HOME again ! Oh, the joy of it, after five years across the seas I It is worth going round the world, as I had done, if only for the pleasure of coming back to your starting-point I never appreciated old Aunt Marianne till after she died, and I never knew how fond I was of Eversfold till absence had estranged us. I had been wild to leave it, but now on my return journey, from Paris onwards, I felt consumed by a longing for the green lanes, copses, furze commons of Surrey. Four interminable hours must I wait in London for the Cross Hills train. Whilst impatiently pacing the Strand I stumbled on an acquaintance recently picked up abroad. I hesitated before speaking, for though the man and his family had been cordiality itself to me in Rome, I knew the difference different longitude makes sometimes. Not for jovial, hospitable old Matthew Parker, Esq, His: first question now was the last he had put to me before parting on the Piazza di Spagna :
"When are you coming to Swalecliffe?" The workmen are out at last, and we're nice and snug. Tuesday's our house-warming. You promised to be there. My ladies will never forgive me if I let you off"
"I'm homeward bound now, to my mother," I replied, " but I'll run down for the ball." What's two hundred miles to a man who has just put twenty thousand behind him ?
"Here's my card—Swalecliffe Castle. Book to Wood End, Great Western line. Don't forget."
I pocketed the card and speedily forgot all about him, whirling towards Eversfold. At dusk I alighted at Gross Hills station, two miles distant Five years bring changes. I see a new guard who knows not Francis Milford, the new station-master touches not his hat The servant my mother has sent to meet me is new, and we eye each other askance awhile ere agreeing to infer we are master and man.
He takes my luggage. I prefer to walk by the fields. I shall reach home almost as soon as the carriage ; and I like to recall the way, step by step, and note the changes.
I count several, not all for the better. That's a new roadside tavern ; those thatched cottages have grown slated roofs; that patch of common has been inclosed. That gate of old Glover's has not been repaired. Ha, ha, a miser's economy! Here I know every stick on this hedge. That's where the nightshade grows—there the spindle-berries, that's where Jemmy King and I found a sedge-warbler's nest
The footpath led presently into a lane, half a mile from our village. As I crossed the stile, a man's figure I fancied I had seen on leaving the station, dropped over a gate into the lane from the other side of the hedge. Seeing me, he retreated; I walked on, but heard him following at some distance. A peculiar, shrinking hesitation in his gait started suspicions. He was poorly clad, wore his hat slouched over his eyes, and carried a thick stick. I had only a light umbrella, and a valuable watch and chain temptingly exposed. The spot was entirely lonely, so, preferring to have my tramp in front of me, I stepped aside on the rising bank as though to survey the distant village, and waited for him to pass. He stood still. Objecting to be dogged thus I turned back, to pass him, and so doing stared him sternly in the face. My misgivings died in a burst of laughter.
"Why, Jemmy, man," I shouted cheerily, "yourself, as I'm alive ! The first of the old faces I've seen yet And of all changed things you've changed most for the worst," I mentally added. Was this pale, thin, impoverished-looking being my sturdy, prosperous young farmer of five years back ? He and his crops might have failed conceivably, but there was further about him a queer nervous shrinking from scrutiny so unnatural to his former self that it startled me as might the sight of burrs growing on an orange tree.
"You've been ill, old chap," I said. "What can a friend do to set you afloat ? You've one more in England than you had yesterday, you know."
My greeting seemed simply to confound him. "Master Frank,' he faltered unsteadily.
Jemmy King and I had been sworn comrades from seven to seventeen, and fast friends still when, at two-and-twenty, I sailed for the States.
"Shake hands, man," I continued, seizing the hand he would not offer, " come along, and you tell me about every body. How's the parson, and that old miser, Sampson Glover, and his scapegrace of a nephew, and pretty Rose Evans whom I left you all courting, and would have courted too, had I seen a chance for myself—"
I checked my rash volley of questions. His face turned livid, his features were distorted with passion, and I recollected Jem's tremendous temper, which had won him at school the nickname of Tiger King; once, too, when we were boys and I provoked him to a fight, his onslaught was so terrific that I still felt a reminder in my shoulder.
"Damnation ! " he shouted. "Are you mad, to talk so tome?"
"I think you are," I retorted. "Is that how you welcome a man back?"
Eyeing me askance defiantly, "Don't you know?" he said sullenly.
"Know what? my mother never tells me anything. Come on, you tell me."
He shook off my arm fiercely. He was Tiger King again. Disregarding me, he stepped upon the bank to strain his eyes through the trees at the red-tiled church tower, the school-house gables, and thatched barns of Eversfold.
"Cursed fool that I was," he burst out, " to come in sight of the old place—except I'd a knife to lay across my throat here and make an end !"
"Jemmy," I exclaimed, concerned, "what in thunder's amiss ? Tell me, and I swear I'll set it straight."
"They'll tell you yonder," he said, "and no living man can set it straight."
"Old pal," I said, at my wits' end, " you've had trouble—that's enough for me to know. If purse or hand can give you a lift, why there's no use I'd sooner put mine to. I'm up in the world just now, but the luck may change, and I know you'd do the same if our places were reversed. Auld lang syne's the word between you and me."
Just for one moment his countenance relaxed, but resisting the feeling he answered shortly :
"I've money to take me where I'm bound."
"Where is that?"
"To the Colorado mines; The Cambria sails to-night, and I go with her. Dead or alive, sink or swim, you'll heal no more of Jemmy King." And with that he turned and ran, and the bend in the lane hid him from sight.
Pained and perplexed, I went on my way; but as I neared home the personal pleasure I felt in returning drowned other sensations, and presently I forgot everything in the arms of my mother, the least changed of all remembered things. You must imagine that meeting, the rush of talk, the eager interchange of questions that filled the first hours. Not until after dinner, in the sudden lull that corned at dessert, when the servants have gone, and the clatter of plates has ceased, did my thoughts revert to that strange encounter, and I instantly began :
"By the way, mother, walking up I met Jemmy King. Never saw anybody so changed in my life. I should hardly have known him."
My mother was placidity itself, by nature, habit and principle, but my announcement electrified her. The very ribbons and laces of her cap seemed flustered.
"James King here ?" she ejaculated in dismay.
"Yes; on Shooter's Hill. What on earth has befallen him ? "
"Shooter's Hill? Then they've let him out Gracious Heaven ! How unsafe."
"Out of where ?" I asked mystified, " Has he been in a lunatic asylum ?"
"In Dartmoor prison," she replied gravely.
"Jemmy King?" I thundered indignantly, springing up. "You're joking. What for?"
"He half murdered a man, that was all," she returned.
My shoulder twinged. I was answered, but ready to swear Jem's victim deserved his fate.
"It must have been under extreme provocation," I said. " Who was the man ?"
"Poor Mick Glover, old Sampson's nephew."
"Mick was always a confoundedly insolent fellow," I said, inclined to make excuses for my old chum, whatever the atrocity into which he had been betrayed. My mother naturally resented such laxity.
"Dear Frank, it is easy to see you are fresh from the land of bowies, revolvers, and lynch-law," she said. "That your neighbor is provoking scarcely justifies you in setting upon him in a lonely field, and knocking the life out of him to the best of your ability."
"Mick must' have been very aggravating," I' said. My' mother lost pa'jence, and I apologized " I can't take it in all at once, or get over it You know Jemmy and I were like brothers. What was the quarrel about ?"
"What, indeed, but that pretty, silly lass, Rosa Evans, sighed my mother; and reluctantly I seemed to take in everything now. Before I left, gossip whispered there was something between farmer King and blacksmith Evans's pretty daughter. But handsome, dare-devil Mick was a dangerous rival for any swain—wild no doubt, but ladies of every degree overlooked his vagaries, or laid the blame of them on the tradesmen he fleeced, the uncle he sponged upon, the girls he ruined, on every one but Mick himself
"When King discovered Mick was courting Rose," she continued, "he spoke ill of him to Evans, who forbade: the girl to meet him again. Mick, stung to madness, talked lightly of her before King at the ' Cricketers.' High words: passed, and the landlord had to interfere. King left in a fury, vowing to murder Mick next time he crossed his path. Mick was advised not to walk home alone, but he started off fearlessly. It was a bright moonlight night; the other met him by the old chestnut tree in Elmer's field, struck him down and left him for dead. It Was a dastardly revenge, for Mick had no thoughts of fighting."
"Jem can't have been sober," I suggested, falling back on the Englishman's pet universal extenuation.
"Neither is the collier who tramples on his wife King thought he was safe and his victim's mouth was shut, but Mick lived to testify to his would-be murderer."
Unable to defend the culprit, I fell to hitting at his victim.
"And how fares it with our village Lovelace? Is the measure of his mischief yet full ?"
"His uncle died soon after, leaving his money to a distant relation. Mick was too free with it to please him. Poor fellow; he had a little of his own, but was in difficulties when he left. He has not been heard of here since."
"And Rose Evans ? " I asked.
"Is Rose Evans still. She in not so pretty as she was, but she has had a lesson. The lads don't come round her as they used, but she is better fitted to make an honest' man's wife, and since Mrs. Evans died she has devoted herself heart and soul to her old father. But, really, Frank, if King is lurking about on ticket-of-leave, I think the police should1 be informed."
"No fear, mother. I saw him posting back to catch the Southampton express. He sails for America to-night May he prosper over there as I have done ! "
A forlorn hope. Unto him that hath—capital and connections—will be given. But Jemmy had nothing but a tarnished name.
PLEASANT, waking in one's old room—first time for five years. I had slept in queer places meantime—half-built shanties, savages' huts, on a tavern table—and the return to a bed-chamber, crammed with comforts and reminiscences of the halcyon boyhood of a widow's only son, was disturbing. Had 1 not dreamt the interval? Was I really five years older ?
After breakfast came a long talk with my mother, then the longest walk she ever took—to and from the kitchen garden—then lunch, then a drive, then tea ; then I wrote a note to Parker to excuse myself from my engagement, which struck me now in the light of a bore; then feeling as though I should die if I sat still much longer, I pleaded the impossibility of doing justice to the fatted calf at dinner unless I first took a walk. My mother smiled and acquiesced, and I strolled down to the village, as we called the dozen cottages of the scattered hamlet of Eversfold, that clustered hard by the church, each with its small garden, like a large nosegay.
A co-operative store, superseding the old ginger-beer and lolly-pop shop, is a novelty, but looks languishing already. The school-house stands as of yore, but has acquired a bumptious air that savors of School Board activity. The older rustics have not altered a hair, of course. It takes more than five years, or fifteen, or twenty, to make visible impression on village sexton or clerk. They greeted me pleasantly, but seemed unaware that I had been away any time.
"There's blacksmith Evans' cottage—mustn't forget not to ask after his wife. And there—yes, by Jove—there's his pretty Rose at the door! "
In her dark stuff dress, white cambric apron, and plain cap, she stood, stooping to take the can from the milkman's boy. "Oh, mother, you were wrong," I was thinking. "She's prettier than ever !"
How shall I describe that girl? She was not angelic-looking, nor fairy-like, nor queen-like. She was tall and well-built, with a pretty small head with plenty of thick glossy brown hair upon it—and small features. Neither form, coloring, nor expression, taken separately, was striking, but the whole penetrated you slowly but surely. Her throat was really beautiful, and the dimples on her cheek were to blame for much. It was a placid, still-water style of beauty, and owed its hold partly to your surprise in finding after the first that this demure young person, whom you stupidly mistook for a puppet, had a will and a way of her own. It made smarter, coquettish girls wild to see the men, without exception, desert them to crowd round quiet Rose Evans. Seeing her stand there to-day, so neat, and spruce, and complacent—Rose was not one to undervalue herself—I vehemently resented the calamity she had caused. Never could I forgive her that mischief. She had flirted with that good-looking, fascinating reprobate, Mick, and driven a better man to what by mere chance had not turned out murder. "Serve you right, Miss Rose, if you never get married at all," was my silent masculine invective, as the worst I could hurl. But she looked so fresh, so pretty, and innocent, that my tone as I accosted her sounded less distant than I had intended to make it
"Good afternoon," said I. " Have you forgotten me quite ? "
"Not quite," she said, with the least little smile and blush—Rose was for moderation in all things—" but it was such a surprise. Won't you come in, sir ? Father'll be home from the forge directly, and ever so pleased to see you."
I followed her into the kitchen, watching her as she stepped into the larder to set down the milk, her tucked-up sleeves showing her rounded, plump arms. There was certainly a demoniacal attraction about that girl. Then again, as I marked her nice-fitting dress and smooth plaits, her looks—not a day older at twenty-three than at eighteen, just as if nothing had ever interfered with her rest—the kitchen with its spotless brick floor and shining pots and pans (the Evanses were comfortably off), I thought of poor ruined Jem and his lot—black-balled, friendless, fighting a hostile world for a broken existence, and my acrimony returned.
"How long is it ? Five years ? " she asked.
"Long enough to turn the world upside down for some that I know," I replied. She never stirred a feature. Seated under the window-lattice, sewing, she made a pretty Dutch-like picture. "She's lymphatic," I thought "I needn't be shy of alluding to past events. It's been up with some, and down With others," I added pointedly.
"It's been ' up ' with you," Miss Rose retorted.
"I won't contradict you. To my sorrow I found the case otherwise with another of your old admirers I met yesterday by chance." Rose looked up quickly, thrown off her guard
"Mick, do you mean?" she asked hastily. "Where? Never once has he sent news of himself since he left here, when his uncle died—that's three years come Christmas."
"How many broken hearts did he leave behind him? " I inquired tauntingly.
Rose bent over her work, drew a hard breath, then an swered proudly and low :
"Not mine, for one."
"No, I'll engage yours is whole, if you have one," I thought, exasperated by her imperturbable self-content " It wasn't Mick I saw," said I; " it was a better man, for all that he's been wearing a convict's uniform, and, if he showed his face here, would be shunned like a leper."
This time I had hit home. Rose dropped her sewing and changed color. Her lips would not speak his name aloud—she asked with subdued eagerness :
"Is he free?"
"Free, and off to America," I replied. "Where may heaven befriend him in his need!"
Her brown eyes, like a deer's, watched mine intently.
"How did he look?" she asked.
"Very sadly," I told her. " And once an outlaw means always an outlaw too often for men of his mould; but at least where he's gone he'll not have every man's hand against him, and every woman's tongue."
"I wish I had seen him," she said, as if thinking aloud.
"You ? That would be too cruel Why remind him how he came by his fall ? "
Rose fired up, resentfully.
"Why do you talk to me so," she exclaimed, " as if I were the one to blame ? "
"I think you were to blame," I said bluntly. " You let Jem come courting as if you liked it, and if he grew jealous of lick do you mean that he dreamt the reason why?" "I forgot his wild temper," said Rose wistfully; "I scarcely believed in it—he was always gentle when I was there. And I was bound by no promise—I was free to listen to Mick, if I chose."
"So you did choose. "
"I might," Rose owned honestly. " He was one of those who make you believe anything; passed his word lightly—only to break it again. It had brought ruin and death to more than one here, and though Mick meant honest by me I let him know I had done with him. It was then he spoke those words which—"
"Which so nearly cost him his life," I supplied, repeating again, "Jem wasn't sober, of course. He never was that way given, but when a temperance man does break out he knows no bounds."
"I never spoke to Mick again," Rose said, as if in self-acquittal.
"All very fine, my maid," thought I; " that will mend nothing now." And I could not help adding aloud, " Small comfort, I fear, to Jemmy King in prison, or battling on among strangers over the sea."
Rose, to my surprise, burst into tears. There, of course, was an end of me and my sermon. " Don't cry," said I, like the helpless man that I was.
"I don't see it was my fault," she said, " though but for me Jem never would have got into this trouble. It's the thought of him now that I can't bear. There's nothing I wouldn't do to help him or make amends—if I could—nothing."
"What! would you marry him, Rose?" I asked with indiscreet curiosity.
"I would," she said, taking her hands from her face, and speaking steadily and convincingly. " But you know that's impossible. Father would rather see me dead than Jem's wife now."
"Yes, I know." And if confirmation were wanting, it came upon us just then in the figure of the stout blacksmith -true type of the rigid, good-hearted, narrow-minded, inflexible cottage Philistine—as it were a " rural dean," in his gaiters and smith's apron. He had been a popular preacher in his youth, but dissent was not active in Eversfold, and Evans went to church with the rest
We sat awhile chatting in the porch—watching a village congregation of some half-a-dozen coming out from afternoon service—I beg our new curate's pardon—from evensong.
"That's never Joe Murphy ?" I asked presently, as a shock-haired, strange-faced figure, clad in apparently a cast-off suit of the curate's, came ambling out of the porch " Taken to church-going! That beats everything ! "
"He's taken a serious turn, and blows the organ," Evans stated gravely.
In my time he lived under a cloud, as addicted to poaching, presumably, and certainly to gin. Thanks to peculiarities of intellect, induced, probably, by the latter habit, he was treated as more than half irresponsible—an amiable village jester, whose follies are matters of course.
"He's taken the pledge," said Rose, " and kept it nigh on two years. He turned colporteur, and they nicknamed him ' Holy Joe,' but his health broke down, and organ-blowing is about all he's fit for."
I hailed the interesting convert as he passed. " Well, Murphy, good-evening. Where do you come from ? "
He touched his cap with pleased recognition, and made reply:
"Faith and it's church I'm always coming from. Mortal long psalm 15th evening of the month. May you never have to earn a living off making a bellows of yourself, master."
"Glad to hear you're a reformed character," I rejoined with doubtful mind. I thought I discerned possibilities of relapse about " Holy Joe."
"Never touch a drop of spirits now," he declared. " I've forgotten what the taste is like." With a heavy sigh he wished me good-evening and passed on, singing what might or might not be a psalm.
"Has he no news of Mick ?" I asked suddenly. " They used to be as thick as thieves—those two."
"None," Rose answered. "Perhaps Eversfold is too humble for Mick now."
People used to ascribe Mick's " wildness " to Joe's corrupting influence, but birds of a feather flock together, and with strong-willed Mick, Murphy could never have been more than a shadow.
That evening, opening a blotting-book, I came upon my note of excuse to Parker, posted between those pages by mistake. It was too late now for it to reach him in time. I consulted my mother, who was punctiliousness itself, and decided I must go Monday, as agreed. I should be with her again on Wednesday. On such haphazards hang men's destinies sometimes.
THE SECRET OF SWALECLIFFE CASTLE.
"How far to Swalecliffe ? "
I had reached Wood End after dusk on a wild, wet even-ing. The station had more than the usual God-and-man-for-gotten look of those wind-swept, rain-rinsed halting places, spoke to two human shapes, dimly discernible leaning against the palisades—as I hoped, a supine porter and flyman.
u Matter o' mile, mile and a half or two mile," was the gruff, vague reply, denoting the speaker as an independent Sykes or Hodge, with nothing to hope from me.
"I'm for Swalecliffe. Shall I find a trap to take me up?"
A suppressed guffaw of laughter from Hodge. He nudged Sykes.
"Bill, here's a bloke for Swalecliffe. Wants to be took up."
"Swalecliffe Castle," I added; "do you know it?" my question provoking fresh unseemly chuckling.
The missing porter here came to my aid, and after ten minutes, spent by the loafing navvies in cutting in their vernacular incomprehensible but seemingly surprisingly witty jokes at my expense, an open fly was fetched from the inn.
The heavy roads made the short drive almost long. The rain had ceased, and the subsiding wind blew in fitful gusts. Heavy masses of black cloud, like basaltic columns, were drifting away to the horizon. Overhead the sky was swept clear, and the moon shone out with after-rain brilliancy. The vegetation of the country I was passing through seemed strikingly rich, Huge elms, sycamores and beeches overshadowed the road, their trunks wreathed with enormous ivy-growths. Geography was never my strong point, but I fancied there was a river in these parts. Suddenly we left the high road through the gates of a brand-new rustic lodge, and wound uphill through the private grounds of Swalecliffe, a dark drive of half a mile or more. On either side lay a picturesque jungle, shadowed by an overgrowth of enormous forest trees, and stretching on the left hand down a deep a ravine, where the extraordinary luxuriance of the vegetation recalled a Carolina swamp. Huge masses of creepers, loading the trunks and branches of the trees, made them look like misshapen giants. Below, a dense growth of large ferns, dark laurels and gnarled willows covered a marsh, revealed here and there by a pool of black water caught by the moon-light The approach, as seen by me that night, was like some fantastic dream—a disordered fancy picture of Dore's—where the contorted boughs take half-human forms, and over all hangs some glamour of black magic. It was oppressive, and I felt a sense of relief as we abruptly emerged from the wood.
High and dry on a grassy eminence the Castle rose boldly before me, striking itself, from its size, its massive strength and picturesque style. The gray stone looked white against the dusky blue sky. It stood with its pleasure ground and outlying buildings, enclosed by a brick wall, like a veritable old fortress, with machicolated towers, and approach tinder the gateway of a Gothic stone-fronted lodge—the monster plaything of a merchant prince.
Matthew Parker met me at the front hall.
'' Just in time for dinner," he announced. " You've twenty minutes to dress. David, show Mr. Milford his room."
An elderly, fatherly-looking footman led me into a large, lofty hall with a skylight roof Corridors opened on each landing of the stone stairecase we ascended. No wonder Parker was hospitable, with accommodation in his castle for the whole country.
I followed David down a long passage above, at the extreme end of which was my room. As he opened the door, a gust of air from the window left open extinguished his candle. Instead of first closing the window, he hastened back to the landing to get a light. Meaning to supply his omission, I walked into the room—the draught instantly slamming the door behind me.
It was a small oblong apartment, with a window facing the door. The breeze had parted the curtains, and the moon's rays streamed in between them. As I passed the threshold, I was arrested by an impression—unlike anything in my past or subsequent experience—an impression I can never forget, and would gladly never recall-fantastic, instantaneous, startlingly vivid. It was as if some strange, strangely-clad figure were hanging, lurking, in the aperture between the window curtains. I stopped, transfixed. I know the spell lasted not a minute, but it seemed an eternity that I stood there alone in the gloom, under a strange roof, shut in with this mystery—the semblance of a figure, and a face that I could not see.
David re-entered with a lamp. As he placed it on the table the moonbeams paled, the appearance resolved itself into an effect of light and shade ; and now the man stood in the window embrasure filling the very space occupied a moment ago by another.
As he closed the window and drew the hangings I recovered myself, thinking, "We see faces in the fires, goblin shapes in the branchings of the trees, why not shadow figures in the curtains ?"
With David's help I contrived to get down in time. Parker's entertainment was princely, like his mansion. Young people were in the majority, the evening passed merrily in round games and impromptu charades, and at midnight I retired, having laughed away the very recollection of that extraordinary delusion that had signalled my first moments in Swalecliffe.
I found my friend David stirring the fire. The room was more than warm enough, but. he showed an anxious solicitude for my well-being.
"I hope you'll sleep comfortable, sir. Can I do nothing more for you ?"
"You might draw back the curtains," I suggested, as he seemed desirous to be employed. "It's a warm night, and I've a liking for fresh air."
"I think you'll sleep sounder, sir, with them closed," he returned with emphasis.
"I don't mind the moon. You can leave the blind drawn."
"I should recommend you, sir, to adhere to the present arrangement"
"Is anything wrong with the room ?" I asked, struck by his odd manner; " for a single man, David, the accommodation is excellent"
"They do say, sir, as something is amiss with this apartment
"Damp? " I suggested, looking at him.
"Dry as an evangelical sermon," he returned with solemn humor.
"Rats about, eh?"
"Oh, no, sir." He paused, then added, " And you don't believe in spirits, sir, of course. Neither do I. Still, there's tales and things one can't explain, and if you'll take my advice, sir, you'll just let them curtains be. Good-night to you, sir."
It was with difficulty that I kept myself from betraying the unpleasant shock sent through me by David's parting speech. I had often desired to sleep in a haunted room, but my devout wish at this moment was that Parker had put me anywhere else. Second thoughts assured me it was a mere coincidence. Hundreds of similar cases of ocular delusion are on record. I thought I could privately account for my vision in a way that precluded connection with David's untold tale. And a castle like Swalecliffe would be incomplete without its ghost I laughed, defied David and the spirit-world, drew back the curtains, went to bed; and slept soundly all night through.
After breakfast on the morrow the guests were left awhile to follow their own devices. I strolled out on the lawn with a couple of county gentlemen to enjoy a morning cigarette. We sauntered some way along the hill, to a mound which afforded an excellent view of the Castle, which we stayed to contemplate.
"Cleverly done, upon my honor," ejaculated Sir John: approvingly. " It looks uncommonly well."
"You never thought to find yourself inside Swalecliffe," rejoined the other laughing.
Something in the manner of their jocularity unaccountably reminded me of those rough loiterers- at the station.
"Swalecliffe Castle," the speaker added "Sounds fine. Well, we shall soon get used to it."
"Get used to what ? " I asked inquisitively.
"Why, don't you know?" said Sir John, taking his cigar from his lips.
"Is there anything to know? I am a stranger in these parts."
"Oh, I see;" He replaced his cigar. '' Well, till last year, Swalecliffe was a prison."
This time I started outright.
"Why, what's the matter?" he said, laughing; "you don't seem to like the notion."
"I don't," said I, trying, but unsuccessfully, to laugh also. Here was a second coincidence, in itself preternat-urally strange.
"Well, it was for sale cheap. Capital site, buildings and building material tor treat as he liked. The river's taken to overflowing; and for that and other reasons the convict establishment has been removed to Southbury, ten miles off Packer's bought up the land about, and will drain; the marsh, so it's been a good thing for everybody all round. Bur you can't get over it, I see."
"A prison ! " I repeated. " There's something lugubrious in the idea."
"Well," quoth Sir John, philosophically, "you can't be particular about the antecedents, of a house, as if it were a person. Perhaps Swalecliffe might stand inquiry better than; some old family places. It was a model establishment in every way."
I had recovered my self-possession. " Let us hope, then, it is unaffected by sinister associations."
"'There is a haunted chamber somewhere; I believe," said my companion, laughing; "but who the enterprising burglar is who comes a burgling is more than I know."
The subject was dropped. But although persuaded not one ghost-story in a thousand is worth investigating, I said tor myself this was the one. I must question Parker. Not to-day, not till after the ball. I own I was not sorry that dancing was prolonged till broad daylight. Then only I retired to my room, for which I had conceived the strongest aversion. I rose in good time; as I was leaving after break-fast Parker did not appear. A slight attack of gout confined him to his room, where I went to bid him adieu, and found him cordial, jocund as usual.
"Always glad to see you at Swalecliffe, remember. We've made a presentable place of it, have we not?"
"If it were possible," I returned with emphasis, "to exorcise gloomy associations you must have succeeded."
"If ? Come, say we've done it," he urged cheerfully.
"Do you never find nervous people painfully affected by anything here ? I have a reason for asking."
"What do you mean ?" said he sharply.
"No depressing influences or uncomfortable stories to trouble you or your guests ? "
Annoyed, he muttered; "It's those confounded servants. Has that old fool David—"
"He hinted something," I said, "I should scarcely have borne in mind but that four hours before, when first stepping into that room, I had a curious false impression—hallucination if you like—that; coupled with his remark, warrants my question.
He shifted his position in manifest impatience; saying, "Now, Mr. Milford; you're a sensible man; tell me what you saw, what you thought you saw."
"I'm a sensible man, I hope, but I fancy, were I to tell you, I should forfeit your good opinion."
He showed no curiosity, only increased vexation at my disclosure. " If this goes on I must pull down the wing—if only to stop people's mouths."
"If what goes on ? "
"I slept there myself every night for a week, and saw nothing."
"Has anybody but myself ever seen anything? "
"The servants see something fresh every night What? Black dogs, white ladies, men in armor, a skeleton rattling chains—nonsense on the face of it"
"Does any story attach to that—cell, I suppose it was ?"
"My dear sir, you don't suppose I ever asked. If stories go about I carefully avoid hearing them. But I will tell you the single circumstance I can vouch for in connection with the matter."
"Not long ago we had a lady staying here. She came to give painting lessons to my daughters—a clever artist, but of a nervous, fanciful, hysterical temperament Knowing this I wished the origin of our castle to be kept from her, but somehow the secret must have oozed out The builders were still at work, and we were obliged to give her that little room. One night she came rushing to my daughters in a frenzy of terror and excitement at something she said she had seen. They succeeded in calming her, but nothing would ever induce her to re-enter that apartment Nor at first would she tell us what she had seen there. She was sensitive and saw we were inclined to ridicule her panic She said afterwards she would paint it for us, and she kept her word."
"Have you kept the picture ? " I asked eagerly.
"It so happens I have. I meant to destroy it, but put it aside, and forgot"
I petitioned earnestly to be allowed to see it He yielded at last with evident reluctance. Opening a cupboard in the wall, he took out a large canvas.
"It's a clever bit of sensational painting—theatrical—but makes an effective ghost picture, " he remarked, as he placed it in view.
Its effect on me was so strong that my utmost self-command scarcely kept me from betraying an emotion that would have stamped me forever as a madman or visionary in the mind of my host. How it called back the impression of that night, down to the minutest particulars ! The objects in the room seen unequally, some mere dim shadows, others distinct in the moonlight, the open casement with the parted curtains in front, and between them that sinister-looking figure in the semi-grotesque dress with the hidden face.
"You see," said Parker by and by, "how easily any one whose brain has been dwelling on the antecedents of Swale-cliffe might conjure up such a vision."
I, however, had been ignorant of the castle's antecedents.
"Well," he concluded, "I shall destroy it now. I take no interest in these delusions."
"Will you give it me?" I asked. "I do take some interest in these delusions. I promise you to spread no foolish stories nor exhibit the picture at home."
"As you please," he said indifferently. "But how in the world will you carry away a painting of that size ?"
"Easily, " I said. Taking my knife I detached the canvas from the wood, and made a roll of it which I could carry in my hand.
The circumstance was too startling, too incredibly strange. I wanted time to recover from the first surprise, which was such that my reason doubted the evidence of my senses.
I MISSED the down train in London, dined at the station, not reaching Cross Hills until past nine, instead of at six. Leaving my valise to follow by the carrier next morning, I walked up across country. The footpath I had taken brought me into the lane skirted by the palings of our grounds opposite a gate in them of which I had the key in my pocket The gate led me into a copse, where at no great distance stood a rustic summer-house I had appropriated as a comfortable smoking lounge—strongly built, heather thatched, lined with matting, and furnished with a rustic table, couch and chairs. Already, since my return, I had brought thither a few books, writing materials and newspapers, that gave it a habitable appearance. I went inside for the purpose of there depositing the ghost picture in security and secrecy, for the place was locked and never visited but by myself. Had I taken the canvas home the servants or my another would assuredly have ferreted it out, and I had promised discretion to old Parker. I lit a lantern and unrolled the picture, which had become somewhat creased. To stretch it out, I thrust tin tacks through the four corners and fastened it thus to the matting on the wall.
Great goodness ! What a horrid, haunting thing it was ! I felt constrained to gaze on, though hating the contemplation. How minutely it answered to my hallucination ! Or was it only my excited fancy that said so ? Presently I began to enter into old Parker's desire to get rid of it I should have destroyed it then and there had this been an easy task. Then I decided to keep it, at least till the mystery had been cleared up. That very night I would write to the Governor of Southbury and make searching inquiry.
But I could not have it staring me in the face. I took an old sheet of the Times and pinned it across ; then, taking the lantern, turned to walk home through the wood.
At that moment I heard a thud, as of a man's weight alighting from over the palings on the grass. I turned off the lantern and endeavored to reconnoitre through a cranny in the summer-house. What should a lurcher be doing at this hour? Easy to guess. The game shop at the next town was notoriously supplied by others than those who had the right to shoot. The moon was veiled, but there was light enough for me to descry the man's figure stealing nearer through the copse. I was no very rigid enforcer of the game-laws, but was none the less eager to take stock of my poacher. It might be for a wife and sick starving children that he was earning a dishonest penny; but I should like to know it. As he crept through the underwood I caught a glimpse that sufficed for recognition. By all that's hypocritical, the reformed drunkard, the ex-colporteur, the model organ-blower, Holy Joe!
The rascal disappeared again in the thick of the copse, where, no doubt, his trap was set. It was no case of accomplices or firearms, and I was not afraid of tackling Joe Murphy. Whilst he was busy with the trap I slipped out, ensconced myself so as to cut off his retreat towards the palings, and just as he turned to make off with his booty, I dashed at dm and collared him.
"Let go, you d—d keeper," he roared, "or I'll swear I caught you doing a job on your own account. Like enough you trapped that bird. Get off," and with a frantic effort he actually shook off my hold. "Tate that—and that," hitting out right and left, then, as I closed with him, fighting fiercely as a badger, and showing a savage strength that took me by surprise. I had to defend myself for a minute, then came a sharp tussle, then a well-planted blow of mine levelled him to the ground, where he lay groaning, his valor extinguished, whining out that I had done for him, and it was all over with " Holy Joe."
"Get up," I said, suspecting he was shamming. He shook his head He knew me now, and gazed at me reproachfully, saying I had broken every bone in his body, and all for a poor little bird he had gone for to kill, just to put it out of its misery. He never could bear to see .poor dumb animals suffer! I fetched the lantern and flashed it on his face. It was white and strange. Seeing he either couldn't or wouldn't stir unaided, I got him inside the summer-house. A few moments would show whether he were really hurt—I might have hit harder than I intended—or whether, as I believed, he had got no more than the good drubbing he richly deserved for his delinquencies. I propped him up in a chair and lit some candles. He was pale and trembling, whether from fear, pain or nervous shock, I could not tell.
"Master Milford," he announced by and by with solemnity, "I'm dying."
"Dying? Stuff and nonsense, man," I replied. "You're not damaged beyond a few bruises. I'm doctor enough to tell you that. Why did you turn on me in that wild-cat fashion ? I never thought you'd show fight," I confessed.
"I was always a demon when roused," he said with ludicrous dignity. " There's more than one's felt the weight of this," setting down a flabby fist, "till the rheumatism caught me—all along of long hours in them damp churches."
But as he spoke the clue to all—to his flash of vigor and his swift collapse—betrayed itself, alas, in the corner of a brandy flask, half full, protruding from his pocket I drew it forth and shook it in his face.
"Rheumatism, you malingering rogue ! That's how you prime yourself for raids on my premises. You were half tipsy when I met you Saturday—you who've forgotten the taste of spirits, never touch a drop."
"Medicinally," he said gravely, with a sly twinkle in his eye. "Under doctor's orders. You're a bit of a doctor you said. Now you've half killed me, master, least you can do in to order me the restorative."
"No," said I, convinced that he had had more than enough. " If you're faint, there's water here. " As I moved to the shelf to get the jug, Joe, the instant my back was turned, suddenly recovering the use of his limbs, rose, seized the flask I had incautiously laid on the table, and drained it as if it were water indeed. Then he sank back in the chair with an inarticulate expression of bliss.
"Rascal! Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" I said, furious and helpless, "getting relief from the parish, and setting up for a temperance man, swilling brandy enough on the sly to kill a hippopotamus. Drunkard and thief besides!"
He looked at me with hopeless, imperturbable serenity. Neither gods nor men could touch him for just that one moment of ineffable content The dose had galvanized his damaged wits into quick, confused activity. The string of his tongue was loosed. It never took much to do that
"Come, there's thieves and thieves," he began. "Some rides on horseback, and some daren't look over a hedge.
See that young devil, Mick -----"
"Aye, the vagabond," I broke in—for the mere name of him put me in a rage now. "You and he are a pair to match."
"Eh, have you seen him ? " asked Joe, his curiosity roused by my warmth. "Where, master? Lolling in luxury, I'll swear, whilst honest, hard-working folks like Joe Murphy starve on crusts. I'd change that, if ever he came back," he added.
"So thick you and he were together," I said, struck by his vindictive tone. Joe, who was growing garrulous, rambled on.
"As comfortable to be thick with he as with a pair o' shears. Shuts on your fingers and cuts 'em off. Tell me where he is, master. If I knew, I'd take it out of him yet; he as lets his old pal slave and come on the parish, when a word o' mine could set the police on him for a thief and a robber."
"Serve him right, too," I rejoined. My feelings towards Mick were such that there was something not displeasing to me in any addition to the list of his known misdemeanors, and I tried to draw Joe on—whose wits seemed getting hazier every moment—by following up his thought
"I was a fool to let the beggar slide, and trust his word for the swag," he said; then muttered, indistinctly, to himself, " Sampson knew, Sampson knew ! "
"Knew Mick was a robber," I struck in, too sharply. It roused Joe's caution.
"Nay," and he shook his head with a sickly smile, "I never said so."
"But so it was," I rejoined, warming to the part I was playing. "Else, why did the old man cut him off with a shilling ? He couldn't do more."
This argument, spoken as if it were unanswerable, seemed to overwhelm Joe by its convincing logic.
"'Course, why cut him off? Do as you've been done by. Nevvy robbed the uncle, so why shouldn't the uncle rob the nevvy. Ha! ha ! Sampson couldn't do more, or he would. No evidence; only I'd got that to give. Wish I had. Why should I be tenderer to Mick than his own kith and kin ? Answer me that."
"You and he were a couple of infernal dogs," I exclaimed, forgetting myself.
The drift of Joe's confused utterance: pointed, it seemed, to some successful attempt of the two to help themselves out of old Sampson's cash-box—an extremely probable occurrence. It revolted my sense of justice that these rogues should escape scot-free, whilst poor Jem had to pay the full penalty of his fatal though just anger.
"If men had their deserts," I continued, "I know where you'd be now; and Mick along with you."
He shook his head, stammering with a tipsy smile:
"'But a dog at large is better than a caged lion,' Proverbs says."
"So you robbed Mick's uncle for him," I resumed quietly, " and you and he divided the spoil ?"
But his mistrust was now thoroughly roused Raising himself from his chair, he said with a manner that showed me I should get no more out of him,
"Don't you try and come over Joe Murphy I see what you're at But split me if this old bird's to be caught with chaff. I'm going home."
"Off with you, then," I retorted, resisting the temptation to precipitate his exit with a kick, "and mind, if I catch you after my partridges a second time, I'll have you up, as sure as my name's Milford. Why, mercy on us, map- what now ? "
Joe seemed not to hear; a sudden pallor came into his face, his eyes, fixed and dilated, were staring into space his frame shrank together, he cowered abjectly, terror-stricken, pointing before him with a shaking hand, and faltering out m a tone which for fright and dismay I never heard equalled,
"Good Lord, what's that?"
I thought he was delirious. Looking back, I perceived that the covering had slipped from the ghost-picture. The rays of light so fell on it as to throw out with ghastly weird-ness that single, strange, strangely-clad figure with the woollen cap drawn over his face. It might have been an apparition from the other side of the grave. Upon Joe the first effect was appalling. His limbs, his tongue seemed paralyzed. I was about to speak, when he staggered to his feet, shaking as if palsied, and dropped on his knees, faltering.
"It's King ! it's Tiger King—dead in prison, as I've seen him, nights when I lay awake. Dead I and come back to carry me off to hell with him. Don't come to me ! " and he struck out wildly into the air. "Get to Mick, you gaping ruffian. I'm hung if I ever lifted up my voice against you. Have mercy on our souls!" He covered his eyes, then looked again fearfully, half-crazed, and crying out in desperation, '' Don't stand there dangling, as if . . Lift your cap—let's see your face underneath." Then with a screech that made my blood run cold, and shrinking away, unable to take his eyes off the figure, "It's a death's head, I know. Find Mick, I tell you ; the perjured, cunning rascal! Man's not bound to criminate himself. That's British law, all the world over. I bore you no grudge, Jem, I swear. But what idiot would go lodge a charge against himself when he could keep out of jail by holding of his tongue—kind o' suicide—and that's felony." He shrank back against the wall, growing wilder and wilder in looks and utterance, as he gasped, " I never charged you—no more than babe unborn. Police did that. If Mick swore to you, that was his business. Yours was to clear yourself, if you could. Get off, or I'll dash your brains out, ghost or man. Come near me and I'll do for you, as I did for " here he choked, staggered, and fell down helpless, in a fit.
For a moment I stood transfixed, dumbfounded, and in bewilderment at his half-disclosures, hints at some hideous mystery in the background. The fear lest he should die now, and with him all hopes of further elucidation, brought me to my senses. I ran to him, loosened his collar, and laid him flat on the couch. Then I hastily refastened the sheet of paper over the picture. His faint was slight, and in a few minutes he opened his eyes. Instantly they darted to the space on the wall, behind me.
"Gone," he muttered, then raised himself, looking round, and sighing, "Bad dreams makes cowards of the bravest men." He paused, then with a change of expression, turning his eyes on me, " Master," he began, in the (tame maudlin tone as at first, "I'm dying. You've done for me, It's all over with Holy Joe."
He was no more dying than I was. The morbid fancy was born of brandy. He might, however, have drunk himself to the verge of delirium tremens, and possible consequent imbecility.
"If so it be, then, Joe," I said deliberately, "I'd die honest, and leave nothing untold—of the mischief you and Mick were up together. "
"The villain !" cried Joe resentfully. "He brought me to this. I was a harmless chap before. Liked a drop o' Sundays, but what o' that ? The better the day the better the drink, ha I ha I Twas Mick set me on for his own ends, and then would have cheated me out of the cash—I who'd had all the pains and the risk."
"He made you rob Sampson's cash-box for him," said I, thrust by circumstances into playing the detective. I was only an amateur, and Joe's face of innocence and surprise, as he asked what I meant, showed he had wit enough lei) to baffle a cross-examination.
"Oh, that's an old story," I said indifferently. "Sampson knew."
"No, no—suspected," Joe corrected me. "Police said it was burglars. And the box was never found. "
"You hid it so well," I hazarded, taking my cue from the expression of his face, "they may look and welcome."
"Look till the Day of Judgment," said he, " Mick don't know himself. But he had the money, all but ten pound We were to have shared alike."
"What a swindle," I chimed in, " to give you the job and cheat you of your due ! "
"Why, I didn't so much as know where Sampson kept his cash. It was Mick told me of the safe in the wall, and how to get at the key. Simple as A B C. And Sampson never missed it for three days."
"Clever," I rejoined, "so far you scored" Joe pursued.
"Then that night—same night as Mick had that set to with Jemmy King at the 'Cricketers,' we met, as agreed, by the old chestnut in Elmers field. And there was only half the cash we'd looked for. 'Twas then Mick, the shark I wanted to get all into his hands. I knew I'd never see a penny if he did. He swore he'd lodge me in jail if I peached Who'd believe the word of a poor devil like me against him ? But I paid him out that night."
I was no actor. Excitement deprived me of all self-control, and vainly I tried to keep from betraying emotion that would rouse Joe's dormant instincts of prudence, as I spoke.
"And you, Joe Murphy, committed the murderous assault for which Jem was found guilty ? "
"Hullo, what's that story?" he said in a changed tone But righteous anger forbade dissimulation. I trusted to confound and overwhelm him with the discovery.
"Clear as daylight. You fought Mick, who dared not charge you with the assault lest you should confess all, and implicate him in the robbery."
But Joe's cunning had not quite deserted him.
"You're a smart gentleman," he said, "but Joe's smarter if he's taken you in with his tales."
I saw myself baffled, my hopes discomfited. Every one knows what the self-accusations of a drunkard are worth, I had only words, not a scrap of evidence to rely on. Possibly his tale was the offspring of disordered imagination.
"Well, it's all past and gone," I resumed presently. "And Sampson's dead, so there's nothing to fear from that quarter. Now there's only one thing more: what became of the cash-box ?"
But Joe, once fully conscious I was trying to draw him out, was not to be imposed on.
"Cash-box?" he echoed, surprised. "Why, you don't mean to say you've been listening to a poor, crazed fellow's yarns ? I've forgot 'em already."
Provoked to exasperation, I tried a menace, saying severely: