A Message from the Dead by Edmund Leamy

Some years ago when I was making a tour through the Basque provinces I fell in with another tourist who had been wandering through them for some months in the endeavour to become acquainted with the manners, customs and language of the peasantry. He was an Irishman, and had been seeking evidence in support of the theory that there was not only a close affinity between the Basque and the early Irish or Celtic tongue, but also that there were close resemblances between the life, habits, and customs of the Basques and the Irish who had not fallen under foreign influence; and he stoutly maintained that the founder of the Fueros, and of all rights and privileges which the Basques had so long enjoyed, was an exiled Irish Prince, and, in support of his assertion, he told me a romantic story which he had taken down from the lips of a Basque peasant, and which I believe is still current in some of the provinces.

Although I did not assent to his views, yet being half Spanish myself, I could not help feeling an interest in his researches, and I was attracted by the earnestness with which he pursued them. But apart from this he was an exceedingly genial and pleasant companion; we soon became fast friends, and when at length we parted he carried away a promise from me to visit him in his home, which was situated on the south coast of Ireland. “They say it was built by a Spaniard,” he told me, “and it has something of a foreign air about it. It is not quite a palace, you know,” he added, “but it will serve a pair of old bachelors like you and me.” And so it came to pass that I found myself one midsummer night about twenty years ago at Rochestown House, some distance inland from the head of a beautiful little bay not many miles from the town of Kinsale.

Although I had lived in England for many years I had never been to Ireland before, and, I confess I had allowed myself to be misled into the belief that it was in a disturbed state, and so was agreeably surprised to learn from my friend O’Driscoll, that the country was ‘as peaceful as a duck in a pond,’ as he put it, and that there was nothing more dangerous to a bachelor like myself than the eyes of the girls, which he insisted were even brighter than those of Spain—a heresy which I felt bound to challenge.

I shall not waste time by a lengthened description of Rochestown House, for, in sooth, it did not call for one. It was a long, irregular building. The rooms were fairly large and well lit. The only occupants of the house were my friend and three or four servants, and it was but plainly furnished. The room which had been allocated to me had just what was requisite in it, save for a few charming pictures which O’Driscoll had brought back with him from Spain, and which were pleasant reminders of that romantic land; and a very beautiful inlaid card table, which seemed out of place in the company of the plainer furniture. A few rugs disposed here and there, emphasised rather than hid the bareness of the floor; but the room was, nevertheless, very cheerful, and from the window there were delightful views of land and sea. Yet it was in this room that looked so cheerful on a lovely summer’s evening, I was to undergo the most thrilling experience of my life.

After dinner O’Driscoll and I strolled towards the sea. The night was fine though sultry, and as we returned to the house about eleven o’clock the appearance of the heavens heralded the approach of a thunderstorm. We had so many things to talk about that it was long after midnight before I retired to my room.

I felt no inclination to sleep, owing, perhaps, to the sultriness of the air, and I dropped into an armchair close to the fireplace, and from this position I commanded a full view of the room. I lit a cigar, and then, lifting up a small handbag which was within reach, opened it to get a book which I had been reading—it was one of Exaguoriaz’s plays. A little ivory-handled revolver lay on top of it, which I had been induced to bring over with me owing to the rumours of the disturbed condition of the country. I smiled as I looked at it, for it seemed likely to be of little use if I were attacked by any of the stalwart fellows whom I had seen when strolling with O’Driscoll down through the village on our way to the sea. I laid it on the table beside me, and, lying back in the armchair, was soon immersed in the play; after a little while a strange feeling crept over me. I shook myself, as if by so doing I could free myself from it, and, dropping the book, looked round the room. It was fully lighted by a lamp. I could see into every corner. Lying back in the chair once more I puffed away at my cigar, and watched, after the fashion of smokers, the blue-white wreaths slowly circling upwards to the ceiling.

Not more than half a dozen had floated up when I heard a noise of scratching inside the wainscot. “It is a rat,” I thought, and my eyes, resting on the lower part of the wainscot directly in front of me, saw peering from a small hole which I had not hitherto observed, the blazing eyes, of what seemed to me a small rat. A little startled, and I fear a little frightened, I caught up the volume which I had been reading, and flung it in the direction of the intruder. The eyes disappeared, and I heard a scurrying away inside the wainscot; and then only did I feel inclined to laugh at myself for allowing such a trifling incident to make any impression on me.

I was about to leave the chair to pick up the book when a flash of lightning, which came in through the slits in the shutter, almost took my sight away, and a peal of thunder followed sounding at first remote, but coming with every discharge nearer and nearer, until it seemed to pour forth its full power directly over the house. Then, as if its force were spent, it passed with a faint rumbling and muttering, and finally died away. I expected to hear the rain falling, but none fell, and the room had become so sultry that I decided to open the window, in the hope of an inrush of cooler air.

Just as I had placed my hand on the bar that fastened the shutter, I thought I heard a long, deep-drawn sigh. I turned and looked about, but saw nothing, and I felt vexed with myself for allowing my imagination to play tricks with me. Again I heard the sigh, and I must confess something like a creepy feeling came over me. I retired from the window without opening it, went back to my chair, and taking up my revolver sat in such a position as to be able to keep the whole room under observation; but I saw nothing, and except the ticking of the clock and the chiming of the quarters, heard nothing.

At length it struck two. Again I saw the eyes peering at me from the corner opposite to that from which I had dislodged them, at the far end of the wall. Instinctively I pointed the revolver at them, and would, I believe, have fired but that a low thrill of laughter fell upon my ear.

I started as if I had been hit. Seated at the little card table of which I have spoken was a woman, beautifully dressed, whose face was concealed by a large fan. Her elbow rested on the table, and her arm, bare to shoulder from wrist, was circled by a bracelet of emeralds and diamonds. A ring was on one of her fingers. It was an opal set in brilliants. I could see a coil of hair above the fan which the lady flirted lightly, and evidently her head was bent the better to conceal her face.

I took all this in at a glance, and for a second was spell-bound. I dropped my hand and the revolver fell from it to the floor. Then her head was swiftly raised, there was the gleam of a white forehead—a flash of wondrous eyes, such eyes as I have never seen, such as I know I shall never see in this life again. Their lustre was simply indescribable, and they possessed a mysterious attraction that seemed to draw my soul through breathless lips. I was divided between desire and undefinable fear. Perhaps it was owing to this conflict of emotions that my senses became confused. I had no doubt but that I was still sitting in the chair gazing at the bewitching apparition, and yet it seemed as if I were looking at myself or my double advancing over the floor, and finally kneeling at the feet of the lady. But the advancing figure, like me in every other respect, was attired as a Spanish gallant of the sixteenth century, and then the recollection flashed on me that I had appeared in a somewhat similar costume at a fancy dress ball a year or two before, and I found myself engaged in that curious yet familiar mental struggle of one who, escaping from a dream, questions himself as to whether he be dreaming.

Suddenly a lightning flash, more vivid than any that had preceded it, was followed by a roll of thunder almost deafening. I could no longer doubt but that I was awake. The lightning had so dazzled me that for a second I no longer saw anything, but as the last faint echo of the thunder died away I saw myself or my other self kneeling at the feet of the lady.

I made an effort to cry out, but I was like one in a nightmare; my voice refused to utter any cry, and then in accents that seemed to melt into my soul I heard the words:

“Then you have come at last, life of my soul?”

“Did you doubt it, dearest of the dear?”

Both sentences were spoken in Spanish. Suddenly, like an inspiration, I remembered the portrait of the young cavalier which bore, it was said, a striking resemblance to me, and whose costume I had copied for the fancy dress ball. It had belonged to my mother’s family, and there was a vague tradition that the young fellow had accompanied Don Juan D’Aguila on a Spanish expedition to Ireland in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and had fallen in that country. It was he, then, whom I had mistaken for myself.

And now he was bending over the white hand, and he kissed it again and again. I had recovered from my first shock, and so lifelike was it all that I became embarrassed when the wondrous eyes of the beautiful woman for a second rested on mine. I rose from the chair, feeling like an intruder, but before I could move a step, swift as light a sword-blade descended on the youth’s neck. The severed head fell with a thud upon the floor. An ear-piercing scream, which has never since left my memory followed. Once more the lightning’s radiance blinded me, and, after a deep-mouthed roar, the rage of the thunderstorm again seemed to spend itself above the house, that trembled as if it had been stricken.

In a half-defiant mood I rushed to the shutters and flung them open. The grey light of the morning had already come, and faint streaks of gold were shining in the east. I turned from the window and looked for the murdered man and the lady of the wondrous eyes—I was the sole occupant of the room!

A loud, swift, ‘Rap! rap! rap!’ at the door, and a cry of “Open, for God’s sake!” brought me to it. I undid the bolt, and O’Driscoll tumbled in pale as a ghost.

“What was it?” he gasped—“that awful scream? It came from here.”

I knew not what to answer, and said aimlessly:—“There is no one here save myself.”

O’Driscoll opened the window, and the cool fragrant air calmed both him and me. “I was dreaming, I suppose,” he said, “but you have not been to bed!” He had not until then perceived that I was fully dressed.

“Oh, I remained up reading,” I replied.

“And did you hear nothing?” he asked.

“The thunder, of course,” I answered lightly, but I suppose there must have been something in my manner that betrayed me, for my eye had just fallen on a faded brown stain close to the card table and flowing away from it—first a blotch and then three or four trickles—which I knew to be blood stains.

O’Driscoll advanced towards me, put his hand on my shoulder, and looking into my eyes asked earnestly, “Did you hear the scream?”

“Yes.”

“And did you see anything?—I know you did.”

There was no longer any reason for hesitating to avow that I had seen something. “Sit down,” I said. He dropped into an armchair. I sat on the side of the bed and told him of my vision as I have set it down here. He listened without comment until the end, and then he said: “So it’s true, after all.”

“What?” I asked.

His story was brief. Some years previous he was in the garden giving directions to an old gardener who had known the place all his life, and when he came to a certain corner, “That,” said the gardener, to O’Driscoll, “is where they found the skeletons years agone.”

“What skeletons?” asked O’Driscoll.

“There was a man whose head had been cut off, for ’twas lying beside his ribs, and there were three fingers that they said were lady’s fingers, for on one of them was a gold ring with a jewel in it, and people used to say,” the gardener added, “that sometimes on a wild stormy night, when there was thunder, that the ghosts of a gentleman and a lady used to be seen about the house, but he himself had never seen them, nor had he known anyone who had seen them.”

My friend not unreasonably concluded that the story of that apparition was an invention subsequent to the discovery of the skeletons, and had given no credence to it. Since he had become tenant of the house there had been many nights of thunderstorm as fierce as, if not fiercer than, that which had just passed, but he had never seen anything and never heard anything until he heard the piercing scream that had brought him to my door.

We talked long over the matter then and many times afterwards, and could find no solution of the mystery; but I could not help asking myself, as I do now, if the apparition were not in the nature of a message from the dead to tell the true story of the fate of my kinsman whom in appearance I so much resembled, and who, we had believed, had fallen in the Spanish expedition to Ireland, three hundred years before.