illusions of the senses, arising from an imagination rendered sensitive by excitement, I again pressed my husband's hand tightly, so tightly that he moved and feebly groaned. At that sound the figure rose from the chair, stirred together the embers, and advanced slowly towards the bed. To my indescribable terror in the firelight, I then saw that in one hand it held a long glancing sharp knife, the blade of which it held turned upwards against its arm.
The wood ashes in the grate had now burned so low that they only cast a faint red glimmer on the floor, but there was still quite enough light on the end of the bed for me to see that the figure, raising the knife, was stealing towards me. I was frozen with terror, and had perhaps less power of voluntary movement left through my fear than I imagined, for I lay there uttering no cry, moving no limb. At that moment the figure struck against a chair that stood by the table where I had been reading, and overset it. In a moment my brain seemed to recover its power, my heart to beat with renewed power. That one slight fact convinced me that the figure was not a supernatural one—it might be a murderer or a sleep-walker—but it was common flesh and blood. Its dreadful object I knew not; but there it stood, with the knife in its hand, eyeing us in a blank, deadly way, and with a sort of serpent-like malice. I had just resolved to spring upon it, struggle for the weapon, and scream for help, when it turned towards the door and glided out as silently and in as death-like a way as it had entered I watched it an instant, then with a sudden flood of fresh life darted from the bed, closed the door, swiftly turned the key, drew the bolt with the rapidity of lightning, and fell back on the floor in a swoon.
* * * * *
The next morning I went down and joined the party at breakfast as usual I said nothing, but complained of sleep-lessness and not feeling well Great was the sympathy and universal was the cry that I must not sit up watching an other night. "My dear Mrs.—, you will take these things quieter a year hence," said Sir Edward, cynically.
I saw Lady Lawford fixing her eyes on me with a peculiar earnestness.
When we had done breakfast Lady Lawford took me quietly apart in her boudoir.
"Mrs.—," she said, taking my hand, "you look very ill. I am a woman of the world, and older than you. You cannot deceive me ; something terrible must have happened to you last night I think I can guess what it was. It was not the watching alone made your hand shake as it now does. Come, dear, tell me."
I told her all, and concealed nothing, from the thought about the poisoner's portrait to the moment that I fainted. I saw her face grow very sad and serious as I went on. When I had done she heaved a great sigh.
"My dear," she said, "I can and must explain this mystery, though I would have concealed it from almost every one but you. We have, in a distant wing of the house, an insane person—an old man, a relation of Sir Edward's. He was fond of Sir Edward when a boy, and mv husband in gratitude for his kindness took care of him when his wife and friends deserted him. He is a great care to us, as at times he is subject to paroxysms of homicide mania He is very cunning and dangerous, and has to be strictly watched, especially at such periods. Last night the person in charge of him, who had been drinking with the upper servants, fell asleep, as he now confesses ; and the old man, watching his opportunity, stole from the room, and passed down a back staircase leading to the kitchen. There he secreted a large carving-knife left in the butler's pantry by one of the servants, and crossed to your side of the house. The man awaking pursued him, and found him crouching in the hall; but gathered from his few incoherent words that he had entered some bedroom, either yours or one near it. This is the whole mystery, my dear Mrs.—, and I can only deeply regret you should have been placed for a moment in such great danger."
We remained—were, indeed, obliged to remain for days more—in the house; but I was, I must confess, very glad, in spite of Lady Lawford's hospitality, to see the coach that was to take us away drive up to the front door. Often in my dreams that old Tudor window, the great iron gate, the portrait, and the ghostly figure in the old yellow dressing-gown, figure in wild nightmare complications.