Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, Volume 5/Chapter 11
A GHOST STORY.
" I HAVEN'T a room in the house, ma'am, but if you don't mind going down to the cottage, and coming up here to your meals, I can accommodate you, and would be glad to," said Mrs. Grant, in answer to my demand for board.
"Where is the cottage?" and I looked about me, feeling ready to accept anything in the way of shelter, after the long, hot journey from broiling Boston, to breezy York Harbor.
"Right down there, just a step, you see. It's all in order, and next week it will be full, for many folks prefer it because of the quiet."
At the end of a precipitous path, which offered every facility for accidents of all sorts, from a sprained ankle to a broken neck, stood the cottage, a little white building with a pretty woodbine over the porch, gay flowers in the garden, and the blue Atlantic rolling up at the foot of the cliff.
"A regular 'Cottage by the Sea.' It will suit me exactly if I can have that front upper room. I don't mind being alone, so have my trunk taken down, please, and I'll get ready for tea," said I, congratulating myself on my good luck. Alas, how little I knew what a night of terror I was to pass in that picturesque abode!
An hour later, refreshed by my tea and invigorated by the delicious coolness, I plunged recklessly into the gayeties of the season, and accepted two invitations for the evening, one to a stroll on Sunset Hill, the other to a clam-bake on the beach.
The stroll came first, and while my friend paused at one of the fishily-fragrant houses by the way, to interview her washerwoman, I went on to the hill top, where a nautical old gentleman with a spy-glass, welcomed me with the amiable remark,—
"Pretty likely place for a prospeck."
Entering into a conversation with this ancient mariner, I asked if he knew any legend or stories concerning the old houses all about us.
"Sights of 'em; but it aint allers the old places as has the most stories concernin' 'em. Why, that cottage down yonder aint more 'n fifty year old, and they say there's been a lot of ghosts seen there, owin' to a man's killin' of himself in the back bedroom."
"What, that house at the end of the lane?" I asked, with sudden interest.
"Jes' so; nice place, but lonesome and dampish. Ghosts and toadstools is apt to locate in houses of that sort," placidly responded the venerable tar.
The dampness scared me more than the goblins, for I never saw a ghost yet, but I had been haunted by rheumatism, and found it a hard fiend to exorcise.
"I've taken a room there, so I'm rather interested in knowing what company I'm to have."
"Took a room, hev you? Wal, I dare say you won't be troubled. Some folks have a knack of seeing sperrits, and then agin some hasn't. My wife is uncommon powerful that way, but I aint; my sight's dreadful poor for that sort of critter."
There was such a sly twinkle in the starboard eye of the old fellow as he spoke, that I laughed out right, and asked, sociably,—
"Has she ever seen the ghosts of the cottage? I think I have rather a knack that way, and I'd like to know what to expect."
"No, her sort is the rappin' kind. Down yonder the only ghost I take much stock in is old Bezee Tucker's. He killed himself in the back bedroom, and some folks say they've heard him groanin' there nights, and a drippin' sound; he bled to death, you know. It was kep' quiet at the time, and is forgotten now by all but a few old chaps like me. Bezee was allers civil to the ladies, so I guess he won't bother you, ma'am;" and the old fellow laughed.
"If he does, I'll let you know;" and with that I departed, for my friend called to me that the beach party was clamoring for our company.
In the delights of that festive hour, I forgot the croaking of the ancient mariner, for I was about to taste a clam for the first time in my life, and it was a most absorbing moment. Perched about on the rocks like hungry penguins, we watched the jovial cooks with breathless interest, as they struggled with refractory frying-pans, fish that stubbornly refused to brown, steaming seaweed and hot stones.
A certain captivating little Margie waited upon me so prettily that I should have been tempted to try a sea porcupine unskinned if she had offered it, so irresistible was her chirping way of saying, "Oh, here's a perfectly lovely one! Do take him by his little black head and eat him quick."
So beguiled, I indulged recklessly in clams, served hot between two shells, little dreaming what a price I was to pay for that marine banquet.
We kept up till late, and then I was left at my own door by my friend, who informed me that York was a very primitive, safe place, where people slept with unlocked doors, and nothing ever went amiss o'nights.
I said nothing of the ghosts, being ashamed to own that I quaked a little at the idea of the "back bedroom," as I shut out the friendly faces and bolted myself in.
A lamp and matches stood in the hall, and lighting the lamp, I whisked up stairs with suspicious rapidity, locked my door and retired to bed, firmly refusing to own even to myself that I had ever heard the name of Bezee Tucker.
Being very tired, I soon fell asleep; but fried potatoes and a dozen or two of hot clams are not viands best fitted to insure quiet repose, so a fit of nightmare brought me to a realizing sense of my indiscretion.
From a chaos of wild dreams was finally evolved a gigantic clam, whose mission it was to devour me as I had devoured its relatives. The sharp shells gaped before me, a solemn voice said, "Take her by her little head and eat her quick." Retribution was at hand, and, with a despairing effort to escape by diving, I bumped my head smartly against the wall, and woke up feeling as if there was an earthquake under the bed.
Collecting my scattered wits, I tried to compose myself to slumber again; but alas! that fatal feast had murdered sleep, and I vainly tried to lull my wakeful senses with the rustle of woodbine leaves about the window, and the breaking waves upon the beach.
In one of the pauses between the ebb and flow of the waves, I heard a curious sound in the house,—a muffled sort of moan, coming at regular intervals. And, as I sat up to make out where it was, another sound caught my attentive ear. Drip, drip, drip, went something out in the hall, and in an instant the tale told me on Sunset Hill came back with unpleasant vividness.
"Nonsense! it is raining, and the roof leaks," I said to myself, while a disagreeable thrill went through me, and fancy, aided by indigestion, began to people the house with uncanny inmates.
No rain had fallen for weeks, and peeping through my curtain I saw the big, bright stars shining in a cloudless sky; so that explanation failed, and still the drip, drip, drip went on. Likewise the moaning, so distinctly now that it was evident the little back bedroom was next the chamber in which I was quaking at that identical moment.
"Some one is sleeping there," I said, and then recollected that all the rooms were locked, and all the keys but mine in Mrs. Grant's pocket up at the house.
"Well, let the goblins enjoy themselves; I won't disturb them if they let me alone. Some of the ladies thought me brave to dare to sleep here, and it will never do to own I was scared by a foolish story and an odd sound."
So down I lay, and said the multiplication table industriously for several minutes, trying to turn a deaf ear to the outer world, and curb my unruly thoughts. But it was a failure, and, when I found myself saying over and over "Four times twelve is twenty-four," I gave up affecting courage, and went in for a good honest scare.
As a cheerful subject for midnight meditation I kept thinking of B. Tucker, in spite of every effort to abstain. In vain I recalled the fact that the departed gentleman was "allers civil to the ladies." I still was in mortal fear lest he might think it necessary to come and apologize in person for "bothering" me.
Presently a clock struck three, and I involuntarily gave a groan that beat the ghost's all hollow, so full of anguish was I at the thought of several hours of weary waiting in such awesome suspense.
I was not sure at what time the daylight would appear, and bitterly regretted not gathering useful information about sunrise, tides, and such things, instead of listening to the foolish gossip of Uncle Peter on the hill-top.
Minute after minute dragged slowly on, and I was just thinking that I should be obliged to shout "Fire!" as the only means of relief in my power, when a stealthy step under the window gave me a new sensation.
This was a start, not a scare, for the new visitor was a human foe, and I had little fear of such, being possessed of good lungs, strong arms, and a Roman dagger nearly as big as a carving-knife. That step broke the spell, and, creeping noiselessly to the window, I peeped out to see a dark figure coming up the stem of the tall tree close by, hand over hand, like a sailor or a monkey.
"Two can play at that game, my friend; you scare me, and I'll scare you;" and with an actual sense of relief in breaking the oppressive silence, I suddenly flung up the curtain, and, leaning out, brandished my dagger with what I intended to be an awe-inspiring screech, but, owing to the flutter of my breath, the effort ended in a curious mixture of howl and bray.
A most effective sound nevertheless; for the rascal dropped as if shot, and, with one upward glance at the white figure dimly seen in the star light, fled as if a legion of goblins were at his heels.
"What next?" thought I, wondering whether tragedy or comedy would close this eventful night.
I sat and waited, chilly, but valiant, while the weird sounds went on within, and silence reigned without, till the cheerful crow of the punctual "cockadoo," as Margie called him, announced the dawn and laid the ghosts. A red glow in the east banished my last fear, and, wrapping the drapery of my couch about me, I soon lay down to quiet slumber, quite worn out.
The sun shining in my face waked me; a bell ringing spasmodically warned me to hurry, and a childish voice calling out, "Bet-fast is most weady, Miss Wee," assured me that sweet little spirits haunted the cottage as well as ghostly ones.
As I left my room to join Margie, who was waiting in the porch, and looking like a rosy morning glory half-way up the woodbine trellis, I saw two things which caused me to feel that the horrors of the night were not all imaginary.
Just outside the back bedroom door was a damp place, as if that part of the floor had been newly washed; and when, goaded by curiosity, I peeped through the keyhole of the haunted chamber, my eye distinctly saw an open razor lying on a dusty table.
My vision was limited to that one object, but it was quite enough, and I went up the hill brooding darkly over the secret hidden in my breast. I longed to tell some one, but was ashamed, and, when asked why so pale and absent-minded, I answered, with a gloomy smile,
"It is the clams."
All day I hid my sufferings pretty well, but as night approached, and I thought of another lonely vigil in the haunted cottage, my heart began to fail, and, when we sat telling stories in the dusk, a brilliant idea came into my head.
I would relate my ghost story, and rouse the curiosity of the listeners to such a pitch that some of them would offer to share my quarters, in hopes of seeing the spirit of the restless Tucker.
Cheered by this delusive fancy, when my turn came I made a thrilling tale of the night's adventures, and, having worked my audience up to a flattering state of excitement, paused for applause.
It came in a most unexpected form, however, for Mrs. Grant burst out laughing, and the two boys, Johnny and Joe, rolled off the piazza in convulsions of merriment.
Much disgusted at this unseemly demonstration, I demanded the cause of it, and involuntarily joined in the general shout when Mrs. Grant demolished my ghost by informing me that Bezee Tucker lived, died in, and haunted the tumble-down house at the other end of the lane.
"Then who or what made those mysterious noises?" I asked, relieved but rather nettled at the downfall of my romance.
"My brother Seth," replied Mrs. Grant, still laughing. "I thought you might be afraid to be there all alone, so he slipped into the bedroom, and I forgot to tell you. He's a powerful snorer, and that's one of the awful sounds. The other was the dripping of salt water; for you wanted some, and the girl got it in a leaky pail. Seth wiped up the slops when he came out early in the morning."
I said nothing about the keyhole view of the harmless razor, but, feeling that I did deserve some credit for my heroic reception of the burglar, I mildly asked if it was the custom in York for men as well as turkeys to roost in trees.
An explosion from the boys extinguished my last hope of glory, for as soon as he could speak Joe answered, unable to resist the joke, though telling it betrayed his own transgressions.
"Johnny planned to be up awful early, and pick the last cherries off that tree. I wanted to get ahead of him, so I sneaked down before light to humbug him, for I was going a-fishing, and we have to be off by four."
"Did you get your cherries?" I asked, bound to have some of the laugh on my side.
"Guess I didn't," grumbled Joe, rubbing his knees, while Johnny added, with an exulting chuckle,—
"He got a horrid scare and a right good scraping, for he didn't know any one was down there. Couldn't go fishing either, he was so lame, and I had the cherries after all. Served him right, didn't it?"
No answer was necessary, for the two lads indulged in a friendly scuffle among the hay-cocks, while Mrs. Grant went off to repeat the tale in the kitchen, whence the sound of a muffled roar soon assured me that Seth was enjoying the joke as well as the rest of us.