Barbara of the Bell House
BARBARA OF THE BELL HOUSE.
By MAX PEMBERTON.
WHERE the river sweeps from Goring, bending itself in sinuous and graceful curves towards the lovely woods of Whitchurch, the Bell House stands. They have painted it now, and Vandals have come in to clothe its nakedness, so that it is fair and good to see, nestling like an old-world castle at the foot of the hills. But it was in ruins a year ago, and there was no urchin so bold that silver would tempt him to its door.
Many is the story that I have heard of the Bell House; many a narrative which sent a chill through my spine and a shiver to my very marrow. They are lovers of spectres, those chattering hags of the riverside, and the children have inherited their affection. Tell them that you have heard rumours, hint that they could a tale unfold, and what an army of sprites and fairies comes leaping from the water-reeds and the sedge-grass! Here a monk who must chant his office ad sæcula sæculorum; there a maiden who has shed tears through centuries; here a fine towering spectre that clanks its chains in dignity; there the poor shadows of a ghost who is a footstep and nothing more. Cells and refectories, old halls and secret chambers, even kitchens and cellars are peopled by the ready tongues of the doddering disciples of tradition. You can scarce row a mile from Iffley toward London but you come upon a mystery. The whole world of the river is full of visitations; even the cottagers hear the voices of the dead.
It was upon a balmy day, early in the October of the year 1893, that I had the story of the Bell House for the first time. The narrator was my friend Eric Watson; the occasion was a voyage under sail in an aged punt that we had brought down from the lock. Until the moment that the cry for the "easy" came I had thought that Watson slept. The lazy motion of the hulk, the softness of the breeze, the drowsy ripple of the little waves upon the till, might well have induced dreams. But I had wronged the man. Hardly, indeed, had we come to the bend of the stream when he sat up straight upon his cushion and deigned to yawn.
"Well," said I, "and what's the matter now?"
"I couldn't be sure," replied he, slapping his pockets vigorously, "but I believe I 've left my house agreement in the tennis-court."
This was the third time during the day that this precious document had been left somewhere. The man had just taken a house at Hampstead. He carried his agreement with the landlord in the pocket of his blazer. Thrice had we rowed a mile from lock or backwater only to be pulled up short at his cry, "By Jove! I 've left my lease!" This time I lost patience with him entirely.
"Be hanged to your agreement!" said I.
"That's all very well," said he; "but I'd have you know that it's signed and sealed. If a rogue got hold of it, he might pay it in through his bank."
I was still dazed at this wondrous idea that a bank would cash a house agreement when the missing paper turned up.
"Here the thing is," said he of a sudden, rolling over the basket which contained the relics of our lunch; "you needn't have wrapped the butter in it."
I looked as regretful as possible, and turned the subject deftly.
"Let's have some tea," said I; "the breeze is going to hold, and we 'll lose nothing by a halt. There's a grand tree over there."
He paused for a moment in his occupation of scraping his valuable lease, and looked at me curiously.
"Do you know what garden that is?" he asked.
"I haven't the ghost of an idea," said I.
"Well, I 'll tell you," said he; "it's the garden of the Bell House yonder."
"And what of that?"
"Oh, nothing particular—only you know the story, of course?"
"There is a story, then?"
"Is a story! Great Scott, listen to him! Why, man, the place reeks of spirits!"
"Are they old in bottle?"
"I wish they were. But it's truth that there are tales about the place. The landlord of the Bull told me one last night which made my hair rise. If you 'll come here at ten o'clock to-night, and look through the library window there, you'll see a woman trying to get out of her coffin. They say that you ran hear her screams anywhere in the gardens."
"How long has she been engaged in that employment?"
"About three years now."
"She must be rather tired."
"Possibly she does it to kill time. Anyway, all Goring believes that there is a spectre in the Bell House. And it's just the house for ghosts, you will admit."
I had brought the punt round to the bank while he spoke, and now I looked up at the place. It is strange how one can pass these old river houses again and again, and yet be ignorant of their very outlines. I must have rowed by the Hell House many a day before that October afternoon, and yet I could not, until Watson called my attention to it, have told you whether it was Early Gothic or Late Perpendicular, hideously Georgian or aggressively Queen Anne. Nor did a closer examination reveal latent beauties. At the last, the place was aggravatingly square, and lacking any line proportion. Its façade had once been decked out with a bilious yellow plastering, but damp had worked devastation, and the mouldy bricks now stood out unblushingly. Of the six long windows which faced the river, three were broken and two were cracked. A gaunt square tower at its lower end apologised for the style "Hell House"; but the puny battlements were broken and tottering, and the large front door below was almost hidden by the bills of a horticulturist who had some thousands of bulbs on his brain, and desired to sell them by auction. Elsewhere, the garden was a glorious wilderness. Dank weeds climbed the dust-dried fountain. A cupid, who wanted a head, had rolled from his pedestal, and tried to hide his shame under a tangle of sedge-grass. There were thousands of marigolds and sunflowers dying down to decay upon the worn gravel-paths. The creeper straggled, unkempt, over the bed-room windows. The lawn itself was heaped up with the empty bottles and paper bags which the thankful water pilgrim had left behind him at the shrine. A solitary tennis-pole, with a yard of tattered net hanging at its head, alone reminded the observer that the house had once answered to human tread; had been worthy, at least for a season, of the traditions of aquatic hospitalities. And here, indeed, was the pathos of the picture.
All this came in the swift survey with which I answered Watson's appeal. Had I been alone, I might have gone on to ask myself how it was that a building so finely placed beneath the shelter of the great hills had come to such a state. But the man had now reclaimed his house-agreement, and deeming that I was ready to answer his questions, he began again—
"Well, what do you think of it?"
"Not much," said I: "it's not the sort of house one would take on a repairing lease."
"That's what I say, though its present tenant is not guilty of recklessness within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Act. Evidently, she lives within her income."
"She lives within her income?"
"Yes, the girl in white who comes out of the river at midnight and goes up and down stairs for an hour. She must be a fortune in towels to the local haberdasher."
"Is that the story the landlord told you?"
"Something like that. He tells it to everyone. That's the reason why the place does not let. There's another reason, too. The last owner lost his money in Argentines, and when he came to sell the house his title was incomplete. He is living in London now in a couple of rooms."
"How long ago is it since he left?"
"Three years, to the best of my recollection. I can remember passing by here in the summer of the year 1890 and seeing a regular whirl of life. A band was playing on the lawn, and there was a regiment of girls in pretty dresses to flirt with. They had a garden-party on or something."
"Perhaps the girl who walks the stairs now was one of them."
"I couldn't say that. But I 'll drink her health if you 'll pass the tea."
The kettle was boiling, and I gave him his tea. Then, when he had finished the whole of a fruit-cake, the idea came to me.
"Suppose we explore the place?" said I.
"You 're joking," said he.
"Not at all—surely you don't believe all that stuff you 've been telling me?"
"I don't believe a word of it. That's why I'm frightened to go."
"But it's broad daylight now."
"So much the worse. If I saw anything at such an hour it wouldn't be possible to say that it was a shadow from a candle."
"Call it what you like, but come up to the door at least."
"Very well, I suppose I must, for the girl's sake. You might compromise her. And that reminds me. I 'll write a story when I get back to town and call it 'Compromising a Ghost.' That should be an idea."
With this word he condescended to get up and help me to moor the punt at the foot of the great oak which stands sentinel to the Bell House When we had made all straight, and had lighted our pipes, we landed at the rotting stage and crossed the ragged lawn toward the long windows of the lower storey. Dreary as the aspect was from the river, a closer acquaintance with the deserted building seemed veritably to chill the heart. It was as if all the trees about moaned a dirge for the dead hopes of the man who had lived and wrecked his life beneath their shade. No note upon the breeze, not a rustle of the long green grasses heralded our approach. We seemed to hear our voices echoing through all the dreary rooms: the lightest word went winging away to gather strength in its path and to come back to us in a reverberating and long-drawn sigh that filled the house. Nor had we any difficulty in gaining an entrance. A step from the gravel-path carried us to the boards of the drawing-room. The glassless window cried "Open house" to all the world.
How the feeling came I know not, but the moment I set foot in the building I seemed to be the victim of an indefinable yet haunting dread. It may be that my mind was running upon the silly tale of the woman who rose up out of the stream; it may be that the humid atmosphere and the miserable aspect of the room depressed me. Certainly, even in the light of the river's well-known antipathy to the builder, the devastation to be observed on the ground floor of the building was remarkable. The wall-paper hung down in strips, there was mould upon the panelling, flakes of plaster had fallen from the ceiling; all the handles had long since been stolen from all the doors; there was not anywhere the sign of visitation, much less of habitation. Indeed, in the whole house I saw but one article which was not a decaying fixture: it was the half of a Bible, torn and coverless, and it lay upon the mantelshelf of the library.
During the whole of our tour of these lower rooms, grim and lonely and forbidding as they were, Watson had maintained a dogged silence. Possibly the gloomy mood, which was my experience, possessed him. He went from chamber to chamber with sullen steps like a man who did not wish to advance, yet had not the will to draw back. But it was not until we found ourselves at the foot of the great marble staircase, now cracked and chipped, and humbled in the perishing gold-work of its balustrades, that he uttered a protest, and one which echoed my own inclination.
"Come now," said he, "you 're not going to climb those stairs."
"But we haven't met the lady I'm to compromise," said I.
"Oh, write something sweet and drop it into the river."
"An appointment for the small hours—rendezvous, a water-lily, eh?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Anywhere you like, so long as it is not in this hole," said he.
It was evident that he was not deriving that enjoyment from the expedition which I had promised him; and being, in some part, of his opinion, I turned round upon the stair to descend. In the same moment I heard, clear and unmistakable, the slam of a door on the landing above us. It was followed by the sharp click of a key turning in a lock—then by utter, unbroken silence. And the next thing I remember is that Watson and I were both in the punt, and that somehow or other he had one end of the pole and I had the other.
"I am about to remark," said he, and he did not make an observation until we had passed the railway bridge, "that you were frightened."
"Speak for yourself," said I; "you 're as white as a sheet now."
"Well," he exclaimed, "I am open to admissions."
"Then you think that it was something?" said I.
"Undoubtedly. The wind shut a door and the lock shut itself. I was about to make sure when you bolted away like a cow."
"It's not fair to say that. I am convinced that you were the first to leave."
"Suppose we agree that we left together?"
Upon this conclusion, and upon the fact that the wind had closed the door and locked it, we found agreement ultimately. I left him at Pangbourne, for he was on his way to town; and it was not until three days later that I passed the Bell House again. This time, however, I was alone. I had sculled from Pangbourne to Goring in the early morning, and a friend had insisted upon my dining with him at the Bull. At half-past nine o'clock we rose from the table to catch a train which was booked for ten minutes past that hour. The train proved to be capriciously punctual, and it remained only to sleep at the hotel or to scull myself down to Pangbourne. I chose the latter course, and passed through the lock when the clocks were striking ten.
Until this time I had given no thought to the voyage. There is no finer employment than a scull upon the river if the night be kind and the moon's light be your lantern. Then it is that the woods are outlined in the softest shapes; then that the ripple of the stream is the sweetest music. Nor would you possess imagination if von did not, in your fancy, descry the faces of sirens in the shadowy pools, or people the great leaves of the lilies with a whole army of naiads. And what a world of romances are the thickets of the island! how full of ghostly suggestion the very silence of the pools, shining with silver faces where the moon-beams fall upon them!—or dark as with the darkness of Acheron where trees shield them from the searching light. Life and death—the river chants of both the song of noon -day, the dirge of the ultimate night.
Hut these are the thoughts of summer, and it is different when autumn gives a golden red to the leaves, and the mists rise almost as the sun sets. There is the sweetness in the morning air, indeed; but the nights are nights of damp and fog and deadly chill, no less to be dreaded because the moon gives the fullness of her light and the sheaves stand sentinels in the well-gleaned fields. It was upon such a night that I left the lock at Goring, and sculled quickly under the loom of the hills toward the moonlit woods of Whitchurch. Above me a radiant sky, and the uplands outstanding in the refulgent light; all about me the fine spray of the mist to carry my thoughts to the parlour of the Swan and the warm bed above it. And nowhere did the fog lie in such white clouds or seem to envelop me so completely as in the turn of the valley at the Bell House, where the spur of the hills faced the west wind, and all the vapours steamed up together in fleecy and gathering volumes.
Late as it was, and unbefriending the hour, I found myself resting on my sculls for a spell as I came to the ruined house; and sending my mind back to the strange experience which had befallen me there. I began to ask myself again if a human hand had closed the door, or if our matter-of-fact supposition were the correct one. I fell to wondering what event in the history of the place had set the village hags chattering. I speculated upon the changing whims of Fortune, her surprises and her caprice. And then, just when prudence counselled me to take up my sculls again, the fog which had enveloped the house seemed to lift all in a moment, and the whole shape of the building stood out clear to my view. What was more, the light of a lantern was dancing in the remoter garden, and, even as I watched it, the light disappeared, only to shine out again presently from one of the windows of the staircase.
To say that this light surprised me is no word to describe all I felt. Associating it at once with the mysterious closing of the door, I sat and watched it as one fascinated. That some human being haunted the Bell House was now plain, yet with what object I could not conceive. Robbery was out of the question. There was not the value of sixpence, I surmised, to be found from garret to cellar. No tramp seeking a night's lodging would carry a lantern in his hand. No pilferer would be moved to steal bricks and tumbling plaster. Yet there was the light now shining from the hall—now disappearing, now flashing—not from any window above, but up, as it were, from the very bowels of the earth. Then only I had a theory—the night-walker was one with business in the cellars of the Bell House.
I had this conviction, and yet, having it, I found it powerless to moderate my curiosity. Was it possible that the family in its flight had left untapped kegs in its buttery? Had some muck-raker turned over refuse and dross to come upon a bin of neglected Madeira? The humour of these assumptions gave way quickly to the thought of the phantoms which the villagers conjured. How if I were favoured with one of them? How if the hand which held the lantern was not human? All the scene about—the dark bushes, the lapping river, the unbroken silence—helped the suggestion. If a ghostly figure, with moist body and clammy hands, had stepped suddenly into my skiff and sat beside me, I could not have been more startled. Indeed, the very notion sent my sculls into the water, and I had taken two swinging strokes even while I said that I would see the thing out, cost me what it might.
Two strokes I took but no more. My blades were feathering for the third time, when the situation changed almost with the swiftness of melodrama. So dreadful was the cry which then rung over the water that all my nerves twitched as I heard it. Again and again it rose up, a long-drawn, reverberating appeal for help; not from the cellars of the house where the lantern was, not from the bushes of the garden, but from the great hall, perhaps from the very staircase which I had trodden. And I had not heard it twice when I knew that a woman's voice had uttered it; that only the supremity of peril could move her to such an outburst.
There are many men who, believing in nothing, have a very real dread of unseen dangers and of spiritual manifestations. I do not pretend to be one of these, but I am convinced that nothing would have taken me to the Bell House that night if I had not assured myself that I was answering a human summons, and going to the help of a fellow-creature. Of this I had little doubt when I sprang from the boat and ran swiftly across the lawn to the window by which I had entered the house three days before. I was more sure when I stood in the darkness of the hall, and could hear most distinctly the sound of someone breathing. Yet no one moved, no one answered my cry, "Who is here?" The darkness alone seemed in possession of the ruins.
For the second time I raised my voice, crying, "Who calls?" The sound echoed through the building, sending birds whirling from its roof, but no human voice answered me. And this was the more strange since I was conscious of a human presence. I knew that someone stood near to me. I expected every moment to feel the touch of a hand; even the hurt of a blow. The very uncertainty robbed me of what new-gotten courage I had carried from the boat. I had impulse to flee the place as a place of dread and horror.
This, undoubtedly, had been my course—for my fear was not to be measured by words—had not there come, at the very moment when I decided upon it, a change in the scene which was no less remarkable than the one which brought me from the boat. For while I stood, dazed and motionless and robbed of all my nerve, the moonlight fell of a sudden through the stained-glass window above, and lit all things in its mellow light. The darkness vanished as at the touch of a wizard's wand. Stairs, balustrades, doors, pillars took shape about me. The marble pavement seemed to unroll in slabs of silver. Stretched upon it, and plain to be seen, was the figure of a young girl, inanimate, apparently dead.
The lantern which she had carried lay extinguished at her feet. Her hair was loose and spread upon the pavement. Her face was whiter than the light which fell upon it. Her hands were clenched, her eyes firmly shut. It was only when I bent over her that her pulse told me that she lived. But of token of her peril, or sign by what means she had come to such a situation, there was none. Nor was there anyone with her in the vestibule. I heard no longer the heavy breathing, the breathing of a man unquestionably, which I had heard when first I entered the hall. No sound of footstep echoed in the house; not so much as the creak of a board or the shutting of a door disturbed the silence. We were utterly alone—alone with the peril, if peril there was.
My first care in this haunting moment was the girl who lay at my feet. She lived, as her pulse told me; yet, if the glimmer of life was not to die and fade utterly, I knew that other help than mine must be sought. Prudently or imprudently, I turned from the thought of leaving her where she was. The whole of that dreadful house breathed the air of death. I said that I must get her to the river, and to my skiff; and with this in my mind I carried her quickly across the lawn and laid her upon the cushions of the boat. There was brandy in my locker, and it was the work of a minute to bathe her hands with it, and to force some of the spirit between her lips. The crisp, cold air of the night blowing freshly upon her face did the rest, and before a second minute had passed she opened her eyes and uttered a low cry.
"Who are you?" she asked, and in a very sweet voice.
I told her my name and the circumstances under which I had been able to help her, adding that I would row her to the town at once if that was her wish. When I had spoken she did not answer me, but buried her face in her hands—the smallest hands that I have seen on woman—and began to cry bitterly.
"What folly, what folly!" I heard her muttering to herself; and so she sat, sobbing, until we had come to the lock. Nor did she utter a single word of thanks to me.
It being now nearly eleven o'clock, there was no light in the lock-keeper's cottage. I saw that it was very necessary to get the girl to her home and to her bed, for she was woefully unstrung and hysterical; and, being unable to wake the keeper with a hail, I moored the boat for a moment at the lock-gates and ran up to the cottage. I had left my passenger wrapped in rugs, the prettiest picture of distress possible; but although I was away no more than five minutes, there was not a sign of her on my return. She had left the boat and vanished as mysteriously as she had come.
In the month of May following upon this strange episode at the Bell House an invitation from a dancing man took me to the Portman Rooms, in Baker Street, where there was to be held one of those oftentimes dismal functions, "a small and early." The rooms were very full as I entered; but I had not been a spectator of the first dance for more than a minute when I found myself following with curious eyes the steps of a singularly beautiful girl, who was remarkable even in that throng of pretty women. So exquisitely did she waltz, so graceful was her lightest movement, that she would have attracted attention by these gifts alone; but she added to them a stately and perfect figure, and a face which was marked by an indescribable sweetness. Long I watched her as she seemed to float rather than to dance round the hall. Then suddenly our eyes met in a mutual and immediate recognition. She was my ghost of the Bell House.
I say that the recognition was mutual. I may add that it was accompanied on her part by a very singular proceeding. No sooner had she observed me than she ceased to dance, regardless of the press about her, and began to drag her partner to my corner. Nor did she wait for the formality of introduction before she spoke to me.
"What can I say to you!" she exclaimed, holding out both her hands, "what must you have thought of me?"
It was all very sudden and very surprising, and I listened to her, silent in admiration while she thanked me for saving her life, as she would have it that I had done.
"I knew you at once," she said a little later, when we had found the shelter of an alcove and she had told me that her name was Barbara Olcott. "I could never forget my last visit to the Bell House. You must have thought me an ungrateful creature."
"I never thought anything of the kind. I was too busy wondering what had become of you, and how you came to he in the place at all."
"Oh! that was simple enough. My father, Colonel Olcott, lived there for twenty years. I was born there; it was our home until three years ago. When we left it and my father wished to sell it, some of the papers necessary to prove his claim could not be found. The loss made all the difference to us—the difference between poverty and comparative wealth. I need not tell you how we all worked to get our home back again. But the missing deeds were never found: and when three years had passed we gave up all hopes of recovering them.
As she spoke the whole of her story seemed to come into my head.
"So you went to Goring to find the documents," said I; "but what made you think they were there?"
"I dreamed it—the night before we met. I dreamed that the papers lay in a rusty safe in one of the cellars under the garden."
"And did you tell your father of this?"
"Oh, yes; but he laughed at me. He is an enemy to all superstition, and he would have considered it a blot upon his creed to follow such fancies. I could not persuade him to listen to me, and having no brothers. I was bound to go to Goring alone."
"Then you were staying in the town?"
"I was staying at the cottage of my nurse. My father had gone to Brighton that morning, and directly he had left, I set out. Of course, I did not want to see any of our friends of the better time. That was why I went to the Bell House at night when all the village slept."
"But why did not your nurse or someone go with you?"
"The poor old soul is a cripple—she can only hobble about her garden. If I had taken any villages, my story would have been told to all the world next morning, and that would have annoyed them at home. It was dreadful folly—I am sure of it now."
"I'm afraid it was; but you're not going to tell me that you found the deeds?"
"Alas for the credit of dreams! I found nothing but an empty cider-barrel where my sale should have been. And then comes the dreadful part of the story. When I had made quite sure that there was nothing in the cellar, I returned to the kitchen, and was about to pass through the hall when I came face to face with a man who was standing at the foot of the staircase. Oh, nothing could be so hideous as that creature was. His head was like the head of an animal. I was certain that he meant to murder me."
"Did he speak to you then?"
"No, he only stood looking, looking at me, until I thought that I should lose my reason. I would sooner die than face him again. When at last I made a step to pass him, he tore the diamond brooch off my throat and tried to pull my ring from my finger. I remember nothing else until I saw you bending over me in the boat."
"Then you have no idea who the man was?"
"I think he must have been a tramp. When the Vicar went up to the house next day, he declared that someone had been living in one of the upper rooms. But I cannot tell you what I felt when I found that I was not alone, and remembered that no one could hear my cry. It was the same terror which sent me running from your boat. Oh, you have much to forgive."
I told her that no one could hesitate to forgive her anything; and was glad to hear that her father's affairs had righted themselves. I have met him many times since that night at his place in Bedfordshire, and a finer old man does not exist. Nor has friendship moderated my admiration for pretty Barbara.