Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Mrs. Haddock's hair-pins
MRS. HADDOCK’S HAIR-PINS.
The night mail lumbering through the heavy snow one wild and gusty December night, some forty years ago, bore a shivering freight of blue-nosed passengers on their comfortless journey across the barren moors of Dearthshire, and among them Mrs. Gurdlestone’s maid, Hester Burgess, in the rumble. A mail-coach ride from London to Dearthshire was no inconsiderable undertaking for an unprotected female in those days, mind you, still less for a timid young woman just going into service for the first time, thrown upon the world by the death of her mother, alone and friendless. And indeed Hester Burgess had a dreary and forlorn prospect before her when she set out to travel two hundred miles to seek a home with strangers.
In those days winters were really winters, and no mistake about them. The coldest, most biting of December winds kept company with the coach, insinuated itself down the travellers’ necks, got under their cloaks, sought out the weakest points in their overalls and wrappers, and attacked them savagely, while a heavy snow fell upon their backs and soaked them through. Perhaps the greatest sufferer from these discomforts was the young woman Hester, who, although kindly wrapped up in the guard’s extra coat, shivered with cold, and was very miserable; and so it was that at a halting-place some thirty miles off her destination the coachman descended from his box and opening the coach-door begged permission of a neatly tucked-up bundle of wrappers therein reclining to admit the poor frozen maid. A responsive grunt being taken for acquiescence, Hester was admitted accordingly, and fell asleep in the corner.
She awoke with a start just before day-break, to find that the bundle of wrappers had taken the form of a man, whose face—a very ugly one—was close to hers, with a pair of cold grey eyes fixed searchingly upon her.
“Oh, sir!” Hester cried.
“What makes you call out in your sleep?” the other traveller asked, sharply. “What makes you cry out ‘Murder!’ in your sleep?”
“I didn’t know I did, sir.”
“You did, and woke me. Don’t do so again.”
The ugly face retreating, the grey eyes closing, the wrappers re-adjusted, all became quiet, as before; but Hester trembling, she scarce knew why, kept a watch upon her companion, and, hardly breathing or moving a limb, sat bolt upright throughout the rest of the night.
“Here’s the Pollards!” said the guard, opening the door about an hour after day-break. “And here’s the carriage, sir!”
Much to Hester’s surprise, her travelling companion took his place in the brougham waiting at the corner of the road. The driver bade her sit beside him on the box, and as they drove along informed her that the gentleman inside was Mr. Silas Gurdlestone—Mr. Ralph, the Master’s, brother; that Mr. Ralph, who lay dangerously ill, had sent for him, wishing to make an end to a sort of coolness which had existed between them ever since he, Mr. Ralph was married to his good lady, on whom, they did say, Mr. Silas was himself, before her marriage, a little sweet. Rogers (he was the driver) recollected when the master was about to be married how there had been a power of surmise and conjecture as to how Mr. Silas would like it; how, on the bridal morning, directly after leaving the church, he had disappeared, and how they next heard from him in some foreign country, where he said he intended to pass the remainder of his life. “Very strange man, Mr. Silas,” Rogers said, wagging his noddle solemnly, “very, very strange.”
The dullest place upon earth must surely have been the Pollards. It was a bare, ugly, red-brick building, having, on one side, a weedy and neglected garden, on the other, a large stagnant dyke, upon the banks of which, and inclining over the water, grew in fantastic shapes some dwarfish pollards, from which the house derived its name. This dwelling had long been the property of Mrs. Gurdlestone’s family; but, since her father’s death, had until lately remained untenanted. It was with the intention of renovating it and making it his country residence that Mr. Ralph had now come down with his wife and her sister, but he falling ill immediately upon his arrival the repairs and improvements had been for a while suspended. You may be sure the town-servants were dull enough here: indeed Jeames, yawning, was a sight to see and be frightened at, in such imminent peril of falling off did the top part of that gentleman’s head appear to be on these occasions. As for Hester, her recent grief, the breaking up of a happy home, her present friendless condition—all preyed upon her mind and, with the general melancholy of the place, combined to render her life a very sad and weary one. But there was soon other cause for anxiety.
Somehow Mr. Ralph grew worse and worse, in spite of doctors and physic. Night and day his wife watched by his bedside; Mr. Silas, too, was unremitting in his care for and attention to the invalid, often mixing and administering his medicines to him. One night there was a slight change for the better, and Mr. Silas had persuaded Mrs. Gurdlestone to go and seek a few hours’ repose whilst he took her place in the sick room. She, poor thing, fagged and jaded by long watching, with a little persuasion, consented, and then all the household retired to their respective chambers, except the watcher. Thus, for a while, the time passed silently, and then there broke upon the stillness of the sleeping house a loud continuous knocking at Mrs. Gurdlestone’s door. She came out, pale and anxious, in answer to the summons, and found Mr. Silas, trembling and violently excited, who cried out in a broken voice:
“He’s gone!—dead—of a sudden! I thought I heard his breath stop, and drew the curtain.”
The distracted woman hurried into the room. It was too true: he was indeed dead—his hands twisted in the bed-clothes, his eyes wide open, a strange look of dread and horror in his face, and quite cold!
Then the sleepers, awakened by the young widow’s piercing screams, came crowding, half dressed, to the spot, their white faces looking horrible in the flaring candle-light. The nearest doctor was summoned, and all sorts of remedies suggested—but in vain. Hester, while attending her fainting mistress, stooped to pick up something lying by the dead man’s bed.
“What is it?” Mr. Silas said, quietly, taking the object from her fingers.
It was but a straightened hair-pin. He pinched her slightly in pulling it away, and must have scratched himself with it, for there was a mark of blood upon her hand.
A greater gloom than ever fell upon the house after the master’s death. The servants one by one gave warning, and left. The cook promised to find Hester a place in town, and write for her; while Jeames, who had always been particular in his attentions, offered to take her to London as his wife. He has since then gone into the public line, is the proprietor of the Leviathan Music Hall in Radcliffe Highway, drives his own carriage; and keeps, besides his very magnificent better-half and her establishment, some neat little stables at ——, “on the quiet.” The cook perhaps forgot her promise, or perhaps places were scarce, for she did not write; and so Hester, at last, was the only one of the London servants remaining.
It was dull, indeed! The stagnant pool and neglected garden were at any time but dreary objects for contemplation. The awkward, ill-educated country servants afforded but indifferent companionship for Hester, who had been brought up with no idea of going into service, or mixing with such society, and so grew to be very sad and silent and down-hearted.
Mrs. Gurdlestone’s sister (Miss Ethel) had permanently taken up her abode at the Pollards, and Mr. Silas still lingered to clear up certain matters of business referring to the late Mr. Ralph, although he had on several occasions fixed a day for his departure. As well as Hester could learn from scraps of conversation up-stairs, Miss Ethel disliked him very much, and wished her sister to give him a broad hint that his company was not needed. Whatever may have been Mrs. Gurdlestone’s wishes upon the subject, she was too considerate of the feelings of others, or too much wrapped up in her great grief, to be otherwise than passive, and things went on the same as usual.
One night, about a month after the master’s death, Hester Burgess sat alone by the fast-dying fire in the servants’ hall. It was her duty to wait until her mistress summoned her to attend her toilet on retiring to rest; and this night she was so much later than usual, that all the other servants had been in bed full half an hour. The great clock upon the stairs ticked loudly, and the wind moaned and rustled among the evergreens outside the window like the stealthy whispering of thieves: all else was still as the grave. And as Hester was sitting anxiously waiting, an overpowering sense of loneliness came over her; and with a shiver she rose and went softly up-stairs to her mistress’s room. Mrs. Gurdlestone and Miss Ethel were in the former’s bed-room, which was divided from the staircase by a long, dark antechamber. The door leading into Mrs. Gurdlestone’s room, and that upon the stairs, were both ajar, and Hester entering noiselessly at one would have knocked at the other, had she not perceived a dark figure, with its back towards her, standing between her and the light. She stopped involuntarily, held her breath, and listened.
Miss Ethel spoke: “But, Mary, how can you be so weak—so childish?”
“What would you have me do?” the other lady said complainingly. “I’m sure I do not keep him here. I wish he’d go, if he offends you. But then he has been so kind and so attentive; and he is my dear husband’s brother.”
“I tell you, Mary, I hate him! And mark my words, if he is not some day more nearly related to you than he is now.”
“He will, Mary, though I pray God I may not live to see it.”
There was a rustling sound, as though one of the ladies had risen. A figure passed Hester quickly in the dark; and before she had time to speak or move, the bed-room door opened wide, and Miss Ethel came out with a light.
“What are you doing here?” she inquired, sharply.
“I came to see if I was wanted,” the servant stammered: and with a searching look Miss Ethel swept out of the room.
Mrs. Gurdlestone had always been in delicate health, and, since her husband’s death, had almost entirely kept her own room, where Miss Ethel was in constant attendance upon her. Mr. Silas, however, frequently came in to consult her upon business matters or to chat away an hour. Now it was Miss Ethel’s turn to be ill; she was so unwell the day after that on which Hester had heard the reported conversation that she was obliged to keep her bed, and the doctor who attended Mrs. Gurdlestone was called in to see her. Mr. Silas said that it was disease of the heart.
She had been ill about three days, when the doctor calling in one evening, it came on to rain heavily, and he staid to dinner. Throughout the meal the rain poured down in torrents, and continued so long that Mr. Adams (that was the doctor’s name) consented, after much persuasion, to accept the shelter of the Pollards’ for the night, for he lived some miles off, and must cross a wild and open country before he reached his home. It was most fortunate that he did remain. During the evening Miss Ethel was much worse, and twice he went up-stairs to visit her. It was determined that the gentlemen should sit up all night, and that Hester should watch with the invalid and summon them if required.
Hester took her place in an arm-chair by the fire with a book, having a watch before her, so that she could tell the time at which the medicines should be administered. When the cook brought up her supper on a tray she told Hester that the gentlemen were smoking and drinking in the dining-room.
“I don’t think the doctor fancies there’s much danger,” cook said, “for he’s so merry like, and has been singing a song.”
“I hope,” whispered Hester, “he will not drink too much.”
“Lor bless you, child! Here, take your supper; and here’s a glass of wine Mr. Silas has sent you to give you strength. Do you mind sitting up alone?”
“Not much. Good night.”
When Hester had finished her supper she mixed another dose for the sick lady, and resumed her book.
She must have been asleep for hours. The candle had burnt low in the socket; a streak of daylight was stealing in between the heavy window-curtains, and the fire was out. She woke up with a start, cold and frightened. The room was very still, very still. She listened for the sleeper’s breathing, and heard only her own heart throbbing and a faint buzzing in her ears. To start forward, to draw the window-curtain, and to turn towards the bed, was the work of a moment; it required no second look,—the white face and wide-open eyes could only be those of the dead.
The girl’s screams awoke the doctor and Mr. Silas, who came hurrying up-stairs and rushed into the room. Long afterwards Hester recollected how unsteadily Mr. Adams stood by the bed, how his hands shook, and how unintelligibly he spoke,—how calm and collected Mr. Silas was throughout the scene. Long afterwards she recollected too, among all the dreadful details belonging to the death and funeral, that she picked up in the ashes of the grate a straightened hair-pin, which had been thrown into the fire, but not consumed. The circumstance was, in itself, so trivial that, had it not in some odd fashion connected this death with the former one, she would not have given it a second thought. As it was, her thoughts dwelt upon it, she scarcely knew why.
For many weeks after the funeral the whole house was partially shut up and darkened; the servants were again changed, excepting Hester, who would have gone also, had not her mistress implored her to remain. The sick lady seemed to droop more and more. She never left her room; she never read nor worked; she hardly ever spoke, except sometimes with Mr. Silas about legal business, of which there appeared to Hester’s mean comprehension to be a great quantity. Hester at best must have been poor company, for she was herself in bad health, out of spirits, nervous, and irritable. She, however, did her utmost to comfort her mistress, for whom she had, from the first, entertained a great regard; and, indeed, ever-suffering, gentle, uncomplaining, who could help but love her?
The sick lady wasted away slowly. The spring ripened into summer, and still she grew no better; the summer began to wane, the days to shorten; the dead leaves fell and drifted with a ghostly music, as the sick lady and her attendant sat silently in the twilight on those calm autumn evenings towards the end.
Winter was coming round again, and she grew worse. About November she took to her bed. Hester was in constant attendance upon her; indeed, the patient fretted at her absence. For hours she would sit, holding the faithful girl’s hand in hers, and sometimes she would form plans of what they would do next year when she was better. It was determined that, as soon as she was well enough to go out, she should go to London, and change of air would no doubt lead to her perfect recovery.
Still she sank, slowly but surely. Then Hester began to fancy that there was a change in the expression of her face: a sort of dread and fear seemed settling upon it. One evening, when Hester was leaving the room to go to bed (she slept in an adjoining apartment), her mistress called her back.
“Hester,” she said, “you have been a very good girl, very kind and patient with me, and you shall not be forgotten when I die.”
“Dear mistress, do not speak so.”
“Yes, Hester, I am sure I shall go before long. But you will not leave me till my time is over? With you I feel safe.”
“Feel safe, ma’am?”
“Hush, Hester!” the sick lady said, half raising herself in the bed, and drawing the girl closer to her. “I am afraid of—him!”
Hester felt instinctively whom she meant. The mistress read her own terror in the servant’s face; and as they sat silently clasped in each other’s arms, all of a sudden they both became conscious of another’s presence in the room. A dusky form flitted across the light, a lean hand stole in snake-like between the drawn curtains at the bottom of the bed, then a human head, hollow-cheeked and evil-looking, peeped in upon the affrighted women, with a wolfish glare half hidden in its wicked eyes.
“How is the patient?” asked Mr. Silas, with a smile.
The same eyes watched her as crossing the threshold of her own room Hester looked back at Silas’s retreating figure on the stairs. Throughout the night, restlessly tossing in an uneasy wakefulness or troubled slumber, the same head and hand were ever present to her excited fancy. How could she lie there? A hundred times she fancied that there was some one handling the lock of the door. Then she was sure that she heard a noise in her mistress’s room. Should she go to her? No. All was again quiet, and again she closed her eyes. So she continued until towards daylight, when fatigue and anxiety overcame her, and she slept. But not for long. Her mistress’s voice awoke her, not calling loudly, but clear, distinct, and close to her—
She awoke at the sound and sat up to listen. All was still: it must have been a dream. Again she lay down, and again a whisper filled the room—
She tore the curtain of the bed on one side. No, there was no one but herself present. Without another thought, she rushed into her mistress’s room and threw herself upon the bed, clutched the cold face in her hands, clasped the cold form to her breast, sobbing and moaning distractedly over the dear, dear friend whom she had lost. There was the old frightened look upon the dead lady’s face, the same look which the sister’s face had worn, the same which Hester remembered on the face of Mr. Ralph, and there was upon the bosom of the corpse a small round mark like the prick of a pin, just over the heart.
The house was soon alarmed, and the servants came crowding in as they had done before on a similar occasion; but Hester—terrified, stupified, and giddy with the horrible thoughts which possessed her—got away from them all, and to avoid any further questions, sought refuge in the garden. She walked straight to the most lonely part at the back of the house, and sat down in a little ruined arbour to think what she should do. She had not been there long, when she saw, lying right before her on the path, another straightened hair-pin!
She stooped to raise it, trembling as she did so. As she rose, holding it in her fingers, a dark form passed between her and the sun, casting a cold shadow upon her, and looking up, she read in Silas’s white face the certainty that he knew her thought. Then, with a shriek—
Days, and weeks, and months passed by, and Hester’s wits still wandered. Her good Aunt Sophy brought her up to town, and change of scene at length restored her to her former health.
After having married, and survived her husband, Mrs. Haddock became the laundress in this gloomy old house, where now she sits telling us the story.
And Mr. Silas. What of him? He is the owner of the Pollards now, and of a large house in town, and has many servants. Mrs. Haddock could tell you strange stories of wild orgies, gambling, drunkenness, and debauchery in which, they say, he spent some twenty years. But that is over; and for these ten years past, he has lain bed-ridden. Without friend or relation, with no one to care for him or attend to him, save his hired nurses—dragging on a wretched existence from day to day, with nothing to live for, yet afraid to die; paralysed, helpless, unutterably lonely and miserable, old Silas Gurdlestone awaits the dread summons calling him to the tribunal before which he must render an account of his deeds. God be merciful to him!
Charles H. Ross.