I MADE an interesting acquaintance the other day. He sat on my right hand at dinner, and, judging by appearance, he might as well have been of note as not He spoke in German, rapidly, with a precision very much to the point—being one of those large-browed, bright-eyed individuals who can distinguish between masks and faces at a glance, and give a pretty accurate guess as to the kind of soul behind either. His under lip was deeply indented, so that, when smiling, his mouth assumed the same triangular form that characterized Heine, though his humor, while leaning towards sarcasm, was never bitter.
"I saw an old friend to-day," he said, suddenly, turning from his wife to me and throwing one arm comfortably over the back of his chair; "I met him first this summer in the Engadine."
"You were glad to meet him again, then ? " said I.
"Most uncommonly glad," he answered, shaking his head emphatically. " Though I never spoke three words to him in my life, yet I can say, with all my heart, that it gives me exceeding joy to see him again. It is impossible to be bored where he is ! "
"Are you ever bored ? " I asked.
"I ? " he returned heartily. " Not I, thank God ! I am proud to say, I have never been bored a single hour in my life. I see other people wearying themselves ; but, while their folly and my own remain to laugh at ennui stays far from me. If it came near, the recollection of my Engadine friend would banish it at once. I will describe him. You will know him, then, forever, for there cannot be his like on earth. Two such prodigies would be greater bounty on the part of nature than we poor sinners dare expect. He is about the middle height, has gray hair and a voice like far off thunder. I should say, rather, a voice lost in a cellar that rolls and rolls through wine-filled vaults, seeking an outlet in vain. His nose is a color-study for painters ; yes, on my word, a real color-study. It is of good size, and has every variety of shade ranging through purple, red, and blue. It is a marvel! In the summer this gentleman walked about, attended by two young servant-maids, both strong and healthy, and both crowned with red silk handkerchiefs. These carried his walking-stick and painting apparatus—for he is an artist, of course, and paints wonderful pictures, all green and blue, as unlike nature as anything is possible to be. They also provide him amusement when he is fatigued."
Here, the three-cornered smile appeared and deepened on my neighbor's face. " The amusements are as original as the man," he continued, chuckling. " They always consist of athletic exhibitions. He makes his girls fetch and carry like dogs, or jump over stones, or across a stick which he holds out; sometimes he joins in the sport himself, vaulting over tables and chairs at wayside inns until fatigue stops him, then the maids carry on the fun by themselves."
"He must be mad ! " I cried indignantly.
"He is English," replied my informant demurely but with twinkling eyes. "He was born in Italy, I believe, and owns a restaurant near some great town. This he lets, however, and spends the rent most joyously, as I can testify."
"Does he walk about here with two maids ? " I asked.
"No," replied the German. " He left them in the Engadine. Most likely he will hire others for the winter; but you will not need them as a mark of recognition. The color-study will be sufficient. It is a real masterpiece, an astonishing combination of inharmonious shades."
As a natural result, I looked out eagerly for this old gentleman, but for some days in vain. My German friend departed, and his story was well-nigh forgotten, when it was brought to mind one night towards the end of a table d'hôte by a Voice—I spell it advisedly with a capital—such as I had never conceived possible from man.
It reverberated solemnly through the satte-â-manger like the deepest organ-note ; non did it seem to come from any person present, but from a vast cavern underground, some huge, mysterious void inhabited by ghosts and ghouls. And the Voice said:
"No, I would not insure all effervescing drinks. Not soda-water, for instance ! "
As the contrast between the sepulchral tone and the words themselves was supremely ludicrous, a burst of general laughter followed, which rose louder and louder as one after another at table caught the infection and first tittered because their neighbor roared, then roared because they could not help themselves. Peal succeeded peal till the rafters rang, and as the last died away, the Voice spoke again from Hades, reflectively and slowly:
And instantly the senseless merriment broke out afresh. I speculated on the force of influences, laughing the while my-self as heartily as any ; and, as I speculated, the German's description of his Engadine acquaintance came back to me, and I leaned forward to see the originator of the excess. He was thoughtfully pouring out a tumbler of Chianti from a flask, and a shadow of the ruby liquid was cast upon the bluer portion of that famous color-study for painters, which ranged through purple and red
The Master of Maidens looked up from his occupation.
"Sir," said he, and the marvellous Voice rumbled and echoed above the tumult of many tongues, " that won't do I You make a great mistake. If you were to pull down a haunted house twenty times over, and rebuild it in a different locality each time—if you were to divide it into twenty cottages—it would remain haunted to the end. I know, Mr. Barrister, from bitter experience."
"Tell us all about it, Mr. Brace," suggested the gentleman addressed, who acted as president at his end of the table.
"Oh, yes; I daresay ! Tell you all about it! Sir, I am a man with a conscience ! "
"We don't doubt it in the least," said the barrister.
"With a heavy conscience, a restless conscience, a conscience that never will allow itself sleep, or me a moment's peace !" moaned the Voice.
"Confession is good for the soul, sir," remarked an American.
"Eh ?"—the monosyllable was very doleful. "With you as Father Confessor ? I doubt it, sir; I doubt it. You're too young and too d—d good-looking! "
And again the chorus of senseless merriment rose to a shriek and gradually died away. Then the Voice was heard, gallant in a ghostly fashion that made my flesh creep.
"Why not, madam?" it rolled. "Why not? Ladies must be obeyed under all circumstances whatsoever. Certainly, I will tell my misfortune, if you care to listen :
"When I came of age I inherited two houses from my father, the rents of which were to be my income, as they had been his. One, luckily, is profitable, rising in value; the other is a never-ceasing source of trouble. I say ' is, ' for, though long since passed out of my hands, thank God, it plagues and bothers its present owners as it plagued and bothered me; which is saying a good deal.
"l am not going to tell you where this house was originally built ; that has nothing to do with the question. It might have been in Russia, quite as well as in Japan or Mexico. What happens in one country at one time may happen in another country at another time, and the explanation of either will account for both, provided the causes of both are identical. That's logic, Mr. Barrister, ain't it ?"
"Just so," said the barrister superciliously. "Was your father a solicitor, Mr. Brace ?"
"He was," growled the Voice. " And can you tell me, sir, the difference between a solicitor and a barrister? "
"No, I can't," drawled the president.
"The same difference as between a crocodile and an alligator," roared the Voice angrily; and as the laugh turned against his victim, Mr. Brace poured out another tumblerful of Chianti and drank it off at a draught.
"Well, madam," he continued more gently, "this second house had come into my father's hands in the way of business. When clients could not pay their fees in cash he was sometimes willing to accept their dwellings instead. ' Buildings pay ten per cent, and are safe investments,' he used to say. I wish to goodness he had not been quite so sure; I'd have been so much the richer then. But, as he did not consult me, I knew nothing about the transaction until after his death, when the will was read. I first set eyes on the abominable swindle when I went to inspect the premises.
"I found a square, solemn edifice, overgrown with ivy, standing in the middle of a few acres of pleasure ground which had been utterly neglected for years. High brick walls divided the property from the rest of the world; within them you might fancy yourself the first or last man, according to taste, so complete was the sense of isolation. Foreign trees, rare shrubs, stumps of weather-stained statues, moss-grown fountains, and grass-grown walks, were sorrowfully suggestive of by-gone grandeur. Indoors it was much the same; echoing corridors, crooked staircases, unexpected rooms with painted ceilings in unexpected places, approached by unexpected ways. Upon my word, I felt odd as I tramped through them !
"' Ugh!' I exclaimed at last to the Caretaker, ' the house might be haunted!'
"' It is haunted, sir,' she returned quietly. ' But I'm used to it. Nothing will hurt me if I keep away from the Red Room after dark.'
"' Ah I the Red Room!' said I, looking at her (she was an old scarecrow); ' and which may that be ?'
"She brought me into a large, bare apartment on the ground-floor, where spiders had made themselves a paradise of dust and web. There was a long mirror opposite the fireplace, and the room was lighted by French windows opening on a terrace that ended on one side at the gravel sweep before the entrance, on the other at a wall and an iron door admitting into the fruit-garden. A dismal row of terra-cotta vases ornamented the farther edge of this walk, and a broken set of steps led down to a lawn where the grass had grown rank round a deep basin of stagnant water. The lawn itself was bounded by a thick row of laurels that hid the ivied outer walls. No one could cross the grass without leaving tracks as in a meadow ; no one could enter or leave by the iron door because it was locked and the key in my possession ; and I suddenly determined no one should escape by the great gate under the archway, through which I had driven in, for I would lock it and keep that key too, while I slept or watched in the Red Room that very night.
"The old woman turned pale when I told her my intention, which confirmed my resolve. How could I let a haunted house, unless I proved the tales were groundless? And how could I prove them except by experience ? And the best way of assuring myself a good night's rest was by giving rogues no time for preparation. I would not allow the hag to say a word 'For,' said I, 'I know nothing about the house or its antecedents, therefore imagination can scarcely run away with me ; at all events, if it does, it will be in a new line.' Accordingly I bid her rig up a bed near the fireplace, to avoid the reflection of the mirror, and clear the spiders out, collect chairs and tables from the other rooms, and light a roaring fire to make the place more comfortable, whilst I drove back to town for provisions, candles, etc., and to fetch my pistols and my dog.
"Zamba was of Danish breed, slate-colored, and fierce to every one but me. She loved me, poor unfortunate brute, as well as a woman might have done, and she disposed of her rivals more effectually. We were both in high spirits when I returned with her about sunset. I sent the trap away, and, having locked the gates, instituted, with Zamba's aid, a thorough search of the premises outside and in. I knew nothing could escape her prying nose. She was amazingly curious; she examined every hole and cornel of the grounds, tracking the rank grass near the pool in every direction. But she found nothing. Indoors it was the same ; there were lots of dust, but, besides, not even a rat (except the housekeeper) in that accursed house from garret to cellar.
"I forgot to say, the weather was fine and clear for the time of year. The moon, too, was luckily at the full, and would shine on the terrace a good part of the night. Nature herself seemed inclined to aid me.
"When Zamba and I had finished our rounds, I took her into the Red Room. Here she was not quite so satisfied. She sniffed the air doubtfully once or twice, and looked inquiringly into my face; then she walked slowly to the window, looked out, came back to me, wagging her tail uncertainly, as if to ask, Is it all right ? Her doubts were quelled for the moment when I reassured her by voice and caresses, and she stretched herself at full length on the hearth before the now blazing fire.
"The twilight was deepening, and the old woman, whom I had called to help in unpacking the stores, asked permission to go away. I told her to light two duplex lamps first, and place them in the two darkest corners of the room. She grinned approval of the precaution, but as, having obeyed me, she was about to vanish into cannier regions, she paused with the door-handle in her hand and said in a rapid whisper :
"' All the lamps and candles,' here she eyed the four I had ranged on the supper-table, in the world won't help you, sir, if you haven't plenty of matches. There's another box, sir, and don't let it lie on the table !'
"The door slammed behind her; next moment it opened again and she said :
"' But that won't help you either, for no one ever came out of this room alive after a night spent in it—and no one over will ! '
"She was gone. I picked up the matches from the floor, where she had flung them, and blessed her for the forethought, for I had forgotten to bring any with me, and as I put them in my pocket Zamba whined.
"'What's the matter, old girl?' I asked. 'You and I are goiug to have grand fun to-night, ain't we ?'
"But she heaved a deep sigh and put her nose between her paws.
"Between eating, feeding Zamba, reading and smoking time passed pretty quickly until ten o'clock. Then looking up I saw the full moon shining in at the long French windows. I thought I should like to stroll on the terrace, and calling Zamba I lit a fresh cigar and went out into the open air.
"Not a leaf was stirring; the moonlight fell on the dew-drops hanging on the long, limp blades of grass, so that each bead resembled a pearl, so pure, so soft was their radiance. Not a grasshopper, not a frog broke the stillness with chirp or croak. I never felt a silence so intensely in my life ; yet it was not oppressive; it was like falling asleep—a sweet luxurious sense of repose. Even Zamba fell under the influence and walked quietly beside me, sometimes thrusting her nozzle into my hand courting caresses, or touching my fingers lightly with her tongue.
"I don't know how long we had been pacing the walk in this fashion, when Zamba cocked her ears.
"' What is it ?' I asked her gently. She glanced quickly into my face and wagged her tail, then put back her ears and whined. I listened anxiously.
"And presently a full, sweet woman's voice began to sing—to vocalize. It seemed to come from the sweep before the door. There was nothing odd about it, nothing unusual. I thought a vagrant artist was singing on the chance of gaining pence, but that her voice was superior to most of the class—in fact, I never heard a better on any stage. Sometimes the sound came nearer, sometimes it drifted farther off, as if the songstress were moving up and down before the house, to see if at any window there were signs of life. No words were distinguishable in the song; runs, trills, and sorrowful single notes of exceeding beauty followed one another, melodiously indeed, but with no regard to order—at least, I have not known a composition approaching that in structure. It carried me away. I listened and listened till my cigar went out, and listened still to the enchanting strains, now rising, now falling, as I imagined the woman approached or retired from the terrace. Suddenly it ceased.
"' Poor thing!' I said aloud, awaking as from a dream. ' We must give her some food and see what can be done for her. Come along, Zamba !'
"Zamba crawled after me. I remembered her reluctance next day. As I came into the Red Room I looked about for a half loaf and some fowl I had left from supper, and as I stooped to pile the food together, the song burst out again ; but this time, as if the singer stood on the terrace, almost in the room.
"I did not turn at once, for the chicken would not balance on the loaf; when I did turn, the song had ceased, and to my utter amazement there was no one near the open window.
"' Hullo !' I said, ' that's odd !'
"Going to the threshold, I saw the terrace was deserted; then, for the first time, I recollected the great gates were locked, the keys in my possession, and that no living being could enter the precincts without my knowledge ! Calling to Zamba, I ran out, intending to search the garden and shrubbery with her. She obeyed reluctantly; when I urged her forward she gazed piteously into my face and whined ; and, on my persisting, she rose on her hind legs and placed her fore-paws on my breast. Poor brute ! After that we went back together to the Red Room no wiser than we had left it I looked at my watch as we came in. It was twenty minutes past twelve.
"Sitting down in the arm-chair I piled fresh logs on the fire. Zamba took up her old position on the rug, with her nose between her paws, and watched the window suspiciously. About ten minutes later, one of the duplex lamps went out, and Zamba rose slowly, growling angrily. The next instant the other lamp went out, and the dog, barking furiously, flew at Something which was coming in from the terrace. I saw the animal spring into the air about the height a man's throat would be from the ground. I saw nothing between me and the outer air except Zamba; the moonlight streamed full across the rank grass, the stagnant pool and the terrace, and no shadow intercepted its path to me. But Zamba certainly attacked Something, and as certainly, her body was immediately flung violently backwards, so that she fell at my feet dead, her neck hideously twisted and broken.
"I seized my pistols and fired at Nothing. One of the four candles on the table was put out. Remembering the old woman's warning, I laid one revolver down and tried to light the candle from another. Then, in the mirror opposite, for the first time I perceived Something. It was a Hand, pale and sinewy; it seized the revolver and carried it away. Another candle went out
"'This is getting serious !' I said to myself, and I stuck the second pistol into my coat-pocket that I might relight the two candles at once. The others went out. I lighted them again. Once more two were extinguished ; the second revolver was snatched from my pocket. The third candie went out I snatched out the matches and lighted it the other was extinguished. I relighted it, and so the game went on ; as fast as one candle went out I struck a match and lit it again, to be put out again, and so on da capo. I observed, too, that other Hands had joined that pale one, hovering and encircling in the air, now vanishing, now appearing, and, repeated in the mirror, their number seemed countless. I was too excited to care much about them, as they had not, as yet, come very near; but the thought did occur to me: ' How shall I keep them at bay when the matches are exhausted ? Will they strangle me in the dark ?' My foot touched poor Zamba's body, and a cold chill ran over me; for, at the same time, I perceived the Hands closer to me than ever before; and their shadowy fingers had a cruel, gripping expression that didn't please me. I did not relish their proximity at all The match-box was, now, nearly empty.
"'Come !' said I, aloud and firmly, 'I am going to stay here all night, and walk out of this room alive in the morning. Matches or no matches; candles or no candles; Hands or no Hands !'
"I sat down and lighted another candle. Presently the logs on the hearth fell apart I kicked them together with some difficulty, for striking matches takes up a good deal of attention, and, notwithstanding my danger, the humor of the situation tickled ma Surely a more ridiculous night's work could hardly be imagined than that of lighting candles for ghosts to snuff out! If poor Zamba's body, with its twisted neck, had not proved a terrible reality underlying the apparent comedy, I could have laughed outright, but—only three matches remained to strike !
"' I will stay here all night,' I repeated doggedly. ' Light or no light; Hands or no Hands !'
"My assailants increased in number ; the room was full of them, from floor to ceiling, all pale and cruel, all shadowy and indistinct, yet they did not touch me. I wondered at that, wondered what hindered them from strangling me at once as they had my dog, when I struck the last match and saw the last candle extinguished. I kicked the logs on the hearth ; a shower of sparks flew into the air ; and I was left in complete darkness, hemmed in by those horrid, pallid Hands. That was a terrible moment, but my blood was up.
"' I stay HERE !' I cried furiously. ' Hands or no Hands, matches or no matches; candles or no candles ; and I WILL walk out of this room alive in the morning!'
"The Things paused in their advance. Only for a second, however; the next they were circling and hovering, appearing and disappearing in their old fashion, making horrid dives at me, like a flock of hellish birds hungering to pick my bones. Still I was not daunted. Having observed that my enemies advanced as my courage failed, and fled when I was bold, I concluded that my will preserved me, and that, should it fail or falter, Zamba's fate would certainly be mine. Accordingly I resisted every impulse of fear. Leaning back in my chair, I waited for the morning, and thought the dawn would never break. Sometimes drops of exhaustion and nervous apprehension stood on my forehead, as imagination pictured those cruel, fleshless Hands behind me, their long, pale fingers, perhaps, in the act of clasping round my throat; and, at such moments, the Things thronged thicker, faster towards me, till checked by my strong determination. Half a lifetime seemed crowded into those few hours.
"At last, as my strength was giving way and hope failing, a gray look came into the sky ; a slow, soft breeze stole through the trees in the shrubbery, and a cock crew. The pale Hands swept towards me in angry crowds—I gave myself up for lost—they disappeared."
The Voice paused. We waited in breathless silence.
"The shock of relief was too great for me, madam. I must have fainted ; for, when I became conscious, the dawn had fully broken. I was lying on the floor across poor Zamba, and my old hag of a housekeeper was peeping in at the open window.
"She screamed when she saw me get up—the old goose-but, to do her justice, she was glad enough to find me alive. She brought me tea—I preferred brandy—to make me more comfortable; but she could do nothing for Zamba ! Poor Zamba! "
Mr. Brace stretched out his hand for the Chianti, and as he poured out the last glass he continued :
"Now, madam, this is how my conscience became burdened. On inquiry I found that every room in the house was haunted by different kinds of apparitions; and so were the walks in the grounds. The voice I had heard singing was the pleasantest and most harmless of the whole lot I could not stand that, you know. One spirit might be put up with, but fifty or sixty—no thank you ! I sold my inheritance to a con tractor on condition he pulled it down. He in his turn sold the stones and bricks to a builder, who ran up a row of neat two-storied villas near a manufacturing town, using them as material. They let splendidly at first, not so well the second year, worse the third, and not at all the fourth. For the whole lot, madam, are haunted. The pale Hands and all the ghosts in my big ghost-shop are now carrying on their nightly games in the respective villas where the stones and bricks of their respective homes were used up. Except the songstress; she sings up and down the road instead of up and down my terrace."
"But how is your conscience troubled?" asked the lady.
"It is naturally tender," moaned the Voice. " It cannot bear the thought of having, unintentionally, been the originator of so much misery in the world as must be caused by letting loose so many apparitions. Hence it gives me no rest."
"Then you believe, Mr. Brace, the ghosts went with the bricks ?" said the barrister.
"Sure of it," replied the Voice sorrowfully. "And more: every place built with old material is likely to be haunted, for what do contractors care where their bricks come from, so long as they are cheap ? That's how we hear of unaccountable ghosts in brand new villas, and why so many of them are dangerous. They don't like having been disturbed, you see."
"Very curious ! " said the barrister musingly.
"I think I've heard about the Hands before," remarked the American. " Were you ever in Russia, Mr. Brace?"
"' Sir," growled the Voice, '' you are an uncommonly sharp young man—a credit to your nation, sir. But tell me first why you are not a donkey's tail."
"Why I am not a donkey's tail," repeated the American. " Can't say, I'm sure. Because he ain't my brother ?"
"Because you are no end of an ass, sir ! " thundered the Voice ; and the old gentleman pushed back his chair from the table and left the salle-à-manger.