The Open Door by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant
I took the house of Brentwood on my return from India in 18—, for the
temporary accommodation of my family, until I could find a permanent
home for them. It had many advantages which made it peculiarly
appropriate. It was within reach of Edinburgh; and my boy Roland, whose
education had been considerably neglected, could ride in and out to
school; which was thought to be better for him than either leaving home
altogether or staying there always with a tutor. The lad was doubly
precious to us, being the only one left to us of many; and he was
fragile in body, we believed, and deeply sensitive in mind. The two
girls also found at Brentwood everything they wanted. They were near
enough to Edinburgh to have masters and lessons as many as they required
for completing that never-ending education which the young people seem
to require nowadays.
Brentwood stands on that fine and wealthy slope of country—one of the
richest in Scotland—which lies between the Pentland Hills and the
Firth. In clear weather you could see the blue gleam of the great
estuary on one side of you; and on the other the blue heights.
Edinburgh—with its two lesser heights, the Castle and the Calton Hill,
its spires and towers piercing through the smoke, and Arthur's Seat
lying crouched behind, like a guardian no longer very needful, taking
his repose beside the well-beloved charge, which is now, so to speak,
able to take care of itself without him—lay at our right hand.
The village of Brentwood, with its prosaic houses, lay in a hollow
almost under our house. Village architecture does not flourish in
Scotland. Still a cluster of houses on different elevations, with scraps
of garden coming in between, a hedgerow with clothes laid out to dry,
the opening of a street with its rural sociability, the women at their
doors, the slow wagon lumbering along, gives a centre to the landscape.
In the park which surrounded the house were the ruins of the former
mansion of Brentwood,—a much smaller and less important house than the
solid Georgian edifice which we inhabited. The ruins were picturesque,
however, and gave importance to the place. Even we, who were but
temporary tenants, felt a vague pride in them, as if they somehow
reflected a certain consequence upon ourselves. The old building had the
remains of a tower,—an indistinguishable mass of masonwork, overgrown
with ivy; and the shells of the walls attached to this were half filled
up with soil. At a little distance were some very commonplace and
disjointed fragments of buildings, one of them suggesting a certain
pathos by its very commonness and the complete wreck which it showed.
This was the end of a low gable, a bit of grey wall, all incrusted with
lichens, in which was a common door-way. Probably it had been a
servants' entrance, a backdoor, or opening into what are called "the
offices" in Scotland. No offices remained to be entered,—pantry and
kitchen had all been swept out of being; but there stood the door-way
open and vacant, free to all the winds, to the rabbits, and every wild
creature. It struck my eye, the first time I went to Brentwood, like a
melancholy comment upon a life that was over. A door that led to
nothing,—closed once, perhaps, with anxious care, bolted and guarded,
now void of any meaning. It impressed me, I remember, from the first; so
perhaps it may be said that my mind was prepared to attach to it an
importance which nothing justified.
The summer was a very happy period of repose for us all; and it was when
the family had settled down for the winter, when the days were short and
dark, and the rigorous reign of frost upon us, that the incidents
occurred which alone could justify me in intruding upon the world my
I was absent in London when these events began. In London an old Indian
plunges back into the interests with which all his previous life has
been associated, and meets old friends at every step. I had been
circulating among some half-dozen of these and had missed some of my
home letters. It is never safe to miss one's letters. In this transitory
life, as the Prayer-book says, how can one ever be certain what is going
to happen? All was well at home. I knew exactly (I thought) what they
would have to say to me: "The weather has been so fine, that Roland has
not once gone by train, and he enjoys the ride beyond anything." "Dear
papa, be sure that you don't forget anything, but bring us so-and-so,
and so-and-so,"—a list as long as my arm. Dear girls and dearer mother!
I would not for the world have forgotten their commissions, or lost
their little letters!
When I got back to my club, however, three or four letters were lying
for me, upon some of which I noticed the "immediate," "urgent," which
old-fashioned people and anxious people still believe will influence the
post-office and quicken the speed of the mails. I was about to open one
of these, when the club porter brought me two telegrams, one of which,
he said, had arrived the night before. I opened, as was to be expected,
the last first, and this was what I read: "Why don't you come or answer?
For God's sake, come. He is much worse." This was a thunderbolt to fall
upon a man's head who had one only son, and he the light of his eyes!
The other telegram, which I opened with hands trembling so much that I
lost time by my haste, was to much the same purpose: "No better; doctor
afraid of brain-fever. Calls for you day and night. Let nothing detain
you." The first thing I did was to look up the time-tables to see if
there was any way of getting off sooner than by the night-train, though
I knew well enough there was not; and then I read the letters, which
furnished, alas! too clearly, all the details. They told me that the boy
had been pale for some time, with a scared look. His mother had noticed
it before I left home, but would not say anything to alarm me. This look
had increased day by day; and soon it was observed that Roland came home
at a wild gallop through the park, his pony panting and in foam, himself
"as white as a sheet," but with the perspiration streaming from his
forehead. For a long time he had resisted all questioning, but at length
had developed such strange changes of mood, showing a reluctance to go
to school, a desire to be fetched in the carriage at night,—which was a
ridiculous piece of luxury,—an unwillingness to go out into the
grounds, and nervous start at every sound, that his mother had insisted
upon an explanation. When the boy—our boy Roland, who had never known
what fear was—began to talk to her of voices he had heard in the park,
and shadows that had appeared to him among the ruins, my wife promptly
put him to bed and sent for Dr. Simson, which, of course, was the only
thing to do.
I hurried off that evening, as may be supposed, with an anxious heart.
How I got through the hours before the starting of the train, I cannot
tell. We must all be thankful for the quickness of the railway when in
anxiety; but to have thrown myself into a post-chaise as soon as horses
could be put to, would have been a relief. I got to Edinburgh very early
in the blackness of the winter morning, and scarcely dared look the man
in the face, at whom I gasped, "What news?" My wife had sent the
brougham for me, which I concluded, before the man spoke, was a bad
sign. His answer was that stereotyped answer which leaves the
imagination so wildly free,—"Just the same." Just the same! What might
that mean? The horses seemed to me to creep along the long dark country
road. As we dashed through the park, I thought I heard some one moaning
among the trees, and clenched my fist at him (whoever he might be) with
fury. Why had the fool of a woman at the gate allowed any one to come in
to disturb the quiet of the place? If I had not been in such hot haste
to get home, I think I should have stopped the carriage and got out to
see what tramp it was that had made an entrance, and chosen my grounds,
of all places in the world,—when my boy was ill!—to grumble and groan
in. But I had no reason to complain of our slow pace here. The horses
flew like lightning along the intervening path, and drew up at the door
all panting, as if they had run a race. My wife stood waiting to receive
me, with a pale face, and a candle in her hand, which made her look
paler still as the wind blew the flame about. "He is sleeping," she said
in a whisper, as if her voice might wake him. And I replied, when I
could find my voice, also in a whisper, as though the jingling of the
horses' furniture and the sound of their hoofs must not have been more
dangerous. I stood on the steps with her a moment, almost afraid to go
in, now that I was here; and it seemed to me that I saw without
observing, if I may so say, that the horses were unwilling to turn
round, though their stables lay that way, or that the men were
unwilling. These things occurred to me afterwards, though at the moment
I was not capable of anything but to ask questions and to hear of the
condition of the boy.
I looked at him from the door of his room, for we were afraid to go
near, lest we should disturb that blessed sleep. It looked like actual
sleep, not the lethargy into which my wife told me he would sometimes
fall. She told me everything in the next room, which communicated with
his, rising now and then and going to the door of the communication; and
in this there was much that was very startling and confusing to the
mind. It appeared that ever since the winter began—since it was early
dark, and night had fallen before his return from school—he had been
hearing voices among the ruins; at first only a groaning, he said, at
which his pony was as much alarmed as he was, but by degrees a voice.
The tears ran down my wife's cheeks as she described to me how he would
start up in the night and cry out. "Oh, mother, let me in! oh, mother,
let me in!" with a pathos which rent her heart. And she sitting there
all the time, only longing to do everything his heart could desire! But
though she would try to soothe him, crying, "You are at home, my
darling. I am here. Don't you know me? Your mother is here!" he would
only stare at her, and after a while spring up again with the same cry.
At other times he would be quite reasonable, she said, asking eagerly
when I was coming, but declaring that he must go with me as soon as I
did so, "to let them in." "The doctor thinks his nervous system must
have received a shock," my wife said. "Oh, Henry, can it be that we
have pushed him on too much with his work—a delicate boy like Roland?
And what is his work in comparison with his health? Even you would think
little of honours or prizes if it hurt the boy's health." Even I!—as if
I were an inhuman father sacrificing my child to my ambition. But I
would not increase her trouble by taking any notice.
There was just daylight enough to see his face when I went to him; and
what a change in a fortnight! He was paler and more worn, I thought,
than even in those dreadful days in the plains before we left India. His
hair seemed to me to have grown long and lank; his eyes were like
blazing lights projecting out of his white face. He got hold of my hand
in a cold and tremulous clutch, and waved to everybody to go away. "Go
away—even mother," he said; "go away." This went to her heart; for she
did not like that even I should have more of the boy's confidence than
herself; but my wife has never been a woman to think of herself, and she
left us alone. "Are they all gone?" he said eagerly. "They would not let
me speak. The doctor treated me as if I were a fool. You know I am not a
"Yes, yes, my boy, I know. But you are ill, and quiet is so necessary.
You are not only not a fool, Roland, but you are reasonable and
understand. When you are ill you must deny yourself; you must not do
everything that you might do being well."
He waved his thin hand with a sort of indignation. "Then, father, I am
not ill," he cried. "Oh, I thought when you came you would not stop
me,—you would see the sense of it! What do you think is the matter with
me, all of you? Simson is well enough; but he is only a doctor. What do
you think is the matter with me? I am no more ill than you are. A
doctor, of course, he thinks you are ill the moment he looks at
you—that's what he's there for—and claps you into bed."
"Which is the best place for you at present, my dear boy."
"I made up my mind," cried the little fellow, "that I would stand it
till you came home. I said to myself, I won't frighten mother and the
girls. But now, father," he cried, half jumping out of bed, "it's not
illness: it's a secret."
His eyes shone so wildly, his face was so swept with strong feeling,
that my heart sank within me. It could be nothing but fever that did it,
and fever had been so fatal. I got him into my arms to put him back into
bed. "Roland," I said, humouring the poor child, which I knew was the
only way, "if you are going to tell me this secret to do any good, you
know you must be quite quiet, and not excite yourself. If you excite
yourself, I must not let you speak."
"Yes, father," said the boy. He was quiet directly, like a man, as if he
quite understood. When I had laid him back on his pillow, he looked up
at me with that grateful, sweet look with which children, when they are
ill, break one's heart, the water coming into his eyes in his weakness.
"I was sure as soon as you were here you would know what to do," he
"To be sure, my boy. Now keep quiet, and tell it all out like a man." To
think I was telling lies to my own child! for I did it only to humour
him, thinking, poor little fellow, his brain was wrong.
"Yes, father. Father, there is some one in the park,—some one that has
been badly used."
"Hush, my dear; you remember there is to be no excitement. Well, who is
this somebody, and who has been ill-using him? We will soon put a stop
"Ah," cried Roland, "but it is not so easy as you think. I don't know
who it is. It is just a cry. Oh, if you could hear it! It gets into my
head in my sleep. I heard it as clear—as clear; and they think that I
am dreaming, or raving perhaps," the boy said, with a sort of disdainful
This look of his perplexed me; it was less like fever than I thought.
"Are you quite sure you have not dreamed it, Roland?" I said.
"Dreamed?—that!" He was springing up again when he suddenly bethought
himself, and lay down flat, with the same sort of smile on his face.
"The pony heard it, too," he said. "She jumped as if she had been shot.
If I had not grasped at the reins—for I was frightened, father——"
"No shame to you, my boy," said I, though I scarcely knew why.
"If I hadn't held to her like a leech, she'd have pitched me over her
head, and never drew breath till we were at the door. Did the pony
dream it?" he said, with a soft disdain, yet indulgence for my
foolishness. Then he added slowly, "It was only a cry the first time,
and all the time before you went away. I wouldn't tell you, for it was
so wretched to be frightened. I thought it might be a hare or a rabbit
snared, and I went in the morning and looked; but there was nothing. It
was after you went I heard it really first; and this is what he says."
He raised himself on his elbow close to me, and looked me in the face:
"Oh, mother, let me in! oh, mother, let me in!" As he said the words a
mist came over his face, the mouth quivered, the soft features all
melted and changed, and when he had ended these pitiful words, dissolved
in a shower of heavy tears.
Was it a hallucination? Was it the fever of the brain? Was it the
disordered fancy caused by great bodily weakness? How could I tell? I
thought it wisest to accept it as if it were all true.
"This is very touching, Roland," I said.
"Oh, if you had just heard it, father! I said to myself, if father heard
it he would do something; but mamma, you know, she's given over to
Simson, and that fellow's a doctor, and never thinks of anything but
clapping you into bed."
"We must not blame Simson for being a doctor, Roland."
"No, no," said my boy, with delightful toleration and indulgence; "oh,
no: that's the good of him; that's what he's for; I know that. But
you—you are different; you are just father; and you'll do
something—directly, papa, directly; this very night."
"Surely," I said. "No doubt it is some little lost child."
He gave me a sudden, swift look, investigating my face as though to see
whether, after all, this was everything my eminence as "father" came
to,—no more than that. Then he got hold of my shoulder, clutching it
with his thin hand: "Look here," he said, with a quiver in his voice:
"suppose it wasn't—living at all!"
"My dear boy, how then could you have heard it?" I said.
He turned away from me with a pettish exclamation,—"As if you didn't
know better than that!"
"Do you want to tell me it is a ghost?" I said.
Roland withdrew his hand; his countenance assumed an aspect of great
dignity and gravity; a slight quiver remained about his lips. "Whatever
it was—you always said we were not to call names. It was something—in
trouble. Oh, father, in terrible trouble!"
"But, my boy," I said (I was at my wits' end), "if it was a child that
was lost, or any poor human creature—but, Roland, what do you want me
"I should know if I was you," said the child eagerly. "That is what I
always said to myself,—Father will know. Oh, papa, papa, to have to
face it night after night, in such terrible, terrible trouble, and never
to be able to do it any good! I don't want to cry; it's like a baby, I
know; but what can I do else? Out there all by itself in the ruin, and
nobody to help it! I can't bear it!" cried my generous boy. And in his
weakness he burst out, after many attempts to restrain it, into a great
childish fit of sobbing and tears.
I do not know that I was ever in a greater perplexity in my life; and
afterwards, when I thought of it, there was something comic in it too.
It is bad enough to find your child's mind possessed with the conviction
that he had seen, or heard, a ghost; but that he should require you to
go instantly and help that ghost was the most bewildering experience
that had ever come my way. I did my best to console my boy without
giving any promise of this astonishing kind; but he was too sharp for
me; he would have none of my caresses. With sobs breaking in at
intervals upon his voice, and the rain-drops hanging on his eyelids, he
yet returned to the charge.
"It will be there now!—it will be there all the night! Oh, think,
papa,—think if it was me! I can't rest for thinking of it. Don't!" he
cried, putting away my hand,—"don't! You go and help it, and mother can
take care of me."
"But, Roland, what can I do?"
My boy opened his eyes, which were large with weakness and fever, and
gave me a smile such, I think, as sick children only know the secret of.
"I was sure you would know as soon as you came. I always said, 'Father
will know.' And mother," he cried, with a softening of repose upon his
face, his limbs relaxing, his form sinking with a luxurious ease in his
bed,—"mother can come and take care of me."
I called her, and saw him turn to her with the complete dependence of a
child; and then I went away and left them, as perplexed a man as any in
Scotland. I must say, however, I had this consolation, that my mind was
greatly eased about Roland. He might be under a hallucination; but his
head was clear enough, and I did not think him so ill as everybody else
did. The girls were astonished even at the ease with which I took it.
"How do you think he is?" they said in a breath, coming round me, laying
hold of me. "Not half so ill as I expected," I said; "not very bad at
all." "Oh, papa, you are a darling!" cried Agatha, kissing me, and
crying upon my shoulder; while little Jeanie, who was as pale as Roland,
clasped both her arms round mine, and could not speak at all. I knew
nothing about it, not half so much as Simson; but they believed in me:
they had a feeling that all would go right now. God is very good to you
when your children look to you like that. It makes one humble, not
proud. I was not worthy of it; and then I recollected that I had to act
the part of a father to Roland's ghost,—which made me almost laugh,
though I might just as well have cried. It was the strangest mission
that ever was intrusted to mortal man.
It was then I remembered suddenly the looks of the men when they turned
to take the brougham to the stables in the dark that morning. They had
not liked it, and the horses had not liked it. I remembered that even
in my anxiety about Roland I had heard them tearing along the avenue
back to the stables, and had made a memorandum mentally that I must
speak of it. It seemed to me that the best thing I could do was to go to
the stables now and make a few inquiries. The coachman was the head of
this little colony, and it was to his house I went to pursue my
investigations. He was a native of the district, and had taken care of
the place in the absence of the family for years; it was impossible but
that he must know everything that was going on, and all the traditions
of the place. The men, I could see, eyed me anxiously when I thus
appeared at such an hour among them, and followed me with their eyes to
Jarvis's house, where he lived alone with his old wife, their children
being all married and out in the world. Mrs. Jarvis met me with anxious
questions. How was the poor young gentleman? But the others knew, I
could see by their faces, that not even this was the foremost thing in
After a while I elicited without much difficulty the whole story. In the
opinion of the Jarvises, and of everybody about, the certainty that the
place was haunted was beyond all doubt. As Sandy and his wife warmed to
the tale, one tripping up another in their eagerness to tell everything,
it gradually developed as distinct a superstition as I ever heard, and
not without poetry and pathos. How long it was since the voice had been
heard first, nobody could tell with certainty. Jarvis's opinion was that
his father, who had been coachman at Brentwood before him, had never
heard anything about it, and that the whole thing had arisen within the
last ten years, since the complete dismantling of the old house; which
was a wonderfully modern date for a tale so well authenticated.
According to these witnesses, and to several whom I questioned
afterwards, and who were all in perfect agreement, it was only in the
months of November and December that "the visitation" occurred. During
these months, the darkest of the year, scarcely a night passed without
the recurrence of these inexplicable cries. Nothing, it was said, had
ever been seen,—at least, nothing that could be identified. Some
people, bolder or more imaginative than the others, had seen the
darkness moving, Mrs. Jarvis said, with unconscious poetry. It began
when night fell, and continued at intervals till day broke. Very often
it was only an inarticulate cry and moaning, but sometimes the words
which had taken possession of my poor boy's fancy had been distinctly
audible,—"Oh, mother, let me in!" The Jarvises were not aware that
there had ever been any investigation into it. The estate of Brentwood
had lapsed into the hands of a distant branch of the family, who had
lived but little there; and of the many people who had taken it, as I
had done, few had remained through two Decembers. And nobody had taken
the trouble to make a very close examination into the facts. "No, no,"
Jarvis said, shaking his head, "No, no, Cornel. Wha wad set themsels up
for a laughin'-stock to a' the country-side, making a wark about a
ghost? Naebody believes in ghosts. It bid to be the wind in the trees,
the last gentleman said, or some effec' o' the water wrastlin' among the
rocks. He said it was a' quite easy explained; but he gave up the hoose.
And when you cam, Cornel, we were awfu' anxious you should never hear.
What for should I have spoiled the bargain and hairmed the property for
"Do you call my child's life nothing?" I said in the trouble of the
moment, unable to restrain myself. "And instead of telling this all to
me, you have told it to him,—to a delicate boy, a child unable to sift
evidence or judge for himself, a tender-hearted young creature——"
I was walking about the room with an anger all the hotter that I felt it
to be most likely quite unjust. My heart was full of bitterness against
the stolid retainers of a family who were content to risk other people's
children and comfort rather than let a house lie empty. If I had been
warned I might have taken precautions, or left the place, or sent Roland
away, a hundred things which now I could not do; and here I was with my
boy in a brain-fever, and his life, the most precious life on earth,
hanging in the balance, dependent on whether or not I could get to the
reason of a commonplace ghost-story!
"Cornel," said Jarvis solemnly, "and she'll bear me witness,—the
young gentleman never heard a word from me—no, nor from either groom or
gardner; I'll gie ye my word for that. In the first place, he's no a lad
that invites ye to talk. There are some that are, and that arena. Some
will draw ye on, till ye've tellt them a' the clatter of the toun, and
a' ye ken, and whiles mair. But Maister Roland, his mind's fu' of his
books. He's aye civil and kind, and a fine lad; but no that sort. And ye
see it's for a' our interest, Cornel, that you should stay at Brentwood.
I took it upon me mysel to pass the word,—'No a syllable to Maister
Roland, nor to the young leddies—no a syllable.' The women-servants,
that have little reason to be out at night, ken little or nothing about
it. And some think it grand to have a ghost so long as they're no in the
way of coming across it. If you had been tellt the story to begin with,
maybe ye would have thought so yourself."
This was true enough. I should not have been above the idea of a ghost
myself! Oh, yes, I claim no exemption. The girls would have been
delighted. I could fancy their eagerness, their interest, and
excitement. No; if we had been told, it would have done no good,—we
should have made the bargain all the more eagerly, the fools that we
"Come with me, Jarvis," I said hastily, "and we'll make an attempt at
least to investigate. Say nothing to the men or to anybody. Be ready for
me about ten o'clock."
"Me, Cornel!" Jarvis said, in a faint voice. I had not been looking at
him in my own preoccupation, but when I did so, I found that the
greatest change had come over the fat and ruddy coachman. "Me, Cornel!"
he repeated, wiping the perspiration from his brow. "There's nothin' I
wouldna do to pleasure ye, Cornel, but if ye'll reflect that I am no
used to my feet. With a horse atween my legs, or the reins in my hand,
I'm maybe nae worse than other men; but on fit, Cornel—it's no
the—bogles;—but I've been cavalry, ye see," with a little hoarse
laugh, "a' my life. To face a thing ye dinna understan'—on your feet,
"He believes in it, Cornel, and you dinna believe in it," the woman
"Will you come with me?" I said, turning to her.
She jumped back, upsetting her chair in her bewilderment. "Me!" with a
scream, and then fell into a sort of hysterical laugh. "I wouldna say
but what I would go; but what would the folk say to hear of Cornel
Mortimer with an auld silly woman at his heels?"
The suggestion made me laugh too, though I had little inclination for
it. "I'm sorry you have so little spirit, Jarvis," I said. "I must find
some one else, I suppose."
Jarvis, touched by this, began to remonstrate, but I cut him short. My
butler was a soldier who had been with me in India, and was not supposed
to fear anything,—man or devil,—certainly not the former; and I felt
that I was losing time. The Jarvises were too thankful to get rid of me.
They attended me to the door with the most anxious courtesies. Outside,
the two grooms stood close by, a little confused by my sudden exit. I
don't know if perhaps they had been listening,—at least standing as
near as possible, to catch any scrap of the conversation. I waved my
hand to them as I went past, in answer to their salutations, and it was
very apparent to me that they also were glad to see me go.
And it will be thought very strange, but it would be weak not to add,
that I myself, though bent on the investigation I have spoken of,
pledged to Roland to carry it out, and feeling that my boy's health,
perhaps his life, depended on the result of my inquiry,—I felt the most
unaccountable reluctance, now that it was dark, to pass the ruins on my
way home. My curiosity was intense; and yet it was all my mind could do
to pull my body along. I dare say the scientific people would describe
it the other way, and attribute my cowardice to the state of my stomach.
I went on; but if I had followed my impulse, I should have turned and
bolted. Everything in me seemed to cry out against it; my heart thumped,
my pulses all began, like sledge-hammers, beating against my ears and
every sensitive part. It was very dark, as I have said; the old house,
with its shapeless tower, loomed a heavy mass through the darkness,
which was only not entirely so solid as itself. On the other hand, the
great dark cedars of which we were so proud seemed to fill up the night.
My foot strayed out of the path in my confusion and the gloom together,
and I brought myself up with a cry as I felt myself knocked against
something solid. What was it? The contact with hard stone and lime and
prickly bramble-bushes restored me a little to myself. "Oh, it's only
the old gable," I said aloud, with a little laugh to reassure myself.
The rough feeling of the stones reconciled me. As I groped about thus, I
shook off my visionary folly. What so easily explained as that I should
have strayed from the path in the darkness? This brought me back to
common existence, as if I had been shaken by a wise hand out of all the
silliness of superstition. How silly it was, after all! What did it
matter which path I took? I laughed again, this time with better heart,
when suddenly, in a moment, the blood was chilled in my veins, a shiver
stole along my spine, my faculties seemed to forsake me. Close by me, at
my side, at my feet, there was a sigh. No, not a groan, not a moaning,
not anything so tangible,—a perfectly soft, faint, inarticulate sigh. I
sprang back, and my heart stopped beating. Mistaken! no, mistake was
impossible. I heard it as clearly as I hear myself speak; a long, soft,
weary sigh, as if drawn to the utmost, and emptying out a load of
sadness that filled the breast. To hear this in the solitude, in the
dark, in the night (though it was still early), had an effect which I
cannot describe. I feel it now,—something cold creeping over me up into
my hair, and down to my feet, which refused to move. I cried out, with a
trembling voice, "Who is there?" as I had done before; but there was no
I got home I don't quite know how; but in my mind there was no longer
any indifference as to the thing, whatever it was, that haunted these
ruins. My scepticism disappeared like a mist. I was as firmly
determined that there was something as Roland was. I did not for a
moment pretend to myself that it was possible I could be deceived; there
were movements and noises which I understood all about,—cracklings of
small branches in the frost, and little rolls of gravel on the path,
such as have a very eerie sound sometimes, and perplex you with wonder
as to who has done it, when there is no real mystery; but I assure you
all these little movements of nature don't affect you one bit when
there is something. I understood them. I did not understand the sigh.
That was not simple nature; there was meaning in it, feeling, the soul
of a creature invisible. This is the thing that human nature trembles
at,—a creature invisible, yet with sensations, feelings, a power
somehow of expressing itself. Bagley was in the hall as usual when I
went in. He was always there in the afternoon, always with the
appearance of perfect occupation, yet, so far as I know, never doing
anything. The door was open, so that I hurried in without any pause,
breathless; but the sight of his calm regard, as he came to help me off
with my overcoat, subdued me in a moment. Anything out of the way,
anything incomprehensible, faded to nothing in the presence of Bagley.
You saw and wondered how he was made: the parting of his hair, the tie
of his white neckcloth, the fit of his trousers, all perfect as works of
art: but you could see how they were done, which makes all the
difference. I flung myself upon him, so to speak, without waiting to
note the extreme unlikeness of the man to anything of the kind I meant.
"Bagley," I said, "I want you to come out with me tonight to watch
"Poachers, Colonel?" he said, a gleam of pleasure running all over him.
"No, Bagley; a great deal worse," I cried.
"Yes, Colonel; at what hour, sir?" the man said; but then I had not told
him what it was.
It was ten o'clock when we set out. All was perfectly quiet indoors. My
wife was with Roland, who had been quite calm, she said, and who
(though, no doubt, the fever must run its course) had been better ever
since I came. I told Bagley to put on a thick greatcoat over his evening
coat, and did the same myself, with strong boots; for the soil was like
a sponge, or worse. Talking to him, I almost forgot what we were going
to do. It was darker even than it had been before, and Bagley kept very
close to me as we went along. I had a small lantern in my hand, which
gave us a partial guidance. We had come to the corner where the path
turns. On one side was the bowling-green, which the girls had taken
possession of for their croquet-ground,—a wonderful enclosure
surrounded by high hedges of holly, three hundred years old and more; on
the other, the ruins. Both were black as night; but before we got so
far, there was a little opening in which we could just discern the trees
and the lighter line of the road. I thought it best to pause there and
take breath. "Bagley," I said, "there is something about these ruins I
don't understand. It is there I am going. Keep your eyes open and your
wits about you. Be ready to pounce upon any stranger you see,—anything,
man or woman. Don't hurt, but seize—anything you see." "Colonel," said
Bagley, with a little tremor in his breath, "they do say there's things
there—as is neither man nor woman." There was no time for words. "Are
you game to follow me, my man? that's the question," I said. Bagley fell
in without a word, and saluted. I knew then I had nothing to fear.
We went, so far as I could guess, exactly as I had come, when I heard
that sigh. The darkness, however, was so complete that all marks, as of
trees or paths, disappeared. One moment we felt our feet on the gravel,
another sinking noiselessly into the slippery grass, that was all. I had
shut up my lantern, not wishing to scare any one, whoever it might be.
Bagley followed, it seemed to me, exactly in my footsteps as I made my
way, as I supposed, towards the mass of the ruined house. We seemed to
take a long time groping along seeking this; the squash of the wet soil
under our feet was the only thing that marked our progress. After a
while I stood still to see, or rather feel, where we were. The darkness
was very still, but no stiller than is usual in a winter's night. The
sounds I have mentioned—the crackling of twigs, the roll of a pebble,
the sound of some rustle in the dead leaves, or creeping creature on the
grass—were audible when you listened, all mysterious enough when your
mind is disengaged, but to me cheering now as signs of the livingness of
nature, even in the death of the frost. As we stood still there came up
from the trees in the glen the prolonged hoot of an owl. Bagley started
with alarm, being in a state of general nervousness, and not knowing
what he was afraid of. But to me the sound was encouraging and pleasant,
being so comprehensible. "An owl," I said, under my breath. "Y—es,
Colonel," said Bagley, his teeth chattering. We stood still about five
minutes, while it broke into the still brooding of the air, the sound
widening out in circles, dying upon the darkness. This sound, which is
not a cheerful one, made me almost gay. It was natural, and relieved the
tension of the mind. I moved on with new courage, my nervous excitement
When all at once, quite suddenly, close to us, at our feet, there broke
out a cry. I made a spring backwards in the first moment of surprise and
horror, and in doing so came sharply against the same rough masonry and
brambles that had struck me before. This new sound came upwards from the
ground,—a low, moaning, wailing voice, full of suffering and pain. The
contrast between it and the hoot of the owl was indescribable,—the one
with a wholesome wildness and naturalness that hurt nobody; the other, a
sound that made one's blood curdle, full of human misery. With a great
deal of fumbling,—for in spite of everything I could do to keep up my
courage my hands shook,—I managed to remove the slide of my lantern.
The light leaped out like something living, and made the place visible
in a moment. We were what would have been inside the ruined building had
anything remained but the gable-wall which I have described. It was
close to us, the vacant door-way in it going out straight into the
blackness outside. The light showed the bit of wall, the ivy glistening
upon it in clouds of dark green, the bramble-branches waving, and below,
the open door,—a door that led to nothing. It was from this the voice
came which died out just as the light flashed upon this strange scene.
There was a moment's silence, and then it broke forth again. The sound
was so near, so penetrating, so pitiful, that, in the nervous start I
gave, the light fell out of my hand. As I groped for it in the dark my
hand was clutched by Bagley, who, I think, must have dropped upon his
knees; but I was too much perturbed myself to think much of this. He
clutched at me in the confusion of his terror, forgetting all his usual
decorum. "For God's sake, what is it, sir?" he gasped. If I yielded,
there was evidently an end of both of us. "I can't tell," I said, "any
more than you; that's what we've got to find out. Up, man, up!" I pulled
him to his feet. "Will you go round and examine the other side, or will
you stay here with the lantern?" Bagley gasped at me with a face of
horror. "Can't we stay together, Colonel?" he said; his knees were
trembling under him. I pushed him against the corner of the wall, and
put the light into his hands. "Stand fast till I come back; shake
yourself together, man; let nothing pass you," I said. The voice was
within two or three feet of us; of that there could be no doubt.
I went myself to the other side of the wall, keeping close to it. The
light shook in Bagley's hand, but, tremulous though it was, shone out
through the vacant door, one oblong block of light marking all the
crumbling corners and hanging masses of foliage. Was that something dark
huddled in a heap by the side of it? I pushed forward across the light
in the door-way, and fell upon it with my hands; but it was only a
juniper-bush growing close against the wall. Meanwhile, the sight of my
figure crossing the door-way had brought Bagley's nervous excitement to
a height; he flew at me, gripping my shoulder. "I've got him, Colonel!
I've got him!" he cried, with a voice of sudden exultation. He thought
it was a man, and was at once relieved. But at the moment the voice
burst forth again between us, at our feet,—more close to us than any
separate being could be. He dropped off from me, and fell against the
wall, his jaw dropping as if he were dying. I suppose, at the same
moment, he saw that it was me whom he had clutched. I for my part, had
scarcely more command of myself. I snatched the light out of his hand,
and flashed it all about me wildly. Nothing,—the juniper-bush which I
thought I had never seen before, the heavy growth of the glistening ivy,
the brambles waving. It was close to my ears now, crying, crying,
pleading as if for life. Either I heard the same words Roland had heard,
or else, in my excitement, his imagination got possession of mine. The
voice went on, growing into distinct articulation, but wavering about,
now from one point, now from another, as if the owner of it were moving
slowly back and forward. "Mother! mother!" and then an outburst of
wailing. As my mind steadied, getting accustomed (as one's mind gets
accustomed to anything), it seemed to me as if some uneasy, miserable
creature was pacing up and down before a closed door. Sometimes—but
that must have been excitement—I thought I heard a sound like knocking,
and then another burst, "Oh, mother! mother!" All this close, close to
the space where I was standing with my lantern, now before me, now
behind me: a creature restless, unhappy, moaning, crying, before the
vacant door-way, which no one could either shut or open more.
"Do you hear it, Bagley? do you hear what it is saying?" I cried,
stepping in through the door-way. He was lying against the wall, his
eyes glazed, half dead with terror. He made a motion of his lips as if
to answer me, but no sounds came; then lifted his hand with a curious
imperative movement as if ordering me to be silent and listen. And how
long I did so I cannot tell. It began to have an interest, an exciting
hold upon me, which I could not describe. It seemed to call up visibly a
scene any one could understand,—a something shut out, restlessly
wandering to and fro; sometimes the voice dropped, as if throwing itself
down, sometimes wandered off a few paces, growing sharp and clear. "Oh,
mother, let me in! oh, mother, mother, let me in! oh, let me in." Every
word was clear to me. No wonder the boy had gone wild with pity. I tried
to steady my mind upon Roland, upon his conviction that I could do
something, but my head swam with the excitement, even when I partially
overcame the terror. At last the words died away, and there was a sound
of sobs and moaning. I cried out, "In the name of God who are you?" with
a kind of feeling in my mind that to use the name of God was profane,
seeing that I did not believe in ghosts or anything supernatural; but I
did it all the same, and waited, my heart giving a leap of terror lest
there should be a reply. Why this should have been I cannot tell, but I
had a feeling that if there was an answer it would be more than I could
bear. But there was no answer, the moaning went on, and then, as if it
had been real, the voice rose a little higher again, the words
recommenced, "Oh, mother, let me in! oh, mother, let me in!" with an
expression that was heart-breaking to hear.
As if it had been real! What do I mean by that? I suppose I got less
alarmed as the thing went on. I began to recover the use of my
senses,—I seemed to explain it all to myself by saying that this had
once happened, that it was a recollection of a real scene. Why there
should have seemed something quite satisfactory and composing in this
explanation I cannot tell, but so it was. I began to listen almost as if
it had been a play, forgetting Bagley, who, I almost think, had fainted,
leaning against the wall. I was started out of this strange
spectatorship that had fallen upon me by the sudden rush of something
which made my heart jump once more, a large black figure in the door-way
waving its arms. "Come in! come in! come in!" it shouted out hoarsely
at the top of a deep bass voice, and then poor Bagley fell down
senseless across the threshold. He was less sophisticated than I,—he
had not been able to bear it any longer. I took him for something
supernatural, as he took me, and it was some time before I awoke to the
necessities of the moment. I remembered only after, that from the time I
began to give my attention to the man, I heard the other voice no more.
It was some time before I brought him to. It must have been a strange
scene: the lantern making a luminous spot in the darkness, the man's
white face lying on the black earth, I over him, doing what I could for
him. Probably I should have been thought to be murdering him had any one
seen us. When at last I succeeded in pouring a little brandy down his
throat, he sat up and looked about him wildly. "What's up?" he said;
then recognizing me, tried to struggle to his feet with a faint "Beg
your pardon, Colonel." I got him home as best I could, making him lean
upon my arm. The great fellow was as weak as a child. Fortunately he did
not for some time remember what had happened. From the time Bagley fell
the voice had stopped, and all was still.
"You've got an epidemic in your house, Colonel," Simson said to me next
morning. "What's the meaning of it all? Here's your butler raving about
a voice. This will never do, you know; and so far as I can make out, you
are in it too."
"Yes, I am in it, Doctor. I thought I had better speak to you. Of
course you are treating Roland all right, but the boy is not raving, he
is as sane as you or me. It's all true."
"As sane as—I—or you. I never thought the boy insane. He's got
cerebral excitement, fever. I don't know what you've got. There's
something very queer about the look of your eyes."
"Come," said I, "you can't put us all to bed, you know. You had better
listen and hear the symptoms in full."
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders, but he listened to me patiently. He
did not believe a word of the story, that was clear; but he heard it all
from beginning to end. "My dear fellow," he said, "the boy told me just
the same. It's an epidemic. When one person falls a victim to this sort
of thing, it's as safe as can be,—there's always two or three."
"Then how do you account for it?" I said.
"Oh, account for it!—that's a different matter; there's no accounting
for the freaks our brains are subject to. If it's delusion, if it's some
trick of the echoes or the winds,—some phonetic disturbance or
"Come with me tonight and judge for yourself," I said.
Upon this he laughed aloud, then said, "That's not such a bad idea; but
it would ruin me forever if it were known that John Simson was
"There it is," said I; "you dart down on us who are unlearned with your
phonetic disturbances, but you daren't examine what the thing really is
for fear of being laughed at. That's science!"
"It's not science,—it's common-sense," said the Doctor. "The thing has
delusion on the front of it. It is encouraging an unwholesome tendency
even to examine. What good could come of it? Even if I am convinced, I
"I should have said so yesterday; and I don't want you to be convinced
or to believe," said I. "If you prove it to be a delusion, I shall be
very much obliged to you for one. Come; somebody must go with me."
"You are cool," said the Doctor. "You've disabled this poor fellow of
yours, and made him—on that point—a lunatic for life; and now you want
to disable me. But, for once, I'll do it. To save appearance, if you'll
give me a bed, I'll come over after my last rounds."
It was agreed that I should meet him at the gate, and that we should
visit the scene of last night's occurrences before we came to the house,
so that nobody might be the wiser. It was scarcely possible to hope that
the cause of Bagley's sudden illness should not somehow steal into the
knowledge of the servants at least, and it was better that all should be
done as quietly as possible. The day seemed to me a very long one. I had
to spend a certain part of it with Roland, which was a terrible ordeal
for me, for what could I say to the boy? The improvement continued, but
he was still in a very precarious state, and the trembling vehemence
with which he turned to me when his mother left the room filled me with
alarm. "Father?" he said quietly. "Yes, my boy, I am giving my best
attention to it; all is being done that I can do. I have not come to any
conclusion—yet. I am neglecting nothing you said," I cried. What I
could not do was to give his active mind any encouragement to dwell upon
the mystery. It was a hard predicament, for some satisfaction had to be
given him. He looked at me very wistfully, with the great blue eyes
which shone so large and brilliant out of his white and worn face. "You
must trust me," I said. "Yes, father. Father understands," he said to
himself, as if to soothe some inward doubt. I left him as soon as I
could. He was about the most precious thing I had on earth, and his
health my first thought; but yet somehow, in the excitement of this
other subject, I put that aside, and preferred not to dwell upon Roland,
which was the most curious part of it all.
That night at eleven I met Simson at the gate. He had come by train, and
I let him in gently myself. I had been so much absorbed in the coming
experiment that I passed the ruins in going to meet him, almost without
thought, if you can understand that. I had my lantern; and he showed me
a coil of taper which he had ready for use. "There is nothing like
light," he said in his scoffing tone. It was a very still night,
scarcely a sound, but not so dark. We could keep the path without
difficulty as we went along. As we approached the spot we could hear a
low moaning, broken occasionally by a bitter cry. "Perhaps that is your
voice," said the Doctor; "I thought it must be something of the kind.
That's a poor brute caught in some of these infernal traps of yours;
you'll find it among the bushes somewhere." I said nothing. I felt no
particular fear, but a triumphant satisfaction in what was to follow. I
led him to the spot where Bagley and I had stood on the previous night.
All was silent as a winter night could be,—so silent that we heard far
off the sound of the horses in the stables, the shutting of a window at
the house. Simson lighted his taper and went peering about, poking into
all the corners. We looked like two conspirators lying in wait for some
unfortunate traveller; but not a sound broke the quiet. The moaning had
stopped before we came up; a star or two shone over us in the sky,
looking down as if surprised at our strange proceedings. Dr. Simson did
nothing but utter subdued laughs under his breath. "I thought as much,"
he said. "It is just the same with tables and all other kinds of ghostly
apparatus; a sceptic's presence stops everything. When I am present
nothing ever comes off. How long do you think it will be necessary to
stay here? Oh, I don't complain; only when you are satisfied I
I will not deny that I was disappointed beyond measure by this result.
It made me look like a credulous fool. It gave the Doctor such a pull
over me as nothing else could. I should point all his morals for years
to come; and his materialism, his scepticism, would be increased beyond
endurance. "It seems, indeed," I said, "that there is to be no——"
"Manifestation," he said, laughing; "that is what all the mediums say.
No manifestations, in consequence of the presence of an unbeliever." His
laugh sounded very uncomfortable to me in the silence; and it was now
near midnight. But that laugh seemed the signal; before it died away the
moaning we had heard before was resumed. It started from some distance
off, and came towards us, nearer and nearer, like some one walking along
and moaning to himself. There could be no idea now that it was a hare
caught in a trap. The approach was slow, like that of a weak person,
with little halts and pauses. We heard it coming along the grass
straight towards the vacant door-way. Simson had been a little startled
by the first sound. He said hastily, "That child has no business to be
out so late." But he felt, as well as I, that this was no child's voice.
As it came nearer, he grew silent, and, going to the door-way with his
taper, stood looking out towards the sound. The taper being unprotected
blew about in the night air, though there was scarcely any wind. I threw
the light of my lantern steady and white across the same space. It was
in a blaze of light in the midst of the blackness. A little icy thrill
had gone over me at the first sound, but as it came close, I confess
that my only feeling was satisfaction. The scoffer could scoff no more.
The light touched his own face, and showed a very perplexed countenance.
If he was afraid, he concealed it with great success, but he was
perplexed. And then all that had happened on the previous night was
enacted once more. It fell strangely upon me with a sense of
repetition. Every cry, every sob seemed the same as before. I listened
almost without any emotion at all in my own person, thinking of its
effect upon Simson. He maintained a very bold front, on the whole. All
that coming and going of the voice was, if our ears could be trusted,
exactly in front of the vacant, blank door-way, blazing full of light,
which caught and shone in the glistening leaves of the great hollies at
a little distance. Not a rabbit could have crossed the turf without
being seen; but there was nothing. After a time, Simson, with a certain
caution and bodily reluctance, as it seemed to me, went out with his
roll of taper into this space. His figure showed against the holly in
full outline. Just at this moment the voice sank, as was its custom, and
seemed to fling itself down at the door. Simson recoiled violently, as
if some one had come up against him, then turned, and held his taper
low, as if examining something. "Do you see anybody?" I cried in a
whisper, feeling the chill of nervous panic steal over me at this
action. "It's nothing but a—confounded juniper-bush," he said. This I
knew very well to be nonsense, for the juniper-bush was on the other
side. He went about after this, round and round, poking his taper
everywhere, then returned to me on the inner side of the wall. He
scoffed no longer; his face was contracted and pale. "How long does this
go on?" he whispered to me, like a man who does not wish to interrupt
some one who is speaking. I had become too much perturbed myself to
remark whether the successions and changes of the voice were the same
as last night. It suddenly went out in the air almost as he was
speaking, with a soft reiterated sob dying away. If there had been
anything to be seen, I should have said that the person was at that
moment crouching on the ground close to that door.
We walked home very silent afterwards. It was only when we were in sight
of the house that I said, "What do you think of it?" "I can't tell what
to think of it," he said quickly. He took—though he was a very
temperate man—not the claret I was going to offer him, but some brandy
from the tray, and swallowed it almost undiluted. "Mind you, I don't
believe a word of it," he said, when he had lighted his candle; "but I
can't tell what to think," he turned round to add, when he was half-way
All of this, however, did me no good with the solution of my problem. I
was to help this weeping, sobbing thing, which was already to me as
distinct a personality as anything I knew; or what should I say to
Roland? It was on my heart that my boy would die if I could not find
some way of helping this creature. You may be surprised that I should
speak of it in this way. I did not know if it was man or woman; but I no
more doubted that it was a soul in pain than I doubted my own being; and
it was my business to soothe this pain,—to deliver it, if that was
possible. Was ever such a task given to an anxious father trembling for
his only boy? I felt in my heart, fantastic as it may appear, that I
must fulfil this somehow, or part with my child; and you may conceive
that rather than do that I was ready to die. But even my dying would
not have advanced me, unless by bringing me into the same world with
that seeker at the door.
Next morning Simson was out before breakfast, and came in with evident
signs of the damp grass on his boots, and a look of worry and weariness,
which did not say much for the night he had passed. He improved a little
after breakfast, and visited his two patients,—for Bagley was still an
invalid. I went out with him on his way to the train, to hear what he
had to say about the boy. "He is going on very well," he said; "there
are no complications as yet. But mind you, that's not a boy to be
trifled with, Mortimer. Not a word to him about last night." I had to
tell him then of my last interview with Roland, and of the impossible
demand he had made upon me, by which, though he tried to laugh, he was
much discomposed, as I could see. "We must just perjure ourselves all
round," he said, "and swear you exorcised it"; but the man was too
kind-hearted to be satisfied with that. "It's frightfully serious for
you, Mortimer. I can't laugh as I should like to. I wish I saw a way out
of it, for your sake. By the way," he added shortly, "didn't you notice
that juniper-bush on the left-hand side?" "There was one on the right
hand of the door. I noticed you made that mistake last night."
"Mistake!" he cried, with a curious low laugh, pulling up the collar of
his coat as though he felt the cold,—"there's no juniper there this
morning, left or right. Just go and see." As he stepped into the train
a few minutes after, he looked back upon me and beckoned me for a
parting word. "I'm coming back tonight," he said.
I don't think I had any feeling about this as I turned away from that
common bustle of the railway which made my private preoccupations feel
so strangely out of date. There had been a distinct satisfaction in my
mind before, that his scepticism had been so entirely defeated. But the
more serious part of the matter pressed upon me now. I went straight
from the railway to the manse, which stood on a little plateau on the
side of the river opposite to the woods of Brentwood. The minister was
one of a class which is not so common in Scotland as it used to be. He
was a man of good family, well educated in the Scotch way, strong in
philosophy, not so strong in Greek, strongest of all in experience,—a
man who had "come across," in the course of his life, most people of
note that had ever been in Scotland, and who was said to be very sound
in doctrine, without infringing the toleration with which old men, who
are good men, are generally endowed. He was old-fashioned; perhaps he
did not think so much about the troublous problems of theology as many
of the young men, nor ask himself any hard questions about the
Confession of Faith; but he understood human nature, which is perhaps
better. He received me with a cordial welcome. "Come away, Colonel
Mortimer," he said; "I'm all the more glad to see you, that I feel it's
a good sign for the boy. He's doing well?—God be praised,—and the
Lord bless him and keep him. He has many a poor body's prayers, and that
can do nobody harm."
"He will need them all, Dr. Moncrieff," I said, "and your counsel, too."
And I told him the story,—more than I had told Simson. The old
clergyman listened to me with many suppressed exclamations, and at the
end the water stood in his eyes.
"That's just beautiful," he said. "I do not mind to have heard anything
like it; it's as fine as Burns when he wished deliverance to one—that
is prayed for in no kirk. Ay, ay! so he would have you console the poor
lost spirit? God bless the boy! There's something more than common in
that, Colonel Mortimer. And also the faith of him in his father!—I
would like to put that into a sermon." Then the old gentleman gave me an
alarmed look, and said, "No, no; I was not meaning a sermon; but I must
write it down for the 'Children's Record.'" I saw the thought that
passed through his mind. Either he thought, or he feared I would think,
of a funeral sermon. You may believe this did not make me more cheerful.
I can scarcely say that Dr. Moncrieff gave me any advice. How could any
one advise on such a subject? But he said, "I think I'll come too. I'm
an old man; I'm less liable to be frightened than those that are further
off the world unseen. It behooves me to think of my own journey there.
I've no cut-and-dry beliefs on the subject. I'll come too; and maybe at
the moment the Lord will put into our heads what to do."
This gave me a little comfort,—more than Simson had given me. To be
clear about the cause of it was not my grand desire. It was another
thing that was in my mind,—my boy. As for the poor soul at the open
door, I had no more doubt, as I have said, of its existence than I had
of my own. It was no ghost to me. I knew the creature, and it was in
trouble. That was my feeling about it, as it was Roland's. To hear it
first was a great shock to my nerves, but not now; a man will get
accustomed to anything. But to do something for it was the great
problem; how was I to be serviceable to a being that was invisible, that
was mortal no longer? "Maybe at the moment the Lord will put it into our
heads." This is very old-fashioned phraseology, and a week before, most
likely, I should have smiled (though always with kindness) at Dr.
Moncrieff's credulity; but there was a great comfort, whether rational
or otherwise I cannot say, in the mere sound of the words.
The road to the station and the village lay through the glen, not by the
ruins; but though the sunshine and the fresh air, and the beauty of the
trees, and the sound of the water were all very soothing to the spirits,
my mind was so full of my own subject that I could not refrain from
turning to the right hand as I got to the top of the glen, and going
straight to the place which I may call the scene of all my thoughts. It
was lying full in the sunshine, like all the rest of the world. The
ruined gable looked due east, and in the present aspect of the sun the
light streamed down through the door-way as our lantern had done,
throwing a flood of light upon the damp grass beyond. There was a
strange suggestion in the open door,—so futile, a kind of emblem of
vanity: all free around, so that you could go where you pleased, and yet
that semblance of an enclosure,—that way of entrance, unnecessary,
leading to nothing. And why any creature should pray and weep to get
in—to nothing, or be kept out—by nothing! You could not dwell upon it,
or it made your brain go round. I remembered, however, what Simson said
about the juniper, with a little smile on my own mind as to the
inaccuracy of recollection which even a scientific man will be guilty
of. I could see now the light of my lantern gleaming upon the wet
glistening surface of the spiky leaves at the right hand,—and he ready
to go to the stake for it that it was the left! I went round to make
sure. And then I saw what he had said. Right or left there was no
juniper at all! I was confounded by this, though it was entirely a
matter of detail: nothing at all,—a bush of brambles waving, the grass
growing up to the very walls. But after all, though it gave me a shock
for a moment, what did that matter? There were marks as if a number of
footsteps had been up and down in front of the door, but these might
have been our steps; and all was bright and peaceful and still. I poked
about the other ruin—the larger ruins of the old house—for some time,
as I had done before. There were marks upon the grass here and there—I
could not call them footsteps—all about; but that told for nothing one
way or another. I had examined the ruined rooms closely the first day.
They were half-filled up with soil and debris, withered brackens and
bramble,—no refuge for any one there. It vexed me that Jarvis should
see me coming from that spot when he came up to me for his orders. I
don't know whether my nocturnal expeditions had got wind among the
servants. But there was a significant look in his face. Something in it
I felt was like my own sensation when Simson in the midst of his
scepticism was struck dumb. Jarvis felt satisfied that his veracity had
been put beyond question. I never spoke to a servant of mine in such a
peremptory tone before. I sent him away "with a flea in his lug," as the
man described it afterwards. Interference of any kind was intolerable to
me at such a moment.
But what was strangest of all was, that I could not face Roland. I did
not go up to his room, as I would have naturally done, at once. This the
girls could not understand. They saw there was some mystery in it.
"Mother has gone to lie down," Agatha said; "he has had such a good
night." "But he wants you so, papa!" cried little Jeanie, always with
her two arms embracing mine in a pretty way she had. I was obliged to go
at last, but what could I say? I could only kiss him, and tell him to
keep still,—that I was doing all I could. There is something mystical
about the patience of a child. "It will come all right, won't it,
father?" he said. "God grant it may! I hope so, Roland." "Oh, yes, it
will come all right." Perhaps he understood that in the midst of my
anxiety I could not stay with him as I should have done otherwise. But
the girls were more surprised than it is possible to describe. They
looked at me with wondering eyes. "If I were ill, papa, and you only
stayed with me a moment, I should break my heart," said Agatha. But the
boy had a sympathetic feeling. He knew that of my own will I would not
have done it. I shut myself up in the library, where I could not rest,
but kept pacing up and down like a caged beast. What could I do? and if
I could do nothing, what would become of my boy? These were the
questions that, without ceasing, pursued each other through my mind.
Simson came out to dinner, and when the house was all still, and most of
the servants in bed, we went out and met Dr. Moncrieff, as we had
appointed, at the head of the glen. Simson, for his part, was disposed
to scoff at the Doctor. "If there are to be any spells, you know, I'll
cut the whole concern," he said. I did not make him any reply. I had not
invited him; he could go or come as he pleased. He was very talkative,
far more so than suited my humour, as we went on. "One thing is certain,
you know; there must be some human agency," he said. "It is all bosh
about apparitions. I never have investigated the laws of sound to any
great extent, and there's a great deal in ventriloquism that we don't
know much about." "If it's the same to you," I said, "I wish you'd keep
all that to yourself, Simson. It doesn't suit my state of mind." "Oh, I
hope I know how to respect idiosyncrasy," he said. The very tone of his
voice irritated me beyond measure. These scientific fellows, I wonder
people put up with them as they do, when you have no mind for their
cold-blooded confidence. Dr. Moncrieff met us about eleven o'clock, the
same time as on the previous night. He was a large man, with a venerable
countenance and white hair,—old, but in full vigour, and thinking less
of a cold night walk than many a younger man. He had his lantern, as I
had. We were fully provided with means of lighting the place, and we
were all of us resolute men. We had a rapid consultation as we went up,
and the result was that we divided to different posts. Dr. Moncrieff
remained inside the wall—if you can call that inside where there was no
wall but one. Simson placed himself on the side next the ruins, so as to
intercept any communication with the old house, which was what his mind
was fixed upon. I was posted on the other side. To say that nothing
could come near without being seen was self-evident. It had been so also
on the previous night. Now, with our three lights in the midst of the
darkness, the whole place seemed illuminated. Dr. Moncrieff's lantern,
which was a large one, without any means of shutting up,—an
old-fashioned lantern with a pierced and ornamental top,—shone
steadily, the rays shooting out of it upward into the gloom. He placed
it on the grass, where the middle of the room, if this had been a room,
would have been. The usual effect of the light streaming out of the
door-way was prevented by the illumination which Simson and I on either
side supplied. With these differences, everything seemed as on the
And what occurred was exactly the same, with the same air of repetition,
point for point, as I had formerly remarked. I declare that it seemed to
me as if I were pushed against, put aside, by the owner of the voice as
he paced up and down in his trouble,—though these are perfectly futile
words, seeing that the stream of light from my lantern, and that from
Simson's taper, lay broad and clear, without a shadow, without the
smallest break, across the entire breadth of the grass. But just as it
threw itself sobbing at the door (I cannot use other words), there
suddenly came something which sent the blood coursing through my veins,
and my heart into my mouth. It was a voice inside the wall,—my
minister's well-known voice. I would have been prepared for it in any
kind of adjuration, but I was not prepared for what I heard. It came out
with a sort of stammering, as if too much moved for utterance. "Willie,
Willie! Oh, God preserve us! is it you?"
I made a dash round to the other side of the wall. The old minister was
standing where I had left him, his shadow thrown vague and large upon
the grass by the lantern which stood at his feet. I lifted my own light
to see his face. He was very pale, his eyes wet and glistening, his
mouth quivering with parted lips. He neither saw nor heard me. His whole
being seemed absorbed in anxiety and tenderness. He held out his hands,
which trembled, but it seemed to me with eagerness, not fear. He went on
speaking all the time. "Willie, if it is you,—and it's you, if it is
not a delusion of Satan,—Willie, lad! why come ye here frighting them
that know you not? Why came ye not to me? Your mother's gone with your
name on her lips. Do you think she would ever close her door on her own
lad? Do ye think the Lord will close the door, ye faint-hearted
creature? No!—I forbid ye! I forbid ye!" cried the old man. The sobbing
voice had begun to resume its cries. He made a step forward, calling out
the last words in a voice of command. "I forbid ye! Cry out no more to
man. Go home, ye wandering spirit! go home! Do you hear me?—me that
christened ye, that have struggled with ye, that have wrestled for ye
with the Lord!" Here the loud tones of his voice sank into tenderness.
"And her too, poor woman! poor woman! her you are calling upon. She's no
here. You'll find her with the Lord. Go there and seek her, not here. Do
you hear me, lad? go after her there. He'll let you in, though it's
late. Man, take heart! if you will lie and sob and greet, let it be at
heaven's gate, and no your poor mother's ruined door."
He stopped to get his breath; and the voice had stopped, not as it had
done before, when its time was exhausted and all its repetitions said,
but with a sobbing catch in the breath as if overruled. Then the
minister spoke again, "Are you hearing me, Will? Oh, laddie, you've
liked the beggarly elements all your days. Be done with them now. Go
home to the Father—the Father! Are you hearing me?" Here the old man
sank down upon his knees, his face raised upwards, his hands held up
with a tremble in them, all white in the light in the midst of the
darkness. I resisted as long as I could, though I cannot tell why; then
I, too, dropped upon my knees. Simson all the time stood in the
door-way, with an expression in his face such as words could not tell,
his under lip dropped, his eyes wild, staring. It seemed to be to him,
that image of blank ignorance and wonder, that we were praying. All the
time the voice, with a low arrested sobbing, lay just where he was
standing, as I thought.
"Lord," the minister said,—"Lord, take him into Thy everlasting
habitations. The mother he cries to is with Thee. Who can open to him
but Thee? Lord, when is it too late for Thee, or what is too hard for
Thee? Lord, let that woman there draw him inower! Let her draw him
I sprang forward to catch something in my arms that flung itself wildly
within the door. The illusion was so strong, that I never paused till I
felt my forehead graze against the wall and my hands clutch the
ground,—for there was nobody there to save from falling, as in my
foolishness I thought. Simson held out his hand to me to help me up. He
was trembling and cold, his lower lip hanging, his speech almost
inarticulate. "It's gone," he said, stammering,—"it's gone!"
As long as I live I will never forget the shining of the strange lights,
the blackness all round, the kneeling figure with all the whiteness of
the light concentrated on its white venerable head and uplifted hands.
I never knew how long we stood, like sentinels guarding him at his
prayers. But at last the old minister rose from his knees, and standing
up at his full height, raised his arms, as the Scotch manner is at the
end of a religious service, and solemnly gave the apostolical
benediction,—to what? to the silent earth, the dark woods, the wide
breathing atmosphere; for we were but spectators gasping an Amen!
It seemed to me that it must be the middle of the night, as we all
walked back. It was in reality very late. Dr. Moncrieff himself was the
first to speak. "I must be going," he said; "I will go down the glen, as
"But not alone. I am going with you, Doctor."
"Well, I will not oppose it. I am an old man, and agitation wearies more
than work. Yes; I'll be thankful of your arm. Tonight, Colonel, you've
done me more good turns than one."
I pressed his hand on my arm, not feeling able to speak. But Simson, who
turned with us, and who had gone along all this time with his taper
flaring, in entire unconsciousness, became himself, sceptical and
cynical. "I should like to ask you a question," he said. "Do you believe
in Purgatory, Doctor? It's not in the tenets of the Church, so far as I
"Sir," said Dr. Moncrieff, "an old man like me is sometimes not very
sure what he believes. There is just one thing I am certain of—and that
is the loving-kindness of God."
"But I thought that was in this life. I am no theologian——"
"Sir," said the old man again, with a tremor in him which I could feel
going over all his frame, "if I saw a friend of mine within the gates of
hell, I would not despair but his Father would take him by the hand
still, if he cried like you."
"I allow it is very strange, very strange. I cannot see through it. That
there must be human agency, I feel sure. Doctor, what made you decide
upon the person and the name?"
The minister put out his hand with the impatience which a man might show
if he were asked how he recognized his brother. "Tuts!" he said, in
familiar speech; then more solemnly, "How should I not recognize a
person that I know better—far better—than I know you?"
"Then you saw the man?"
Dr. Moncrieff made no reply. He moved his hand again with a little
impatient movement, and walked on, leaning heavily on my arm. We parted
with him at his own door, where his old housekeeper appeared in great
perturbation, waiting for him. "Eh, me, minister! the young gentleman
will be worse?" she cried.
"Far from that—better. God bless him!" Dr. Moncrieff said.
I think if Simson had begun again to me with his questions, I should
have pitched him over the rocks as we returned up the glen; but he was
silent, by a good inspiration. And the sky was clearer than it had been
for many nights, shining high over the trees, with here and there a star
faintly gleaming through the wilderness of dark and bare branches. We
went up to the boy's room when we went in. There we found the complete
hush of rest. My wife looked up out of a doze, and gave me a smile; "I
think he is a great deal better; but you are very late," she said in a
whisper, shading the light with her hand that the Doctor might see his
patient. The boy had got back something like his own colour. He woke as
we stood all round his bed. His eyes had the happy, half-awakened look
of childhood, glad to shut again, yet pleased with the interruption and
glimmer of the light. I stooped over him and kissed his forehead, which
was moist and cool. "All is well, Roland," I said. He looked up at me
with a glance of pleasure, and took my hand and laid his cheek upon it,
and so went to sleep.
For some nights after, I watched among the ruins, spending all the dark
hours up to midnight patrolling about the bit of wall which was
associated with so many emotions; but I heard nothing, and saw nothing
beyond the quiet course of nature; nor, so far as I am aware, has
anything been heard again. Dr. Moncrieff gave me the history of the
youth, whom he never hesitated to name. I did not ask, as Simson did,
how he recognized him. He had been a prodigal,—weak, foolish, easily
imposed upon, and "led away," as people say. All that we had heard had
passed actually in life, the Doctor said. The young man had come home
thus a day or two after his mother died,—who was no more than
housekeeper in the old house,—and distracted with the news, had thrown
himself down at the door and called upon her to let him in. The old man
could scarcely speak of it for tears. He was not terrified, as I had
been myself, and all the rest of us. It was no "ghost," as I fear we all
vulgarly considered it, to him,—but a poor creature whom he knew under
these conditions, just as he had known him in the flesh, having no doubt
of his identity. And to Roland it was the same. This spirit in pain,—if
it was a spirit,—this voice out of the unseen,—was a poor
fellow-creature in misery, to be succoured and helped out of his
trouble, to my boy. He spoke to me quite frankly about it when he got
better. "I knew father would find out some way," he said. And this was
when he was strong and well, and all idea that he would turn hysterical
or become a seer of visions had happily passed away.
I must add one curious fact, which does not seem to me to have any
relation to the above, but which Simson made great use of, as the human
agency which he was determined to find somehow. One Sunday afternoon
Simson found a little hole,—for it was more a hole than a
room,—entirely hidden under the ivy and ruins, in which there was a
quantity of straw laid in a corner, as if some one had made a bed there,
and some remains of crusts about the floor. Some one had lodged there,
and not very long before, he made out; and that this unknown being was
the author of all the mysterious sounds we heard he is convinced. "I was
puzzled myself,—I could not make it out,—but I always felt convinced
human agency was at the bottom of it. And here it is,—and a clever
fellow he must have been," the Doctor says. There is no argument with
men of this kind.
Bagley left my service as soon as he got well. He assured me it was no
want of respect, but he could not stand "them kind of things"; and the
man was so shaken and ghastly that I was glad to give him a present and
let him go. For my own part, I made a point of staying out the time—two
years—for which I had taken Brentwood; but I did not renew my tenancy.
By that time we had settled, and found for ourselves a pleasant home of
I must add, that when the Doctor defies me, I can always bring back
gravity to his countenance, and a pause in his railing, when I remind
him of the juniper-bush. To me that was a matter of little importance. I
could believe I was mistaken. I did not care about it one way or other;
but on his mind the effect was different. The miserable voice, the
spirit in pain, he could think of as the result of ventriloquism, or
reverberation, or—anything you please: an elaborate prolonged hoax,
executed somehow by the tramp that had found a lodging in the old tower;
but the juniper-bush staggered him. Things have effects so different on
the minds of different men.