The Times' Red Cross Story Book/The Ghost That Failed
The Ghost that Failed
By Desmond Coke
Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
The Blue Lady wailed disconsolately in the panelled room.
In her mortal life, four hundred years before, she had always been somewhat behind the times; and now she was in arrears by the space of a whole Silly Season. She was grappling with the stale problem, "Do we Believe?"
The Blue Lady concluded, emphatically, that we did not believe; and hence her wailing. She had seen the age of scepticism coming. For more than three hundred glad years men had crossed themselves and shuddered when she went moaning through the sombre rooms of Yewcroft Hall. Secure in her reputation, she had been content once only in the evening to interrupt the revelry, and then, conscious that all eyes had been upon her stately progress, to seek contentedly her spectral couch. But with the growth of science had risen also disbelief. Once stage-coaches were discarded, and people came to Yewcroft by a steam-drawn train, she felt that any other marvel must lose caste. She did not fail to observe that, as she passed along the rooms, there were those who, though they trembled, would not turn, and made pretence of not observing her. Then came the hideous day on which the Hall harboured a deputation from a Society of Research, who loaded themselves with cameras, dull books, and revolvers, before spending a night in the Panelled Room. The Blue Lady, as became a self-respecting ghost, slept elsewhere, and would not show herself to these ill-mannered creatures; so that next day the Press declared the famous Yewcroft ghost to be a myth. This was terrible; but far worse was to come.
The family who had held Yewcroft since feudal times, the Blue Lady's own family, showed with old age a preference for sleep, and inasmuch as an ungrateful populace refused to pay them for this function, reduced means led to the abandonment of Yewcroft. It was taken by Lord Silthirsk, who had made tinned meat and a million by methods equally ambiguous. He turned the moss-hung chapel into a garage, and fitted electric light throughout the Hall.
The Blue Lady, struck in every vulnerable part, resolved to drive the Silthirsks out. For the first three days of their residence she missed no chance of floating in on Lady Silthirsk at moments likely to embarrass her. Her Ladyship showed no symptoms of annoyance or of fear, though sometimes, if not alone, she would look up and say, "Oh, here's that blue one again," in tones which the blue one took to be of terror cleverly concealed. On the fourth day the Silthirsks had a niece to stay, and the Blue Lady embraced this as a chance to learn what real impression she had made. Waiting till dessert was on the table, so that her Ladyship might not think it necessary to hide her fear before the servants, she swept into the dining-room and passed close beside the niece.
Elfrida shuddered. "What was that?" she cried.
"What's what?" asked her aunt; while her uncle said "Banana," and fell to his dessert again.
"No—something cold: it made me shudder, just as if something had gone by."
The Blue Lady, ambushed behind a vast tooled-leather screen, gloated over her success.
"Oh, that!" said Lady Silthirsk: "that's one of the fixtures—a spook. We rather like her—it's so picturesque and old-world, ain't it? Some people can see her—I always can. She's blue—quite an inoffensive mauvy blue. Oh, I distinctly like her. She's a novelty, ye know: and she'll be so cooling in the summer!"
But even she started at the ghastly groan which issued from behind the leather screen.
For some weeks the Blue Lady did not deign to show herself, until Lady Silthirsk began to find fault. The landlord, she implied, had swindled her. It became clear to the spectre that all hopes of driving out these upstarts by terror had been idle dreams.
And now, on Christmas Eve, the night dedicate of old to her compatriots, she had given herself up to despair. She did not even care to walk. She wailed disconsolately in the Panelled Room.
It was thus that the Gaunt Baron found her. The Gaunt Baron did not belong to Yewcroft, but was attached to a neighbouring house, now empty. With nobody to terrify at home, he found visits to the Blue Lady a not unpleasing variant of the monotony. Except that she was several centuries his junior, he felt for her an emotion which went to a dangerous degree beyond respect. He was pained to find her wailing.
"What, wailing!" he cried, coming on her through the oaken panels, "and nobody to hear you?"
The Blue Lady raised a tortured face towards him. "Who would not wail? And who should hear me? Fools! They can not hear me. Many of them do not even see me. Bah! They have no sense, except the sense of taste: with truffles before them, they see nothing else."
"To-night is Christmas Eve."
The Gaunt Baron made the suggestion in a mild, kindly way, but the Blue Lady turned upon him almost angrily, as though he had been the culprit.
"Yes! To-night is Christmas Eve. And what are they doing? Where is the Yule-log? Where is the wassail? Where the dim light of glowing embers? They'll sit in the glare of this new light—a big party—and play what they call Bridge; and if they feel a mystic chill, will draw the curtains or turn the hot-air pipes full on. ... What do these fools know about Romance? The word is dead. I saw some of their novels while the house was shut. Love? Gallantry? Nowhere in the volume. A knock-kneed weakling making love to his friend's wife, or two infants puling of passion like mere vulgar serfs. ... Love, for these people, ends with Marriage, to begin again after Divorce."
"You are bitter." The Gaunt Baron held his head beneath his arm—a fact which gave to all his utterances something of the tone of a ventriloquist.
"Bitter! So would you be bitter! It's all very well for you, with the Manor empty;—but me, with these vulgarians! ... Baron, these mortals are beating us: we're pretty well played out. 'Played out!' Look at our very speech: they've ruined that. Do I speak like a woman of the day of Good Queen Bess? Do you speak like a baron of—of King—like an ancient baron?"
"You do not,—and it was Stephen," said the Baron quietly.
"Mark me, Baron, we are near the end. Either Lady Silthirsk or myself leaves Yewcroft. There is no room here for a self-respecting spectre. They use the headsman's block for mounting on their horses. If I cannot drive them out, I go,—and where? Well, if I cannot leave the earth—oh, why was I ever murdered?—then I must sleep beneath the hedges, till I find an empty house. Baron, that time is near. I have tried everything, and nothing seems to frighten them. Lady Silthirsk serves liqueurs in the old Banquet Hall at midnight, and as I don't appear,—as though I should!—she says the theatre is closed for alterations and repairs. Oh, it is unbearable, unbearable!"
"Dear lady," answered the Gaunt Baron, "do not despair. I managed to say, some minutes ago, that it was Christmas Eve. Let me explain. It is now close upon the hour of midnight—the time and day on which we ghosts are thought by men to have our greatest power. Even those who don't believe in us are a little influenced by the tradition. As twelve strikes every one is half expectant. That is your moment. Burst upon them, wailing and raving. They are sure to see. Some of the guests will insist on leaving Yewcroft, and the Silthirsks will not like a house where parties are impossible. Quick! There is the gurgle that preludes the hall-clock's striking. In three minutes midnight will be here. Hasten, sweet dame, hasten! I will be at hand to watch you."
Downstairs, during this dialogue, Lady Silthirsk had been talking to her niece. "Elfrida, dear, in a few minutes they'll all be here for the midnight séance; and I have something that I want to tell you first."
"Why, what is it, auntie?" asked Elfrida: "you look terribly serious."
"I am serious, darling girl. Let me be frank. I think it is time that you were married—not only, understand, because of your poor parents, but also for your own happiness. And when I see a man who can make you both rich and happy, well——"
"But who?" interrupted Elfrida.
"Who? My dear girl, are you blind I Why, Bobby!"
Yes, 'Lord Bancourt'! Don't look as though I had shot you! Why, you silly dear thing, you must know Bobby is madly in love with you. All this week he has followed you about like an obedient dog, and all the week you've ignored him as though he were a naughty mongrel!"
"Why, I'm sure I've treated him just like anybody else. I never——"
"My dear Elfrida, you will be the death of me! Do you think he wants no more of you? Are you living in the Middle Ages, or is this the ——"? Do you expect him to come and steal you away by night and force? Nowadays the girl must do her part. Bobby is a splendid fellow, an old friend of mine, rich, young, passably good-looking
"I think he's handsome, decidedly," Elfrida said, without a thought, and then blushed scarlet.
Her aunt laughed. "And I think you're in love with him," she said. "I know he only wants a little encouragement—not quite so much ice to the square inch, my dear! Won't you try, for my sake?"
"I'll try, auntie, yes: I could be very, very happy with him—if he asked me: but I don't think I could—it's so hard——"
Lady Silthirsk kissed her. "I don't ask anything, you little goose, except that you should be just humanly kind to poor Bobby—I think he'll do the rest!"
"I'll try," said Elfrida dubiously.
Her aunt, she reflected, was not of a nature to see how terrible it would be if people should believe her to be "angling" for Lord Bancourt. Better that he should choose some one else than that he should marry her on such a rumour!
"Oh, here they are!" cried Lady Silthirsk, as her husband brought his flock into the room, shouting:
"I've collected every one, gamblers and all, for the séance—except Bobby. Can't find him."
"Oh, I wish he were here—the Lady will surely walk on Christmas Eve," said the hostess. "If she doesn't, I mean to demand my money back! Oh, there's the hour! Sit quiet, every one. ... Blue Lady forward, please! There, look!—there!"
She pointed excitedly at the old gallery, once for minstrels, now arrogated by a pianola organ. Behind its oaken pillars passed a vague female figure, dressed in blue, moaning horribly, and waving distraught arms above her flowing hair.
Immediately cries of every sort rose from the watchers.
"I can't see her." "It's a cinematograph!" "What ho, Lord Bobby!" "Gad, she's gone slick through the music-stool." "I still can't see her." "No, there's nothing there." "Do a Cakewalk, now!" "Encore!"
As she vanished some one clapped his hands, and with a laugh the whole party joined in the applause.
The scene had not been very impressive. From a theatrical point of view the ghost's entrance had been ruined by the number and the temper of its audience. Those who had not seen it scoffed; those who had, till reminded of the music-stool seen dimly through the figure, half-believed the Blue Lady to be an alias of Lord Bancourt. Then, as one by one they realised that what had passed was in very truth a ghost, the guests hushed their laughter, until the babel sank almost into silence.
It was in such a lull that Bobby entered. "Why, what a stony séance!" he exclaimed. "Missing me? or seen a ghost?"
"Yes—so delightful! The Blue Lady actually came," said Lady Silthirsk, who alone seemed totally unruffled.
Bobby laughed—the unforced laugh of healthy youth. "Oh-ho! I see why you were silent. But you can't green me, thanks: I'm not quite so verdant—oh no, not at all!"
"We have seen it—really," one or two guests hastened to assure him.
Lord Bancourt laughed more heartily than ever. "Why, I believe you've honestly deceived yourselves! This is glorious! You really think you saw the ghost!"
"Who could doubt?" asked a plump dowager, who intended henceforth to adopt a pose intensely spiritual. "What doubt exists, when the great After lifts its veil? Have you ever seen a ghost, Lord Bancourt?"
Bobby tried to hide his smiles. "I'm afraid—and glad—I haven't. If I did, I should go off my nut, I think. But I don't think I ever shall!"
With these words he moved towards the circle of ghost-seers, and chose, with unerring aim, of all the vacant chairs, that next Elfrida.
Lady Silthirsk beamed contentedly.
"I seem to have missed a lot," said the irrepressible Bobby, as he sat down, and added impudently, "but I hope that I've been missed a lot?"
Elfrida remembered her aunt's warning, but she also fancied (as the self-conscious will) that all the gathering, still somewhat silent, had heard the question, and would hear the answer. She could fancy their scorn at her "scheming tactics."
Bobby looked expectantly towards her.
"It was certainly a unique experience," she said stiffly.
Bobby's face fell.
Lady Silthirsk shrugged her shoulders.
"There!" exclaimed the Blue Lady, safe within the Panelled Room, "I knew how your mad scheme would work. You heard: they catcalled, they encored me, asked for some new dance. They gave me a round of applause when I went off. I can stay here no longer, to be insulted."
"Always impetuous!" said the Gaunt Baron quietly. "You rushed off after the applause: I waited, and heard what alters the whole question."
"Namely?" asked the Lady, in ill temper.
"Lord Bancourt did not see you—has never seen a ghost—doesn't believe in them. He said distinctly, 'If I saw one, I should go off my nut,'—this being schoolboy and smart for going mad."
"I begin to see." The Blue Lady brightened visibly.
"Exactly. You must catch him alone—no more of these convivial audiences—and then drive him mad. He is an old friend of Lady Silthirsk, rich and titled; she would not stay here after that. You must wreak your worst on him,"
"I can only wail," she answered gloomily; "I have no chains, or blood, or severed head——"
The words inspired the headless Baron.
"Ah," he cried, "I will come and help—to-night. I ought not to show myself out of my own house, but——"
"Oh, what is etiquette in such a crisis? Baron, dear Baron, you have saved me. I am an old-fashioned woman, and at such a time I need a man ..."
It was night. It had, to be precise, been night for several hours, and the whole household was at length tucked up in bed. Sleep had come none too easily to at least three members,—to Elfrida worrying about the real sentiments of Bobby, to Bobby worrying about the real sentiments of Elfrida, and to Lady Silthirsk worrying about the real sentiments of both. The last named, in particular, tossed long upon her sleepless bed. She was puzzled. She could half understand Elfrida's foolish diffidence: she could not understand Bobby's idiotic silence. Why did he not speak? He was not of a sort to be lightly daunted by the fear of a rebuff. Or had she made a false diagnosis? Was he not in love at all?
And at length even she turned over on her side with a contented groan. Sleep reigned over Yewcroft Hall.
But in Bobby's room, far off along the west wing, dark deeds were decidedly afoot. For more than half an hour a headless Knight, clanking horribly in every joint of his dim-gleaming armour, had chased to and fro a blue-clad Lady, who wailed in awful wise and tossed arms of agony to the wall-papered ceiling.
Through all this Lord Bancourt slept smilingly upon his noble bed.
Then the Gaunt Baron consulted with the Blue Lady, and a change of tactics was the result. The armoured figure now rattled round the room, rousing more noise than any antiquated motor, the while a frantic dame pursued him with blood-curdling wails.
Bobby stirred a little, murmured sleepily, turned over, and showed every symptom of having relapsed into even deeper slumber.
The ghosts were in despair.
"Dawn draws on," said the Gaunt Baron suddenly. "I always knew when I was beaten. Come, sweet dame. A man who can sleep like that will make his mark some day in the House of Lords."
He vanished, and, after one despairing glance, the Blue Lady flung herself angrily through the oaken door.
It was at this moment, by a subtle irony of fate, that Lord Bancourt awoke. The sense of some presence lingered with him, and he sat upright in bed. His sleepy eyes were caught by a blue skirt which vanished from the doorway; his sleepy mind failed to perceive that the door had not been open.
"Whew!" he said, and lay thinking, thinking deeply—for Lord Bancourt.
He was very young, and, like most young nobles, not inclined to underestimate his own importance. After the first moment of surprise, he felt no doubt as to the wearer of the blue skirt. It was Elfrida. He was rather unobservant as to women's dresses "and all that, you know": but he felt fairly certain that she had worn a blue costume at dinner. Yes, it could be no one else. It was almost certainly Elfrida.
Elfrida's iciness was but a cloak. When she had snubbed him by day, she would creep in by night and gaze upon his sleeping, moonlit face! How beautiful!
His heart thrilled at the revelation. He had hesitated, so far, to speak. It would never do for him—Lord Bancourt—to risk refusal by a nobody. His mother, in her long course of tuition, had taught him proper pride. But now ...
Now, at the first chance, he would throw himself, his rank, his wealth, his everything before the nobody, and feel no fear as to the verdict. To-morrow—to-morrow!
And when to-morrow came, as it does sometimes come despite the proverb, he rose early and went out in the garden. As he had shaved each morning, he had seen Elfrida walking in the grounds below. He had never dared to join her. Everything, to-day, was different, though the weather was certainly absurdly cold for early rising.
She was there before him, in among the white, hoar-laden, yew walks. She turned at his coming. "You are early this morning, Lord Bancourt."
"Ah," he responded meaningly, "the early bird catches the first worm." It struck him, for the moment, as a compliment, and rather neat. But he pined for something less indefinite. "Elfrida," he said, going close to her, "I may call you Elfrida?—I could not wait. You encouraged me last night, you gave me hope, and now—I want more. You won't take even that away? I want far more. I want you—I want you to be my wife. Will you, Elfrida? Don't be cruel. I want you to say 'yes'!"
Elfrida's head was in a whirl. She did not know how she had encouraged him. She could remember nothing of last night, except that she had lost a chance—that he had seemed offended. She could not guess at what had changed his attitude. She only knew that what her aunt wanted—above all, what she herself longed for—had somehow come to pass; only knew that her loved one's arms were round her. She said "Yes."
"Sweet dame," said the Gaunt Baron, later, in the Panelled Room, "I have been scouting, and, alas! bring evil news. Lord Bancourt took you last night for Elfrida, was encouraged to propose, and is accepted. Lady Silthirsk is delighted, says the wedding shall be here, and she must turn this dear chamber into a dressing-room. She says she will clear out the musty panelling. It is all unfortunate."
"Unfortunate!" wailed the Blue Lady. "It all comes of listening to a man. See what your mad scheme has done! .... Baron, forgive my bitterness,—I am defeated. I told you these mortals had vanquished us. I set out to do a little evil, in the good old way, and see what I have done! I have made everybody happy! Farewell. Yewcroft must know me no more. Farewell, farewell for ever!"
With an abysmal groan she vanished through the panelling. Unless she has found an ancient, empty house, she is perhaps sleeping underneath the hedges.