Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 19
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XXXVII. MATTHEW FROST’S NIGHT ENCOUNTER.
Old Matthew Frost sat in his room at the back of the kitchen. It was his bed-room and sitting-room combined. Since he had grown feeble, the bustle of the kitchen and of Robin’s family disturbed him, and he sat much in his chamber: they frequently taking his dinner in to him.
A thoroughly comfortable arm-chair had Matthew. It had been the gift of Lionel Verner. At his elbow was a small round table, of very dark wood, rubbed to brightness. On that table Matthew’s large Bible might generally be found open, and Matthew’s spectacled eyes bending over it. But the Bible was closed to-day. He sat in deep thought. His hands clasped upon his stick; something after the manner of old Mr. Verner; and his eyes fixed through the open window at the September sun, as it played on the gooseberry and currant bushes in the cottage garden.
The door opened, and Robin’s wife—her hands and arms white, for she was kneading dough—appeared, showing in Lionel. The old man rose, and stood leaning on his stick.
“Sit down, Matthew,” said Lionel, in a kindly tone. “Don’t let me disturb you.” He made him go into his seat again, and took a chair opposite to him.
“The time’s gone, sir, for me to stand afore you. That time must go for us all.”
“Ay, that it must, Matthew, if we live. I came in to speak to Robin. His wife says she does not know where he is.”
“He’s here and there and everywhere,” was old Matthew’s answer. “One never knows how to take him, sir, or when to see him. My late master’s bounty to me, sir, is keeping us in comfort, but I often ask Robin what he’ll do when I am gone. It gives me many an hour’s care, sir. Robin, he don’t earn the half of a living now.”
“Be easy, Matthew,” was Lionel’s answer. “I am not sure the annuity, or part of it, will not be continued to Robin. My uncle left it in my charge to do as I should see fit. I have never mentioned it, even to you: and I think it might be as well for you not to speak of it to Robin. It is to be hoped that he will get steady and hard-working again: were he to hear that there was a chance of his being kept without work, he might never become so.”
“The Lord bless my old master!” aspirated Matthew, lifting his hands. “The Lord bless you, sir! There’s not many gentlemen would do for us what him and you have.”
Lionel bent his head forward, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Matthew, what is this that I hear, about Robin’s going about the grounds at night with a loaded gun?”
Matthew flung up his hands. Not with the reverence of the past minute, but with a gesture of despair. “Heaven knows what he does it for, sir! I’d keep him in: but it’s beyond me.”
“I know you would. You went yourself to him last night, Broom tells me.”
Matthew’s eyes fell. He hesitated much in his answer. “I—yes, sir,—I—I couldn’t get him home. It’s a pity.”
“You got as far as the brick-kilns, I hear. I was surprised. I don’t think you should be out at night, Matthew.”
“No, sir, I am not a-going again.”
The words this time were spoken readily enough. But, from some cause or other, the old man was evidently embarrassed. His eyes were not lifted, and his clear face had gone red. Lionel searched his imagination for a reason, and could only connect it with his son.
“Matthew,” said he, “I am about to ask you a painful question. I hope you will answer it. Is Robin perfectly sane?”
“Ay, sir, as sane as I am. Unsettled he is, ever dwelling on poor Rachel, ever thinking of revenge: but his senses be as much his as they ever were. I wish his mind could be set at rest.”
“At rest in what way?”
“As to who it was that did the harm to Rachel. He has had it in his head for a long while, sir, that it was Mr. John Massingbird: but he can’t be certain, and it’s the uncertainty that keeps his mind on the worrit.”
“Do you know where he picked up the notion that it was Mr. John Massingbird?” inquired Lionel, remembering the conversation on the same point that Robin had once held with him, on that very garden bench, in face of which he and Matthew were now sitting.
Old Matthew shook his head. “I never could learn, sir. Robin’s a dutiful son to me, but he’d never tell me that. I know that Mr. John Massingbird has been like a pill in his throat this many a day. Oftentimes have I felt thankful that he was dead, or Robin would surely have gone out to where he was, and murdered him. Murder wouldn’t mend the ill, sir—as I have told him many a time.”
“Indeed it would not,” replied Lionel. “The very fact of Mr. John Massingbird’s being dead, should have the effect of setting Robin’s mind at rest—if it was to him that his suspicions were directed. For my part, I think Robin is wrong in suspecting him.”
“I think so too, sir. I don’t know how it is, but I can’t bring my mind to suspect him more than anybody else. I have thought over things in this light, and I have thought ’em over in that light; and I’d rather incline to believe that she got acquainted with some stranger, poor dear! than that it was anybody known to us. Robin is in doubt: he has had some cause given him to suspect Mr. John Massingbird, but he is not sure, and it’s that doubt, I say, that worrits him.”
“At any rate, doubt or no doubt, there is no cause for him to go about at night with a gun. What does he do it for?”
“I have asked him, sir, and he does not answer. He seems to me to be on the watch.”
“On the watch for what?” rejoined Lionel.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said old Matthew. “If you’d say a word to him, sir, it might stop it. He got a foolish notion into his mind that poor Rachel’s spirit might come again, and he’d used to be about the pond pretty near every moonlight night. That fancy passed off, and he has gone to his bed at night as the rest of us have, up to the last week or so, when he has taken to go out again, and to carry a gun.”
“It was a foolish notion,” remarked Lionel. “The dead do not come again, Matthew.”
Matthew made no reply. Lionel rose.
“I must try and come across Robin. I wish you would tell him to come up to me, Matthew.”
“Sir, if you desire that he shall wait upon you at Verner’s Pride, he will be sure to do so,” said the old man, leaning on his stick as he stood. “He’d not go the length of disobeying an order of yours. I’ll tell him.”
It happened that Lionel did “come across” Robin Frost. Not to any effect, however, for he could not get to speak to him. Lionel was striking across some fields towards Deerham Court, when he came in view of Roy and Robin Frost leaning over a gate, their heads together in close confab. It looked very much as though they were talking secrets. They looked up and saw him; but when he reached the place, both were gone. Roy was in sight, but the other had entirely disappeared. Lionel lifted his voice.
“Roy, I want you.”
Roy could not feign deafness, though there was every appearance that he would like to do it. He turned and approached, putting his hand to his hat in a half surly manner.
“Where’s Robin Frost?”
“Robin Frost, sir? He was here a minute or two agone. I met him accidental, and I stopped him to ask what he was about, that he hadn’t been at work this three days. He went on his way then, down the gap. Did you want him, sir?”
Lionel Verner’s perceptive faculties were tolerably developed. That Roy was endeavouring to blind him, he had no doubt. They had not met “accidental,” and the topic of conversation had not been Robin’s work—of that he felt sure. Roy and Robin Frost might meet and talk together all day long, it was nothing to him: why they should strive to deceive him was the only curious part about it. Both had striven to avoid meeting him; and Roy was talking to him now unwillingly. In a general way, Robin Frost was fond of meeting and receiving a word from Mr. Verner.
“I shall see him another time,” carelessly remarked Lionel. “Not so fast, Roy,”—for the man was turning away—“I have not done with you. Will you be good enough to inform me what you were doing in front of my house last night?”
“I wasn’t doing anything, sir. I wasn’t there.”
“Oh, yes, you were,” said Lionel. “Recollect yourself. You were posted under the large yew tree on the lawn, watching my drawing-room windows.”
Roy looked up at this, the most intense surprise in his countenance. “I never was on your lawn last night, sir; I wasn’t near it. Leastways not nearer than the side field. I happened to be in that, and I got through a gap in the hedge on to the high road.”
“Roy, I believe that you were on the lawn last night, watching the house,” persisted Lionel, looking fixedly at his countenance. For the life of him he could not tell whether the man’s surprise was genuine, his denial real. “What business had you there?”
“I declare to goodness, if it was the last word I had to speak, that I was not on your lawn, sir,—that I did not watch the house. I did not go near the house. I crossed the side field, cornerwise, and got out into the road; and that’s the nearest I was to the house last night.”
Roy spoke unusually impressive for him, and Lionel began to believe that, so far, he was telling truth. He did not make any immediate reply, and Roy resumed.
“What cause have you got to accuse me, sir? I shouldn’t be likely to watch your house—why should I?”
“Some man was watching it,” replied Lionel. “And as you were seen in the road shortly afterwards, close to the side field, I came to the conclusion that it was you.”
“I can be upon my oath that it wasn’t, sir,” answered Roy.
“Very well,” replied Lionel, “I accept your denial. But allow me to give you a recommendation, Roy,—not to trouble yourself with my affairs in any way. They do not concern you; they never will concern you; therefore don’t meddle with them.”
He walked away as he spoke. Roy stood and gazed after him, a strange expression on his countenance. Had Lucy Tempest seen it, she might have renewed her warning to Lionel. And yet she would have been puzzled to tell the meaning of the expression, for it did not look like a threatening one.
Had Lionel Verner turned up Clay Lane, upon leaving Matthew Frost’s cottage, instead of down it, to take a path across the fields at the back, he would have encountered the Vicar of Deerham. That gentleman was paying parochial visits that day in Clay-lane, and in due course he came to Matthew Frost’s. He and Matthew had long been upon confidential terms: the clergyman respected Matthew, and Matthew revered his pastor.
Mr. Bourne took the seat which Lionel had but recently vacated. He was so accustomed to the old man’s habitual countenance that he could detect every change in it: and he saw that something was troubling him.
“I am troubled in more ways than one, sir,” was the old man’s answer. “Poor Robin, he’s giving me trouble again: and last night, sir, I had a sort of fright. A shock, it may be said. I can’t overget it.”
“What was it’s nature?” asked Mr. Bourne.
“I don’t much like to speak of it, sir: and, beside yourself, there’s not a living man that I’d open my lips to. It’s an unpleasant thing to have upon the mind. Mr. Verner, he was here but a few minutes agone, and I felt before him like a guilty man that has something to conceal. When I have told it to you, sir, you’ll be hard of belief.”
“Is it connected with Robin?”
“No, sir. But it was my going after Robin that led to it, as may be said. Robin, sir, has took these last few nights to go out with a gun. It has worrited me so, sir, fearing some mischief might ensue, that I couldn’t sleep; and last evening, I thought I’d hobble out and see if I couldn’t get him home. Chuff, he said, as he had seen him go toward the brickfield, and I managed to get down: and, sure enough, I came upon Robin. He was lying down at the edge of the field, watching, as it seemed to me. I couldn’t get him home, sir. I tried hard, but ’twas of no use. He spoke respectful to me, as he always does: ‘Father, I have got my work to do, and I must do it. You go back home, and go to sleep in quiet.’ It was all I could get from him, sir, and at last I turned to go back—”
“What was Robin doing?” interrupted Mr. Bourne.
“Sir, I suppose it’s just some fancy or other that he has got into his head, like he used to get, after the poor child died. Mr. Verner has just asked me whether he is sane, but there’s nothing of that sort wrong about him. You mind the clump of trees that stands out, sir, between here and the brickfield, by the path that would lead to Verner’s Pride?” added old Matthew in an altered tone.
“Yes,” said Mr. Bourne.
“I had just got past it, sir, when I saw a figure crossing that bare corner from the other trees. A man’s shape, it looked like. Tall and shadowy it was, wearing what looked like a long garment, or a woman’s riding-habit, trailing on the ground. The very moment my eyes fell upon it, I felt that it was something strange, and when the figure passed me, turning its face right upon me, I saw the face, sir.”
Old Matthew’s manner was so peculiar, his pause so impressive, that Mr. Bourne could only gaze at him, and wait in wonder for what was coming.
“Sir, it was the face of one who has been dead this two years past—Mr. Frederick Massingbird.”
If the rector had gazed at old Matthew before, he could only stare now. That the calm, sensible old man should fall into so extraordinary a delusion, was incomprehensible. He might have believed it of Deerham in general, but not of Matthew Frost.
“Matthew, you must have been deceived,” was his quiet answer.
“No, sir. There never was another face like Mr. Frederick Massingbird’s. Other features may have been made like his—it’s not for me to say they have not—but whose else would have the black mark upon it? The moonlight was full upon it, and I could see even the little lines shooting out from the cheek, so bright was the night. The face was turned right upon me as it passed, and I am as clear about its being his as I am that it was me looking at it.”
“But you know it is a thing absolutely impossible,” urged Mr. Bourne. “I think you must have dreamt this, Matthew.”
Old Matthew shook his head.
“I wouldn’t have told you a dream, sir. It turned me all in amaze. I never felt the fatigue of a step all the way home after it. When I got in, I couldn’t eat my supper; I couldn’t go to bed. I sat up thinking, and the wife, she came in and asked what ailed me that I didn’t go to rest. I had got no sleep in my eyes, I told her, which was true: for, when I did get to bed, it was hours afore I could close ’em.”
“But, Matthew, I tell you that it is impossible. You must have been mistaken.”
“Sir, until last night, had anybody told me such a thing, I should have said it was impossible. You know, sir, I have never been given to such fancies. There’s no doubt, sir; there’s no doubt that it was the spirit of Mr. Frederick Massingbird.”
Matthew’s clear intelligent eye was fixed firmly on Mr. Bourne’s—his face, as usual, bending a little forward. Mr. Bourne had never believed in “spirits:” clergymen, as a rule, do not. A half smile crossed his lips.
“Were you frightened?” he asked.
“I was not frightened, sir, in the sense that you, perhaps, put the question. I was surprised, startled. Like I might have been surprised and startled at seeing anybody I least expected to see—somebody that I had thought was miles away. Since poor Rachel’s death, sir, I have lived, so to say, in communion with spirits: what with Robin’s talking of his hope to see hers, and my constantly thinking of her, knowing also that it can’t be long, in the course of nature, before I am one myself, I have grown to be, as it were, familiar with the dead in my mind. Thus, sir, in that sense, no fear came upon me last night. I don’t think, sir, I should feel fear at meeting or being alone with a spirit, any more than I should at meeting a man. But I was startled and disturbed.”
“Matthew,” cried Mr. Bourne, in some perplexity, “I had always believed you superior to these foolish things. Ghosts might do well enough for the old days, but the world has grown older and wiser. At any rate, the greater portion of it has.”
“If you mean, sir, that I was superior to the belief in ghosts, you are right. I never had a grain of faith in such superstition in my life; and I have tried all means to convince my son what folly it was of him to hover round about the willow pond, with any thought that Rachel might ‘come again.’ No, sir, I have never been given to it.”
“And yet you deliberately assure me, Matthew, that you saw a ghost last night!”
“Sir, that it was Mr. Ferderick Massingbird, dead or alive, that I saw, I must hold to. We know that he is dead, sir: his wife buried him in that far land: so what am I to believe? The face looked ghastly white: not like a person’s living.”
Mr. Bourne mused. That Frederick Massingbird was dead and buried, there could not be the slightest doubt. He hardly knew what to make of old Matthew. The latter resumed.
“Had I been flurried or terrified by it, sir, so as to lose my presence of mind, or if I was one of those timid ones that see signs in dreams, or take every white post to be a ghost, that they come to on a dark night, you might laugh at and disbelieve me. But I tell it to you, sir, as you say, deliberate: just as it happened. I can’t have much longer time to live, sir; but I’d stake it all on the truth that it was the spirit of Mr. Frederick Massingbird. When you have once known a man, there are a hundred points by which you may recognise him, beyond possibility of being mistaken. They have got a story in the place, sir, to-day—as you may have heard—that my poor child’s ghost appeared to Dan Duff last night, and that the boy has been senseless ever since. It has struck me, sir, that, perhaps, he also saw what I did.”
Mr. Bourne paused. “Did you say anything of this to Mr. Verner?”
“Not I, sir. As I tell you, I felt like a guilty man in his presence, one with something to hide. He married Mr. Fred’s widow, pretty creature, and it don’t seem a nice thing to tell him. If it had been the other gentleman’s spirit, Mr. John’s, I should have told him at once.”
Mr. Bourne rose. To argue with old Matthew in his present state of mind, appeared to be about as useless a waste of time as to argue with Susan Peckaby on the subject of the white donkey. He told him he would see him again in a day or two, and took his departure.
But he did not dismiss the subject from his mind. No, he could not do that. He was puzzled. Such a tale from one like old Matthew—calm, pious, sensible, and verging on the grave, made more impression on Mr. Bourne than all Deerham could have made. Had Deerham come to him with the story, he would have flung it to the winds.
He began to think that some person, from evil design or love of mischief, must be personating Frederick Massingbird. It was a natural conclusion. And Matthew’s surmise, that the same thing might have alarmed Dan Duff, was perfectly probable. Mr. Bourne determined to ascertain the latter fact, as soon as Dan should be in a state of sufficient convalescence, bodily and mentally, to give an account. He had already paid one visit to Mrs. Duff’s—as that lady informed Lionel.
Two or three more he paid during the day, but not until night did he find Dan revived. In point of fact, the clergyman penetrated to the kitchen, just after the startling communication had been made by Dan. The women were standing in consternation when the vicar entered: one of them strongly recommending that the copper furnace should be heated, and Dan plunged into it to “bring him round.”
“How is he now?” began Mr. Bourne. “Oh! I see: he is sensible.”
“Well, sir, I don’t know,” said Mrs. Duff. “I’m afraid as his head’s a-going right off. He persists in saying now that it wasn’t the ghost of Rachel at all, but—but somebody else’s.”
“If he was put into a good hot furnace, sir, and kep’ at a even heat up to biling point for half an hour—that is, as near biling as his skin could bear it—I know it ’ud do wonders,” spoke up Mrs. Chuff. “It’s a excellent remedy, where there’s a furnace convenient, and water not short.”
“Suppose you allow me to be alone with him for a few minutes,” suggested Mr. Bourne. “We will try and find out what will cure him, won’t we, Dan?”
The women filed out one by one. Mr. Bourne sat down by the boy, and took his hand. In a soothing manner he talked to him, and drew from him by gentle degrees the whole tale, so far as Dan’s memory and belief went. The boy shook in every limb as he told it. He could not boast immunity from ghostly fears like old Matthew Frost.
“But, my boy, you should know that there are no such things as ghosts,” urged Mr. Bourne. “When once the dead have left this world, they do not come back to it again.”
“I see’d it, sir,” was Dan’s only argument—an all-sufficient one with him. “It was stood over the pool, it was, and it turned round right upon me as I went up. I see the porkypine on his cheek, sir, as plain as anything.”
The same account as old Matthew’s!
“How was the person dressed?” asked Mr. Bourne. “Did you notice?”
“It had got on some’at long—a coat or a skirt, or some’at. ’Twas as thin as thin, sir.”
“Dan, shall I tell you what it was—as I believe? It was somebody dressed up to frighten you and other timid persons.”
Dan shook his head.
“No, sir, ’twasn’t. ’Twas the ghost of Mr. Frederick Massingbird.”
CHAPTER XXXVIII. MASTER CHEESE’S FRIGHT. OTHER FRIGHTS.
Strange rumours began to be rife in Deerham. The extraordinary news told by Dan Duff would have been ascribed to some peculiar hallucination of that gentleman’s brain, and there’s no knowing but what the furnace might have been tried as a cure, had not other testimony arisen to corroborate it. Four or five different people, in the course of as many days—or rather nights—saw, or professed to have seen, the apparition of Frederick Massingbird.
One of them was Master Cheese. He was coming home from paying a professional visit—in slight, straightforward cases Jan could trust him—when he saw by the roadside what appeared to be a man standing up under the hedge, as if he had taken his station there to look at the passers-by.
“He’s up to no good,” quoth Master Cheese to himself. “I’ll go and dislodge the fellow.”
Accordingly Master Cheese turned off the path where he was walking, and crossed the waste bit—only a yard or two in breadth—that ran by the side of the road. Master Cheese, it must be confessed, did not want for bravery; he had a great deal rather face danger of any kind than hard work; and the rumour about Fred Massingbird’s ghost had been rare nuts for him to crack. Up he went, having no thought in his head at that moment of ghosts, but rather of poachers.
“I say, you fellow—” he was beginning, and there he stopped dead.
He stopped dead, both in step and tongue. The figure, never moving, never giving the faintest indication that it was alive, stood there like a statue. Master Cheese looked in its face, and saw the face of the late Frederick Massingbird.
It is not pleasant to come across a dead man at moonlight—a man whose body has been safely reposing in the ground ever so long ago. Master Cheese did not howl as Dan Duff had done. He set off down the road—he was too fat to propel himself over or through the hedge, though that was the nearest way—he took to his heels down the road, and arrived in an incredibly short space of time at home, bursting into the surgery and astonishing Jan and the surgery boy.
“I say, Jan, though, haven’t I had a fright?”
Jan, at the moment, was searching in the prescription-book. He raised his eyes, and looked over the counter. Master Cheese’s face had turned white, and drops of wet were pouring off it—in spite of his bravery.
“What have you been at?” asked Jan.
“I saw the thing they are talking about, Jan. It is Fred Massingbird’s.”
Jan grinned. That Master Cheese’s fright was genuine there could be no mistaking, and it amused Jan excessively.
“What had you been taking?” asked he in his incredulity.
“I had taken nothing,” retorted Master Cheese, who did not like the ridicule. “I had not had the opportunity of taking anything—unless it was your medicine. Catch me tapping that! Look here, Jan. I was coming by Crow Corner, when I saw a something standing back in the hedge. I thought it was some poaching fellow hiding there, and went up to dislodge him. Didn’t I wish myself up in the skies? It was the face of Fred Massingbird.”
“The face of your fancy,” slightingly returned Jan.
“I swear it was, then! There! There’s no mistaking him. The hedgehog on his cheek looked larger and blacker than ever.”
Master Cheese did not fail to talk of this abroad: the surgery boy, Bob, who had listened with open ears, did not fail to talk of it, and it spread throughout Deerham; additional testimony to that already accumulated. In a few days’ time, the commotion was at its height; nearly the only person who remained in ignorance of the reported facts being the master and mistress of Verner’s Pride, and those connected with them, relatives on either side.
That some great internal storm of superstition was shaking Deerham, Lionel knew. In his happy ignorance, he attributed it to the rumour which had first been circulated, touching Rachel’s ghost. He was an ear-witness to an angry colloquy at home. Some indispensable trifle for his wife’s toilette was required suddenly from Deerham one evening, and Mademoiselle Benoite ordered that it should be sent for. But not one of the maids would go. The French maid insisted, and there ensued a stormy war. The girls, one and all, declared they’d rather give up their service, than go abroad after nightfall.
When the fears and the superstitions came palpably in Lionel’s way, he made fun of it—as Jan might have done. Once or twice he felt half provoked, and asked the people, in a tone between earnest and jest, whether they were not ashamed of themselves. Little reply made they: not one of them but seemed to shrink from mentioning to Lionel Verner the name that the ghost had borne in life.
On nearly the last evening that it would be light during this moon, Mr. Bourne started from home to pay a visit to Mrs. Hook, the labourer’s wife. The woman had been ailing for some time: partly from natural illness, partly from chagrin—for her daughter Alice was the talk of the village—and she had now become seriously ill. On this day Mr. Bourne had accidentally met Jan: and, in conversing upon parish matters, he had inquired after Mrs. Hook.
“Very much worse,” was Jan’s answer. “Unless a change takes place, she’ll not last many days.”
The clergyman was shocked: he had not deemed her to be in danger. “I will go and see her to-day,” said he. “You can tell her that I am coming.”
He was a conscientious man; liking to do his duty: especially to those that were in sickness or trouble. Neither did he willingly break a specific promise. He made no doubt that Jan delivered the message: and therefore he went; though it was late at night when he started, other duties having detained him throughout the day.
His most direct way from the vicarage to Hook’s cottage, took him past the willow pond. He had no fear of ghosts, and therefore he chose it, in preference to going down Clay Lane, which was further round. The willow pool looked lonely enough as he passed it, its waters gleaming in the moonlight, its willows bending. A little further on, the clergyman’s ears became alive to the sound of sobs, as from a person in distress. There was Alice Hook, seated on a bench underneath some elm-trees, sobbing enough to break her heart.
However the girl might have got herself under the censure of the neighbourhood, it is a clergyman’s office to console, rather than to condemn. And he could not help liking pretty Alice: she had been one of the most tractable pupils in his Sunday-school. He addressed her as soothingly, as considerately, as though she were one of the first ladies in his parish: harshness would not mend the matter now. Her heart opened to the kindness.
“I’ve broke mother’s heart, and killed her!” cried she, with a wild burst of sobs. “But for me, she might ha’ve got well.”
“She may get well still, Alice,” replied the vicar. “I am going on to see her now. What are you doing here?”
“I am on my way, sir, to get the fresh physic for her. Mr. Jan, he said this morning as somebody was to go for it: but the rest have been out all day. As I came along, I got thinking of the time, sir, when I could go about by daylight with my head up, like the best of ’em; and it overcame me.”
She rose up, dried her eyes with her shawl, and Mr. Bourne proceeded onwards. He had not gone far, when something came rushing past him from the opposite direction. It seemed more like a thing than a man with its swift pace—and he recognised the face of Frederick Massingbird.
Mr. Bourne’s pulses stood still, and then gave a bound onwards. Clergyman though he was, he could not, for his life, have helped the queer feeling which came over him. He had sharply rebuked the superstition in his parishioners; had been inclined to ridicule Matthew Frost; had cherished a firm and unalterable belief that some foolish wight was playing pranks with the public; but all these suppositions and convictions faded in this moment: and the clergyman felt that that which had rustled past was the veritable dead-and-gone Frederick Massingbird, in the spirit or in the flesh.
He shook the feeling off—or strove to shake it. That it was Frederick Massingbird in the flesh, he did not give a second supposition to: and that it could be Frederick Massingbird in the spirit, was opposed to every past belief of the clergyman’s life. But he had never seen such a likeness: and, though the similarity in the features might be accidental, what of the black star?
He strove to shake the feeling off; to say to himself that some one, bearing a similar face, must be in the village; and he went on to his destination. Mrs. Hook was better: but she was lying in the place alone, all of them out somewhere or other. The clergyman talked to her and read to her: and then waited impatiently for the return of Alice. He did not care to leave the woman alone.
“Where are they all?” he asked, not having inquired before.
They were gone to the wake at Broxley, a small place some two miles distant. Of course! Had Mr. Bourne remembered the wake, he need not have put the question.
An arrival at last. It was Jan. Jan, attentive to poor patients as he was to rich ones, had come striding over, the last thing. They asked him if he had seen anything of Alice in his walk. But Jan had come across from Deerham Court, and that would not be the girl’s road. Another minute and the husband came in. The two gentlemen left together.
“She is considerably better, to-night,” remarked Jan. “She’ll get about now, if she does not fret too much over Alice.”
“It is strange where Alice can have got to,” remarked Mr. Bourne. Her prolonged absence, coupled with the low spirits the girl appeared to be in, rather weighed upon his mind. “I met her as I was coming here an hour ago,” he continued. “She ought to have been home long before this.”
“Perhaps she has encountered the ghost,” said Jan, in a joke.
“I saw it to-night, Jan.”
“Saw what?” asked Jan, looking at Mr. Bourne.
“The—the party that appears to be personating Frederick Massingbird.”
“Nonsense!” uttered Jan.
“I did. And I never saw such a likeness in my life.”
“Even to the porcupine,” ridiculed Jan.
“Even to the porcupine,” gravely replied Mr. Bourne. “Jan, I am not joking. Moreover, I do not consider it a subject for a joke. If any one is playing the trick, it is an infamous thing, most disrespectful to your brother and his wife. And if not—”
“If not—what?” asked Jan.
“In truth, I stopped because I can’t continue. Frederick Massingbird’s spirit it cannot be—unless all our previous belief in non-appearance of spirits is to be upset—and it cannot be Frederick Massingbird in life. He died in Australia, and was buried there. I am puzzled, Jan.”
Jan was not. Jan only laughed. He believed there must be something in the moonlight that deceived the people, and that Mr. Bourne had caught the infection like the rest.
“Should it prove to be a trick that any one is playing,” resumed the clergyman, “I shall—”
“Halloa!” cried Jan. “What’s this? Another ghost?”
They had nearly stumbled over something lying on the ground. A woman, dressed in some light material. Jan stooped.
“It’s Alice Hook!” he cried.
The spot was that at which Mr. Bourne had seen her sitting. The empty bottle for medicine in her hand told him that she had not gone upon her errand. She was insensible, and cold.
“She has fainted,” remarked Jan. “Lend a hand, will you, sir?”
Between them they got her on the bench, and the stirring revived her. She sighed once or twice, and opened her eyes.
“Alice, girl, what is it? How were you taken ill?” asked the vicar.
She looked up at him; she looked at Jan. Then she turned her eyes in an opposite direction, glanced fearfully round, as if searching for some sight that she dreaded; shuddered, and relapsed into insensibility.
“We must get her home,” observed Jan.
“There are no means of getting her home in her present state, unless she is carried,” said Mr. Bourne.
“That’s easy enough,” returned Jan.
He caught her up in his long arms, apparently having to exert little strength in the action.
“Put her petticoats right, will you?” cried he, in his unceremonious fashion.
The clergyman put her things as straight as he could, as they hung over Jan’s arm.
“You’ll never be able to carry her, Jan,” said he.
“Not carry her!” returned Jan. “I could carry you if put to it.”
And away he went, bearing his burden as tenderly and easily as if it had been a little child. Mr. Bourne could hardly keep pace with him.
“You go on, and have the door open,” said Jan, as they neared the cottage. “We must get her in without the mother hearing up-stairs.
They had the kitchen to themselves. Hook, the father, a little the worse for what he had taken, had gone to bed, leaving the door open for his children. They got her in quietly, found a light, and placed her in a chair. Jan took off her bonnet and shawl; he was handy as a woman; and looked about for something to give her. He could find nothing except water. By-and-by she got better.
Her first movement, when she fully recovered her senses, was to clutch hold of Jan on the one side, of Mr. Bourne on the other.
“Is it gone?” she gasped in a voice of the most intense terror.
“Is what gone, child?” asked Mr. Bourne.
“The ghost,” she answered. “It came right up, sir, just after you had left me. I’d rather die than see it again.”
She was shaking from head to foot. There was no mistaking that her terror was intense. To attempt to meet it with confuting arguments would have been simply folly, and both gentlemen knew that it would. Mr. Bourne concluded that the same sight, which had so astonished him, had been seen by the girl.
“I sat down again after you went, sir,” she resumed, her teeth chattering. “I knew there was no mighty hurry for my being back, as you had gone on to mother, and I sat on ever so long, and it came right up again me, brushing my knees with its things as it passed. At the first moment I thought it might be you coming back to say something to me, sir, and I looked up. It turned its face upon me, and I never remembered nothing after that.”
“Whose face?” questioned Jan.
“The ghost’s, sir. Mr. Fred Massingbird’s.”
“Bah!” said Jan. “Faces look alike in the moonlight.”
“’Twas his face,” answered the girl, from between her shaking lips. “I saw its every feature, sir.”
“Porcupine and all?” retorted Jan, ironically.
“Porkypine and all, sir. I’m not sure that I should have knowed it at first, but for the porkypine.”
What were they to do with the girl? Leave her there, and go? Jan, who was more skilled in ailments than Mr. Bourne, thought it possible that the fright had seriously injured her.
“You must go to bed at once,” said he. “I’ll just say a word to your father.”
Jan was acquainted with the private arrangements of the Hooks’ household. He knew that there was but one sleeping apartment for the whole family—the room above where the sick mother was lying. Father, mother, sons and daughters all slept there together. The “house” consisted of the kitchen below and the room above it: there were many such on the Verner estate.
Jan, carrying the candle to guide him, went softly up the creaky staircase. The wife was sleeping. Hook was sleeping, too, and snoring heavily. Jan had something to do to awake him: shaking seemed useless.
“Look here,” said he, in a whisper, when the man was aroused, “Alice has had a fright, and I think she will perhaps be ill through it. If so, mind you come for me without loss of time. Do you understand, Hook?”
Hook signified that he did.
“Very well,” replied Jan. “Should—”
“What’s that! what’s that?”
The alarmed cry came from the mother. She had suddenly awoke.
“It’s nothing,” said Jan. “I only had a word to say to Hook. You go to sleep again, and sleep quietly.”
Somehow Jan’s presence carried reassurance with it to most people. Mrs. Hook was contented. “Is Ally not come in yet?” asked she.
“Come in, and down stairs,” replied Jan. “Good night. Now,” said he to Alice, when he returned to the kitchen, “you go on to bed and get to sleep: and don’t get dreaming of ghosts and goblins.”
They were going out at the door, the clergyman and Jan, when the girl flew to them in a fresh attack of terror.
“I daren’t be left alone,” she gasped. “Oh, stop a minute! Pray stop, till I be gone up-stairs.”
“Here,” said Jan, making light of it. “I’ll marshal you up.”
He held the candle, and the girl flew up the stairs as fast as young Cheese had flown from the ghost. Her breath was panting, her bosom throbbing. Jan blew out the candle, and he and Mr. Bourne departed, merely shutting the door. Labourers’ cottages have no fear of midnight robbers.
“What do you think now?” asked Mr. Bourne, as they moved along.
Jan looked at him.
“You are not thinking, surely, that it is Fred Massingbird’s ghost!”
“No. But I should advise Mr. Verner to place a watch, and have the thing cleared up—who it is, and what it is.”
“Why Mr. Verner?”
“Because it is on his land that the disturbance is occurring. This girl has been seriously frightened.”
“You may have cause to know that before many hours are over,” answered Jan.
“Why! you don’t fear that she will be seriously ill?”
“Time will show,” was all the answer given by Jan. “As to the ghost, I’ll either believe in him, or disbelieve him, when I come across him. If he were a respectable ghost, he’d confine himself to the churchyard, and not walk in unorthodox places, to frighten folks.”
They looked somewhat curiously at the seat near which Alice had fallen; at the willow pond, further on. There was no trace of a ghost about then—at least, that they could see—and they continued their way. In emerging upon the high road, who should they meet but old Mr. Bitterworth and Lionel, arm in arm. They had been to an evening meeting of the magistrates at Deerham, and were walking home together.
To see the vicar and surgeon of a country village in company by night, imparts the idea that some one of its inhabitants may be in extremity. It did so now to Mr. Bitterworth:
“Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From Hook’s,” answered Jan. “The mother’s better to-night: but I have had another patient there. The girl Alice has seen the ghost, or fancied that she saw it, and was terrified out of her senses.”
“How is she going on?” asked Mr. Bitterworth.
“Physically, do you mean, sir?”
“No, I meant morally, Jan. If all accounts are true, the girl has been losing herself.”
“Law!” said Jan. “Deerham has known that this many a month past. I’d try and stop it, if I were Lionel.”
“Stop what?” asked Lionel.
“I’d build ’em better dwellings,” composedly went on Jan. “They might be brought up to decency then.”
“It is true that decency can’t put its head into such dwellings as that of the Hooks,” observed the vicar. “People have accused me of showing leniency to Alice Hook, since the scandal has been known; but I cannot show harshness to her when I think of the home the girl was reared in.”
The words pricked Lionel. None could think worse of the homes than he did. He spoke in a cross tone: we are all apt to do so, when vexed with ourselves.
“What possesses Deerham to show itself so absurd just now? Ghosts! They only affect fear, it is my belief.”
“Alice Hook did not affect it, for one,” said Jan. “She may have been frightened to some purpose. We found her lying on the ground, insensible. They are stupid, though, all the lot of them.”
“Stupid is not the name for it,” remarked Lionel. “A little superstition, following on Rachel’s peculiar death, may have been excusable, considering the ignorance of the people here, and the tendency to superstition inherent in human nature. But why it should have been revived now, I cannot imagine.”
Mr. Bitterworth and Jan had walked on. The vicar touched Lionel on the arm, not immediately to follow them.
“Mr. Verner, I do not hold good with the policy which seems to prevail, of keeping this matter from you,” he said, in a confidential tone. “I cannot see the expediency of it in any way. It is not Rachel Frost’s ghost that is said to be terrifying people.”
“Whose then?” asked Lionel.
Lionel paused, as if his ears deceived him.
“Whose?” he repeated.
“How perfectly absurd!” he presently exclaimed.
“True,” said Mr. Bourne. “So absurd that, were it not for a circumstance which has happened to-night, I scarcely think I should have brought myself to repeat it. My conviction is, that some person bearing an extraordinary resemblance to Frederick Massingbird is walking about to terrify the neighbourhood.”
“I should think there’s not another face living that bears a resemblance to Fred Massingbird’s,” observed Lionel. “How have you heard this?”
“The first to tell me of it was old Matthew Frost. He saw him plainly, believing it to be Frederick Massingbird’s spirit—although he had never believed in spirits before. Dan Duff holds to it that he saw it; and now Alice Hook: besides others. I turned a deaf ear to all, Mr. Verner; but to-night I met one so like Frederick Massingbird that, were Massingbird not dead, I could have sworn it was himself. It was wondrously like him, even to the mark on the cheek.”
“I never heard such a tale!” uttered Lionel.
“As I said—until to-night. I assure you the resemblance is so great that if we have all female Deerham in fits, I shall not wonder. It strikes me—it is the only solution I can come to—that some one is personating Frederick Massingbird for the purpose of a mischievous joke—though how they get up the resemblance is another thing. Let me advise you to see into it, Mr. Verner.”
They were turning round in front, waiting, and the vicar hastened on. Leaving Lionel glued to the spot where he stood.