Bilk’s Fortune, A Ghost Story
by Talbot Baines Reed
Chapter I. Superstition.
We had a fellow at Holmhurst School who rejoiced in the name of Alexander Magnus Bilk. But, as sometimes happens, our Alexander the Great did not in all respects resemble the hero to whom he was indebted for his name. Alexander the Great, so the school-books say, was small in stature and mighty in mind. Bilk was small in mind and lanky in stature. They called him “Lamp-post” as a pet name, and as regarded his height, his girth, and the lightness of his head, the term conveyed a very fair idea of our hero’s chief characteristics. In short, Bilk had very few brains, and such as he had he occupied by no means to the best advantage. He read trashy novels, and believed every word of them, and, like poor Don Quixote of old, he let any one who liked make a fool of him, if he only took the trouble to get at his weak side.
I need hardly say the fellows at Holmhurst were not long in discovering that weak side and getting plenty of fun out of Alexander Magnus. He could be gammoned to almost any extent, so much so that after a term or two his persecutors had run through all the tricks they knew, and the unhappy youth was let alone for sheer want of an idea.
But one winter, when things seemed at their worst, and it really appeared likely that Bilk would have to be given up as a bad job, his tormentors suddenly conceived an idea, and proceeded to put it into practice in the manner I am about to relate in this most veracious history.
The neighbourhood of Holmhurst had for some weeks past been honoured by the presence of a gang of gipsies, who during the period of their sojourn had rendered themselves conspicuous by their diligence in their triple business of chair-mending, fowl-house robbing, and fortune-telling. In the last of these three departments they perhaps succeeded best in winning the confidence of their temporary neighbours, and the private séances they held with housemaids, tradesmen’s boys, and schoolgirls had been particularly gratifying both as to attendance and pecuniary result.
It had at length been deemed to be for the general welfare that these interesting itinerants should seek a change of air in “fresh fields and pastures new,” and the police had accordingly hinted as much to the authorities of the camp, and given them two hours to pack up.
More than ever convinced that gratitude is hopeless to seek in human nature, the gipsies had shaken the dust of Holmhurst from the soles of their not very tidy feet, and had moved off, no one knew whither.
These proceedings had, among other persons, interested Alexander Magnus Bilk not a little, and no one mourned the rapid departure of the gipsies more than he. For Bilk had for some days past secretly hugged the idea of presenting himself to the oracle of these wise ones and having his fortune told. He had in fact gone so far as to make a secret observation of their quarters one afternoon, and had resolved to devote the next half-holiday to the particular pursuit of knowledge they offered, when, lo! cruel fate snatched the cup from his lips and swept the promised fruit from his reach. In other words, the gipsies had gone, and, like his great namesake, Alexander, Magnus mourned.
Among those who noticed his dejection and guessed the cause of it were two of his particular persecutors. Morgan and Dell had for some months been suffering affliction for lack of any notion how to get a rise out of their victim. But they now suddenly cheered up, as they felt the force of a mighty idea moving them once more to action.
“Old chap,” said Morgan, “I’ve got it at last!”
“What have you got?” asked “the old chap”; “your back tooth, or measles, or what?”
“I’ve got a dodge for scoring off the Lamp-post.”
“Have you, though? You are a clever chap, I say! What is it?”
What it was, Morgan disclosed in such a very low whisper to his ally that the reader will have to guess. Suffice it to say, the two dear lads put their heads together for some time, and were extremely busy in the privacy of their own study all that evening.
Bilk, little dreaming of the compassion and interest he was evoking in the hearts of his schoolfellows, retired early to his sorrowful couch, and mourned his departed gipsies till slumber gently stepped in and soothed his troubled mind. But returning day laid bare the old wound, and Alexander girded himself listlessly to the duties of the hour, with a heart far away.
He was wandering across the playground after dinner, disinclined alike for work and play, when Dell accosted him. Bilk might have known Dell by this time, but his memory was short and his mind preoccupied, and he smelt no rat, as the Irish would say, in his companion’s salutation.
“Hullo! where are you off to, Lamp-post? How jolly blue you look!”
“I’m only taking a walk.”
“Well, you don’t seem to be enjoying it, by the looks of you. I’ve just been taking a trot over the common.”
“I suppose the gipsies have all gone?” inquired Bilk, as unconcernedly as he could.
“Yes, I suppose so,” answered Dell, offhand. “Anyhow, they’ve cleared off the common.”
“But I was told,” said Bilk rather nervously, “they’d gone quite away.”
“Not all of them, anyhow,” said Dell. “But of course they can’t now show up the way they used to.”
“Where are they, then?” asked Magnus, with a new hope breaking in upon him.
“How can I tell? All I know is there are some hanging about still, and I shouldn’t wonder if they weren’t far from here.”
“Really, I say! I wonder where?”
“I’d as good as bet you’d come across one or two of them after dark in Deadman’s Lane, or up at the cross roads, any evening for a week yet. They don’t clear out as fast as fellows think. But I must be off now, as I’ve a lot of work to do. Ta, ta!”
Alexander stood where the other left him, in deep meditation. Those few casual observations of his schoolfellow had kindled anew the fire that burned within him. Little could Dell guess how interesting his news was! After dark! The afternoon was getting on already. The school clock had struck half-past four nearly a quarter of an hour ago, and by five it would be quite dark. Tea was at a quarter-past five, and for half an hour after tea boys could do as they liked. Yes, it would be foolish to throw away such a chance. At any rate, he would take the air after tea in Deadman’s Lane, and if there he should meet—oh! how he wondered what his fortune would be! Tea was a feverish meal for Bilk that evening. He spoke to no one, and ate very little; and as the hand of the clock worked round to a quarter to six he began to feel distinctly that a crisis in his life was approaching. He was glad neither Dell nor Morgan, whose studies probably kept them in their study, were at tea. They were such fellows for worrying him, and just now he wanted to be in peace.
The meal was over at last, and the boys rushed off to enjoy their short liberty before the hour of preparation. Bilk, who had taken the precaution to put both a sixpence and a cricket-cap in his pocket, silently and unobserved slid out into the deserted playground, and in another minute stood beyond the precincts of Holmhurst.
Deadman’s Lane was scarcely three minutes distant, and thither, with nervous steps, he wended his way, fumbling the sixpence in his pocket, and straining his eyes in the darkness for any sign of the gipsies. Alas! it seemed to be a vain quest. The lane was deserted, and the cross roads he knew were too far distant to get there and back in half an hour. He was just thinking of giving it up and turning back, when a sound behind one of the hedges close to him startled him and sent his heart to his mouth. He stood still to listen, and heard a gruff voice say—or rather intone—the following mysterious couplet:
Ramsdam pammydiddle larrybonnywigtail
This could be no other than an incantation, and Bilk stood rooted to the spot, unable to advance or retreat. He heard a rustling in the hedge, and the incantation suddenly ceased. Then a figure like that of an old man bent with age and clad in a ragged coat which nearly touched the ground advanced slowly, saying in croaking accent as he did so—
“Ah, young gentleman, we’ve waited for ye. We couldn’t go till we’d seen ye; for we’ve something to tell ye. Come quietly this way, and say not a word, or the spell’s broken—come, young gentleman; come, young gentleman;” and the old man went on crooning the words to himself as he led the way with tottering steps round the hedge, and discovered a sort of tent in which sat, with her face half shrouded in a shawl, an old woman who wagged her head incessantly and chattered to herself in a language of her own. She took no notice of Bilk as he drew near tremblingly, and it was not until the old man had nudged her vehemently, and both had indulged in a long fit of coughing, that she at last growled, without even lifting her head—
“I see nothing unless for silver.”
It said a great deal for Bilk’s quickness of apprehension that he at once guessed this vague observation to refer to the sixpence he had not yet offered. He drew it out and handed it to the old woman, and was about to offer an apology at the same time, when the man put his hand to his mouth and snarled—
“Not a word.”
The old woman took the coin in her trembling hand, and bent her head over it in silence. Bilk began to get uneasy. The time was passing, and he would have to start back in a very few moments. Could it be possible these gipsies, now they had his sixpence, were going to refuse to tell him the fortune for which he had longed and risked so much?
No! After a long pause the old woman lifted up her hand and said something in gibberish to her partner. It was a long time coming, for they both coughed and groaned violently during the recital. At length, however, the old man turned to Bilk and said gruffly—
The boy obeyed, and the old man proceeded.
“She says a great danger threatens you this night. If you escape it, you will live to be a baronet or member of parliament, and perhaps you will marry a duke’s daughter; but she can’t be certain of that. If you don’t escape it, you will be in a lunatic asylum next week, and never come out. Not a word,” added he, as Bilk once more showed signs of breaking silence. “Wait till she speaks again.”
Another long pause, and then another long recital in gibberish by the old woman, broken by the same coughing and groaning as before. Then the man said—
“Stand up, and hold your hands above your head.”
“You want to know how to escape the peril?” said the man.
Bilk, with his hands still up, nodded.
“To-night at nine o’clock you will hear a bell.”
Again Bilk nodded. Fancy the gipsies knowing that!
“You will go up to a small room with a chair and a bed in it, and undress.”
A pause, and another nod from the astonished Bilk.
“You will put on a long white robe coming down to your ankles. At half-past nine the place will be dark—as black as pitch.”
Bilk shuddered a little at the prospect.
“Then will be the time to escape your peril, or else to fall a victim. To escape it you must go quietly down the stairs and out of the house. The being who rules your life will be away for this one evening, and you will escape through his room by the window, which is close to the ground.”
Bilk started once more. He knew the doctor was to be out that evening, but what short of supernatural vision could tell the gipsies of it?
“You must escape in the long white robe, and run past here on to the cross roads. No one will see you. At the cross roads there is a post with four arms. You must climb it and sit on the arm pointing this way until the clock strikes twelve. The peril will then be past, and your fortune will be made. Not a word. Go, and beware, Alexander Magnus Bilk!”
The legs of the scared Alexander could scarcely uphold him as he obeyed this last order, and sped trembling towards the school. The gipsies sat motionless as his footsteps echoed down the lane and died slowly away into silence.
Then they rose to go also; but as they did so other footsteps suddenly sounded, approaching them. With an alacrity astonishing in persons of their advanced age they darted back to their place of retreat; but too late. The footsteps came on quickly, and followed them to their very hiding-place, and next moment the light of two bullseyes turned full upon them, and the aged couple were in the hands of the police.
Chapter Two. Science.
De Prudhom did not often allow himself the luxury of an evening out during term time. But on this particular evening he was pledged to fulfil a long-standing engagement with an old crony and fellow-bachelor, residing about two miles from the school. By some mysterious means the worthy dominie’s intentions had oozed out, and Bilk was by no means the only boy who had heard of it. Mice seem to find out by instinct when the cat is away, and fix their own diversions accordingly.
I merely mention this to explain that as far as Alexander Magnus was concerned no night could have been more favourable for carrying out the intricate series of instructions laid down by the gipsy for the making of his fortune. With this reflection he consoled himself somewhat as he ran back to the school.
The doctor had already started for his evening’s dissipation, if dining with Professor Hammerhead could be thus described. This eccentric old gentleman combined in one the avocations of a bachelor, a man of science, and a justice of the peace. He rarely took his walks abroad, preferring the solitude of his library, and the occasional company of some old comrade with whom to talk over old times, and unburden his mind of the scientific problems which encumbered it. On the present occasion he had lit upon a congenial spirit in worthy Dr Prudhom, and the two spent a very snug evening together over the dessert, raking up memories of the good old days when they lived on the same staircase at Brasenose; and plunging deep into abstruse questions of natural and physical science which even the sherry could not prevent from being dry.
The professor’s present craze was what is commonly termed ethnology. Anything connected with the history and vicissitudes of the primitive races of mankind excited his enthusiasm, and he was never tired of inquiring into the languages, the manners, the customs, the dress, the ceremonies, and the movements generally of various branches of the human family, of whom the most obscure were sure to be in his eyes the most interesting.
It was only natural, therefore, that when Dr Prudhom made some casual reference to the recent incursion of gipsies, his host should seize the occasion to expatiate on the history of that extraordinary race; tracing them from the Egyptians downwards, and waxing eloquent on their tribal instincts, which no civilisation or even persecution could eradicate or domesticate.
“Fact is,” said he, with a chuckle, “they had me to thank that they were allowed here so long. Police came to me end of first week and said they were a nuisance. I told the police when I wanted their opinion I’d ask it. End of second week police came again and said all the farmyards round had been robbed. I said I must inquire into it. He! he! All the time I was making glorious observations, my boy; a note-book full, I declare. End of third week inspector of police came and said he should have to apply at head-quarters for instructions if I wouldn’t give them. Not a place was secure as long as the vagabonds stayed. Had to cave in then, and issue a warrant or so and get rid of them. Sorry for it. Much to learn ye: about them, and the few specimens brought before me weren’t good ones. Young gipsies, you know, Prudhom, aren’t up to the mark. You only get the true aboriginal ring about the old people. Yes, I’m afraid they’re breaking up, you know. Sorry for it.”
Dr Prudhom concurred, and mentioned as a somewhat significant fact that very few old gipsies had accompanied the late visitation, which consisted almost altogether of the young and possibly degenerate members of the tribe.
The discussion had reached this stage, and the professor was about to adduce evidence from history of a similar period of depression in the race, when there came a ring at the front bell, followed by a shuffling of feet in the hall, which was presently explained by the appearance of the servant, who announced that there were two constables below who wished to see his worship.
Now his worship was anything but pleased to be interrupted in the midst of his interesting discussion by a matter of such secondary importance as an interview with the police.
“Can’t see them now,” said he to the servant; “tell them to call in the morning.” The servant retired.
“Strange thing,” observed the justice of the peace; “you can shut up your school at five o’clock every night, and every cheesemonger and tinker in the place can do the same; but we’ve got no time we can call our own. Pull your chair up to the fire, old fellow. Let’s see, what were we saying?” The servant appeared again at this point, and said—“Please, sir, they’ve got a couple of the gipsies, and want—”
“Eh, what!” exclaimed the professor, jumping up. “Why didn’t you say so before? Gipsies! Why, Prudhom, my boy, could anything be more opportune? Show them into the library, and set a chair for the doctor. Do you hear? How fortunate this is! Now while I’m examining them, watch closely, and see if you do not observe the peculiar curve of the nostril I was speaking to you about as characterising the septentrional species of the tribe. Come away, doctor!”
And off trotted the man of science to his library, closely followed by the scarcely less eager dominie.
At the far end of the dimly-lighted room stood the constables, on either side of an aged couple of vagabonds. The old man was arrayed in a long coat which nearly reached the ground, leaving only a glimpse of a stained and weather-beaten pair of pantaloons and striped parti-coloured stockings beneath. The old woman wore a shawl, gipsy fashion, over her head, and reaching to her feet, which were shod in unusually large and heavy hob-nailed boots. The faces and hands of both were black with dirt, and bronzed with heat, and as they stood there trembling in the grasp of the law, with chattering teeth and tottering knees, they looked a veritable picture of outcast humanity.
“Prudhom, my boy,” whispered the magistrate to his guest, with a most unjudicial nudge, to emphasise his remarks, “they’re old ones. Was ever such luck! Knowing ones, too, I guess: they’ll try to trick us with their gammon, you see. He! he! Now, constable, what have you got here?”
For the first time the elderly couple lifted their heads and looked towards the Bench. As they did so they uttered an incoherent ejaculation, and attempted to spring forward. But the active and intelligent servants of the law checked them by a vigorous grip of their arms, and crying “Silence!” in their most majestic and menacing tones, reduced them at last to order.
“See that?” whispered the professor to the doctor; “most characteristic. Simulation is of the very essence of their race. Oh, this is beautiful! Did you catch what they said just then? It was an expression in the Maeso-Shemitic dialect, still to be found in the south of Spain and on the old Moorish coast of Africa. I know it well. Well, constable?”
“If you please, your honour, I was passing near the school about half-past five this afternoon along with my brother officer when I observe the defendants crawling along beside the wall. I keeps my eye on them, and observe them going in the direction of Deadman’s Lane. I follows unobserved, and observes them crawl behind a hedge. I waits to observe what follows, and presently I observe a young gentleman walking down the lane. As I expects, the male defendant comes out and offers to tell him his fortune, and I observes the young gentleman give the parties money. I waits till he leaves, and then with my brother officer we arrest the parties. That’s all, your worship. Stand still, you wagabone you; do you hear?”
This last observation was addressed, not to his worship, but to the female prisoner, who once more made an effort to step forward and speak. The grip of the constable kept her where she was, but, heedless of this threatening gesture, she cried out, in a shrill, trembling voice—
“Please, sir—please, doctor, we’re two of your boys.”
The doctor, who had been intently looking out for the curved nostril alluded to by his host, started as if he had been shot.
“Eh, what?” he gasped; “what was that I heard?”
“Why,” said the professor, in ecstasy, “it’s just as I told you. Dissimulation is second nature to the tribe. No he is too big for them. The old lady says she and the other rogue are your children. Doctor, there’s a notion for you!—an old bachelor like you, too! He! he!”
“We are indeed!” cried the old man, echoing the shrill tones of his helpmeet. “I’m Morgan, Dr Prudhom, and he’s Dell. Indeed, we’re speaking the truth. We only did it—”
“There, you see,” once more observed the delighted professor; “it’s the very thing I knew would happen. They know you are a schoolmaster, and they want you to believe— Oh, this is really most interesting.”
The doctor seemed to find it interesting. He changed colour several times, and looked hard at the two reprobates before him. But their weather-and-dust-beaten countenances conveyed no information to his mind. Their voices certainly did startle him with something like a familiar sound; but might not this be part of the deep dissimulation dwelt upon with so much emphasis by his learned friend?
“I wouldn’t have missed this for twenty pounds,” said the magistrate, beaming on his guest; “my theories are confirmed to the letter.”
“We only did it for a lark, sir, and we’re awfully sorry,” cried the old man. “We really are, aren’t we, Dell?”
“Yes, sir,” cried the old lady; “please let us off this time.”
“Upon my word,” said the doctor, getting up and advancing towards the prisoners. “I don’t know—”
“Don’t be a fool, Prudhom; I know them of old. Sit down, man. Constable, I shall commit the prisoners. Where are my papers?”
“Oh, doctor, please save us!” cried the old lady again. “We are speaking the truth. Let us wash our faces and take off our cloaks, and you’ll see we are. Oh, we’ll never do it again!”
And before the doctor could reply, or the scandalised constables could prevent it, the two gipsies cast off their outer garments, and presented themselves to the bewildered spectators in the mud-stained jerseys and knickerbockers of the Holmhurst football club! I draw a veil over the explanations, the lectures, and the appeals which followed, as also I forbear to dwell upon the consternation of the man of science, and the cruel disorganisation of all his cherished theories. It is only fair to say that the professor bore no malice, when once he discovered how the matter stood, and used his magisterial influence with the doctor to procure at any rate a mitigated punishment for the culprits.
The delinquents were ordered off to the lavatory, and left there with a can of hot water and a cube of soap, to remove the wrinkles and sunburn from their crestfallen countenances. Which done, they humbly presented themselves in the library, where the doctor, looking very stern, stood already accoutred for the journey home. The leave-taking between the two old gentlemen was subdued and solemn, and then in grim silence Dr Prudhom stalked forth into the night, followed at a respectful distance by his trembling disciples.
Till that moment the thought of Bilk had never once crossed the minds of the agitated amateur gipsies, but it flashed across them now as the doctor strode straight for the cross roads. What if the miserable Alexander Magnus should have swallowed the absurd bait laid for him, and be in the act of making his fortune on the very spot they were to pass!
They held a hurried consultation in whisper on this terrible possibility. “We shall be expelled if it comes out!” groaned Dell. “Yes; we may as well tell him at once,” said Morgan. “He may not be there, you know; perhaps we’d better wait and see, in case.”
So they went on in the doctor’s wake, nearer and nearer to the fatal cross roads at every step.
Suddenly, as they came within a hundred yards of the signpost, the doctor stood still and uttered an exclamation, the meaning of which they were able to guess only too readily. Straining their eyes in the direction indicated, they could discern a white shadowy form hovering in the road before them. “What’s that?” exclaimed the doctor in a whisper. Dell was conscious of a secret nudge as Morgan gasped—“Oh, it looks like a ghost! Oh, doctor!” and the two boys clung wildly to the doctor’s arm, trembling and gasping with well-feigned terror.
Dr Prudhom trembled too, but his agitation was unfeigned. The three stood still breathless, and watched the dim figure as it hovered across their path, and then vanished into the darkness.
“What can it be?” said the doctor, bracing himself up with an effort, and preparing to walk on.
“Oh, please, sir,” cried the boys, “don’t go on! do let us turn back! Oh dear! oh dear!”
“Foolish boys!” said the doctor; “haven’t you sense enough to know that no such thing as—ah! there it is again!”
Yes, there it was again. A faint beam of the moon broke through the clouds, and lit up the white figure once more where it stood close to the sign-post. And as they watched it seemed to grow, rising higher and higher till its head nearly touched the cross-bars. Then suddenly, and with a groan, it seemed to drop into the earth, and all was darkness once more. The boys clung one on each side to the doctor, who trembled hardly less than themselves. No one dared move, or speak, or utter a sound.
Again the moon sent forth a beam, as the figure once more appeared and slowly rose higher and higher. For a moment it seemed as if it would soar into the air, but again with a dull crash it descended and vanished.
“Boys,” said the doctor hoarsely, “I confess I—I am puzzled!”
“I—I wonder,” said Dell, “if I ever dare go and see what it is. I say, M–m–organ, would you g–g–go with me—for the d–d–doctor’s sake?”
“Oh, Dell! I’m afraid. But—yes, I’ll try.”
“Brave boys!” said the doctor, never taking his eyes off the spot where the ghost last vanished.
The two boys stole forward on tiptoe, holding one another’s arms; then suddenly they broke into a rush straight for the sign-post.
There was a loud shriek as the white figure rose up to meet them.
“Bilk, you idiot, cut back for your life! here’s the doctor! We were only having a lark with you. Do cut your sticks, and slip in quietly, and it’ll be all right. Look alive, or we’re all three done for!”
The ill-starred Bilk needed no further invitation. He started to run as fast as his long legs would carry him, his night-gown flapping in the evening breeze, and his two persecutors following him with cries of “Booh!”
“Shoo!” and other formulae for exorcising evil spirits.
After a hundred yards or so the two heroes gave up the chase, and returned to the slowly-reviving doctor.
“Come along, sir,” said Dell; “there’s nothing there; it vanished as soon as we got to it. Let us be quick, sir, in case it comes back.”
The remainder of the walk home that evening, I need hardly observe, was brisk; but it was not so brisk as the same journey accomplished by Alexander Magnus Bilk, who had reached the school a full quarter of an hour before his pursuers, and was safe between his blankets by the time that they peeped into his room on their way to bed, and whispered consolingly, “It’s all up with the duke’s daughter now, old man!”
The doctor may have had some dim suspicion of the real state of affairs; but if so, he gave no sign, and the boys, happy in their escape from what might have proved a grave matter, were content to forego all further practical jokes of the kind for the rest of the session.