Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Phantoms and Fiends ~ R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Phantoms and Fiends by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes was published by Robert Hale in 2000. It contains twenty-one stories and an afterword, 'On Writing and Wraiths'. It has an excellent cover design by Edward Miller (Les Edwards).

When the narrator of 'Moving Day', David Greenfield, moves from his flat into the home of his three great-aunts, he finds that they are obsessed with all things related to death, and especially to moving... the thing that has locals hiding behind tightly closed curtains at night and will, according to the local clergyman, bring the newspaper lot beating a trail to their doors if nobody puts a stop to it.

In 'She Walks on Dry Land', it is the year 1812 and Charles Devereux, Fourth Earl of Montcalm, having arrived in the village of Denham with his servant Patrick, demands rooms for the night at The Limping Sailor inn, but the landlord refuses him. Village elder Josiah Woodward warns, 'come nightfall it bodes ill for any stranger found within the confines of this village', but Devereux is far too stubborn to listen.

In 'The Bodmin Terror', James, an artist, is told by his doctor that he must have peace or face a nervous breakdown, so he decides to go on a motoring holiday to Cornwall with his wife Lydia, who is anything but peaceful. When the car breaks down on the way to Lizard, an old woman emerges from the ice-chilled mist and beckons them to follow her, but the old crone has an ulterior motive for coming to the couple's aid.

'A Chill to the Sunlight' is set in Jamaica. The narrator, Harry Masters, is in a rum-shop eyeing up the local ladies of the night, trying to choose one to fulfil his needs, when he encounters Lydia... who works out of room 7 and daren't take anyone back to her house.

In 'The Catomado', Martin is quite determined to murder his wife, Myna, to get his hands on her insurance money and avoid having to eat any more sausages. But unfortunately for him, she's a Catomado. And Catomado can't be hurt and don't age; they just fade away at the age of one hundred and four.

In 'Regression', David Masters has decided to commit suicide. Whilst waiting for the pills he's taken to have the desired effect, he wonders aloud what he would choose if he were given a choice of afterlife. He decides he would like to go back to the period in his life when he was most happy, then finds himself sitting at his desk at school in 1936, in the period just prior to his father being killed by a ten-ton truck. Is he being given a second chance so that he can prevent his father's death and change the course of history?

In 'Matthew and Luke', Matthew Bayswater, a go-ahead young man, almost drowns in a swimming accident. He is given the kiss of life by a passing stranger and survives, but he has been dead for seven and a half minutes. And seven and a half minutes is all it takes to release Luke, his doppelgänger.

The narrator of 'Growth', Henry Broadfield, a man of unquenchable curiosity, persuades the physical medium Helen Watkins, who is able to produce ectoplasm that takes the form of the dear departed, to grant him a private sitting. Being unquenchably curious, Henry lops off a six-inch piece of living ectoplasm during the sitting, then begins feeding it live worms. But the 'ectop', as he calls it, has an insatiable appetite.

For me, the next three stories (and 'Shipwreck') are the weakest in the collection. In 'Born This Night', Gerald Smollet finds himself at a party, witnessing the black birth. 'The Sad Ghost' is a young man who, having been crossed in love, took his own life and now haunts the house that John Smith and his family have just moved into. And the narrator of 'The Thing' is in a bar, knocking back whiskies in the company of a young prostitute, when Rodney enters, bringing with him the Thing, a tall black-robed phantom that feeds off the young man's experiences.

In 'The Underground', Laura Munro, a middle-aged spinster who has always been a bit afraid of the Underground, is drawn to the shade of a young Second World War soldier she first encounters on the platform at Charing Cross tube station one snowy night. While her father tries to push her into a loveless marriage, Laura begins seeking out the soldier, uncovering a secret about her own family history in the process.

In 'Shipwreck', Sarcan's spaceship crash lands on Earth after being shot by an enemy craft. Sarcan, officer of the Imperial Ulterian Galactic Space Force, comes from a race of beings that are able to take on the form of any living thing, by sucking the life out of it like a vampire. He takes on the form of a gorse bush, then a hare, and then he encounters Sydney J. Beecham, a junior advertising executive from London.

The 'Strange People' are George Bramfield and his wife Alice, the couple who become the narrator's foster parents when his mother and father are killed in a car accident. Uncle George, as the narrator calls him, has to have his leg amputated, but after the operation he decides he wants his leg back.

When the fragile young narrator of 'Fog Ghost' ventures out into the foggy night and is taken ill, a dirty and somewhat demented woman saves his life by dragging him out of the cold air and into her filthy home. She begs him to stay with her, but once the fog clears he flees home to what he mistakenly assumes is safety.

In 'The Frankenstein Syndrome', Morris Smith is a genius who wants to create a new life form. And create one he does... a life form that slithers and jumps, goes for the mouth, sucks the warmth from any living creature in its vicinity, and shouldn't ever be allowed to attach itself to 'anything that protrudes'. This particular story is too gruesome for me... surprisingly graphic. I have a delicate constitution.

In 'My Dear Wife', Henry Parkington has affairs with women he isn't particularly fond of in order to torment his wife Georgina. He derives pleasure from her pain, knowing that no matter how many times she leaves him she will always return. As will all the women who get tangled up with him, including his latest little indiscretion, Sheila Mayfield.

In 'A Sin of Omission', Mr Faversham is accosted by a man in a cloth cap who claims to have a dicky ticker and wants to borrow a fiver. When the cloth-capped man becomes menacing, Faversham makes a run for it. And when, in hot pursuit, the cloth-capped man collapses on the pavement, Faversham leaves him to die. At the subsequent inquest, the examining doctor can give no explanation for the disappearance of a tattoo of a large black snake from the dead man's body.

In 'Feet of Clay', John Broadfield becomes obsessed with Josie Wagnor, a girl with whom he works at Elder Hawkins' greengrocer's shop. Fearing she is involved with another man, he follows her when she leaves work, setting in motion a series of events that lead to tragedy.

In 'Non-Paying Passengers', Percy Fortesque is quite taken aback when he sees the face of his dead wife, Doris, staring at him from the window of the five-forty-five train from Waterloo. He seeks advice from Madame Orloff, Medium Extraordinaire, who tells him that he is being haunted because, having narrowly avoided death, he is overdue... something that Doris aims to put right, with the help of her dead parents.

In 'It Came to Dinner', Herbert comes across a dilapidated old house, with uncurtained windows and open front door, and assumes it must be uninhabited. He decides to spend the night. But the isolated house is not empty; it is owned by the Carruthers family, and Herbert is invited to stay the night. At dinner, Herbert notices uncomfortably that his hosts enjoy their food to the point of gluttony... especially their meat. Being a vegetarian, this story made my knees a bit weak.

There are a few stories in this collection that I really like, such as 'Moving Day', 'Regression' and 'The Underground', and a couple that made my stomach do somersaults - 'The Frankenstein Syndrome' and, even more so, 'It Came to Dinner'. Mr Chetwynd-Hayes doesn't appear to have liked mothers-in-law... or wives... or women in general. Or, if he did like them, he didn't think they were all that bright. And his tales certainly aren't a positive advertisement for the institution of marriage. But many are funny, some are sad, and most are entertaining.

It's not all that easy to find a decent copy of this book. I managed to get hold of a fine copy a couple of years back for forty pounds, but I haven't seen another one since, and the only one on Abe at the moment is a reading copy for over a hundred pounds (more than $150). However, all but two of the tales - 'Born This Night' and 'Feet of Clay' - have been published elsewhere.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Not Exactly Ghosts ~ Andrew Caldecott

Sir Andrew Caldecott (1884~1951) was educated at Uppingham School and at Exeter College, Oxford, where he became an Honorary Fellow in 1948. He held various posts within the Malayan Civil Service, which he joined in 1907, and developed a genuine interest in the country's language and folklore. He was Governor of Hong Kong from 1935 to 1937, and then Governor of Ceylon from 1937 to 1944. He had a lifelong interest in the supernatural and, as is evident from his two volumes of supernatural tales, he was an accomplished writer, but it wasn't until after his retirement in 1944 that he published his first volume of ghost stories.

Not Exactly Ghosts was published in 1947 by Edward Arnold & Co. It contains twelve tales, all of which are excellent and very entertaining. It's a collection that I highly recommend. I particularly like Caldecott's dark sense of humour. And there's even a quote from M. R. James in the final tale.

In 'A Room in a Rectory', Reverend Nigel Tylethorpe, the newly arrived Rector of St. Botolph's in Tilchington, decides to reopen a room in the Rectory that his predecessor kept locked for years, having instructed his staff to 'leave it alone'. The room becomes Rev. Tylethorpe's study, but the sermons he composes within it become more and more concerned with the sinister and occult. And as the Rector's interest in the occult turns to obsession, he begins to believe that he is not the only occupant of the room.

In 'Branch Line to Benceston', Adrian Frent, a railway enthusiast and herbalist, is the first tenant of 'Brentside', the newly-built house next to the narrator's own abode in Brensham. Frent is a partner in a firm of music publishers, but he hates the other patner with a vengeance, feeling that the man has blighted his existence since they were boys. And when the partner dies from influenza, things take an unusual turn.

In 'Sonata in D. Minor', Peter Tullivant asks his friend Roger Morcambe to take part in a little experiment. He asks him to listen to a specific piece of music - Siedel's Sonata in D Minor - then leaves him in a locked room to do so alone, for the recording has a dramatic psychological effect an all who listen to it.

In 'Autoepitaphy', during a visit to the Senior Common Room of Selham College, Cyril Hunslow, once a history tutor at the college, reads a paper that was intended for the College Psychical Society. It concerns events at Little Court, the house he now owns, and a writing desk that appears to induce anyone who sits at it to write messages from beyond.

In 'The Pump in Thorp's Spinney', young Philip Falmer is given a working model of a garden pump for his fourth birthday, inspiring an interest in all forms of hydraulic apparatus, including ball-cocks and radiator taps. But not all of his encounters with pumps are positive, and three leave him a sufferer of terrible nightmares, especially the one that takes place during a visit to Sockstead Hall, when he goes to visit the disused pump in Thorp's Spinney, of which his model is a copy.

'Whiffs of the Sea' concerns Rupert Madgeby, who, as he explains to two visiting friends, was once haunted by a smell. Having bought a watercolour drawing of a harbour, that a friend describes as 'almost unpleasantly alive', he finds that on waking at night his nostrils are accosted by the strong smell of the fishy, shrimpy, salty sea, and the smell is accompanied by a recurring nightmare. On examining the painting, he comes across an almost erased inscription - a smugglers' song - which leads to a discovery concerning the fate of the painting's creator.

In 'In Due Course', Alec Judeson, having been sent home from Malaya after suffering malaria and then dysentery, is invited by his uncle, Matthew Judeson, to live at Saintsend, the house Alec is very much looking forward to inheriting in due course (as in, on his uncle's death, which he hopes will be soon). But Uncle Matthew appears to be far too healthy, and Alec isn't about to allow all his hopes of a speedy inheritance to come to nothing.

In 'Light in the Darkness', Martin Lorimer, principal of a Teachers' Training College in Kongea, is an outspoken critic of superstition and writes a scathing article about the Sadilena pilgrimage for the Takeokuta College Chronicle. When three of his pupils ask for time off to go on the pilgrimage to the Sadilena Cave to worship the Holy Gleam, he agrees as long as he goes with them. His intention is to debunk the whole thing, but his actions bring about unexpected consequences.

In 'Decastroland', Mr Lorenzo de Castro is the leading light in the art scene of Kongea. John Mainbarrow, an English artist who has travelled to Kongea for the benefit of his health, begins to loathe the sound of de Castro's name, as he hears it from everyone he meets and is constantly confronted by de Castro's daubs everywhere he goes. Inspired by a nightmare about his rival on the journey to Kongea, Mainbarrow maliciously sets about painting a portrait of de Castro as he appeared in that terrible dream, but in doing so is he 'giving substance on canvas to his nightmare on the voyage'?

The narrator of 'A Victim of Medusa' inherits the library of his bachelor cousin, Herbert Sidden, following the latter's sudden death. The library contains two manuscript volumes of poems and a scrapbook, the contents of which suggest that Herbert was rather obsessed with jellyfish and dabbled in mysticism, both of which were the cause of his downfall.

In 'Fits of the Blues', Dudley Lenbury, a jeweller, attends a ceremony in Kokupatta, Kongea, where a sapphire is sacrificed to Situwohela, goddess of the waters, by being flung into a lagoon. Irked by the waste of a beautiful gemstone, he can't get to sleep and goes for a swim in the sea, where he just so happens to come across Situwohela's sapphire on the sandy bed. He pockets the gem and returns to England. But who in their right mind goes pinching things from a goddess? There are bound to be consequences.

In 'Christmas Re-union', Clarence Love, a wealthy man with a somewhat questionable past, is spending Christmas with Richard and Elinor Dreyton when he receives a telegram that prompts his early departure. Already having undergone a sinister change as a result of receiving this message, Love appears even more shaken when Father Christmas visits and bids him pull a cracker. And Love's premature departure with old Santa is followed by some shocking news.

The first edition of Not Exactly Ghosts is difficult to find in fine condition, and a copy will set you back about fifty pounds or more if you find one (that's around $75). Ash Tree Press published a limited edition hardback in 2002, but that's long out of print. A fine copy with the jacket costs around thirty pounds upwards at the moment (about $45), but there aren't many of those about now. Wordsworth Editions published Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue in 2007, but that's out of print too. As Wordsworth paperbacks are flimsy productions to begin with, secondhand copies tend to turn up rather the worse for wear; they generally cost just a few pounds. I haven't come across a Kindle edition.

Photograph: Sir Andrew Caldecott, 7th of October 1947, by Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Real and the Counterfeit ~ Mrs Alfred Baldwin

A couple of days ago, I posted about Mrs Alfred Baldwin's ghost stories. Today, in the spirit of Christmas, I'm offering up 'The Real and the Counterfeit' for your enjoyment. 

by Mrs Alfred Baldwin
Taken from The Shadow on the Blind, published in 1895

Will Musgrave determined that he would neither keep Christmas alone, nor spend it again with his parents and sisters in the south of France. The Musgrave family annually migrated southward from their home in Northumberland, and Will as regularly followed them to spend a month with them in the Riviera, till he had almost forgotten what Christmas was like in England. He rebelled at having to leave the country at a time when, if the weather was mild, he should be hunting, or if it was severe, skating, and he had no real or imaginary need to winter in the south. His chest was of iron and his lungs of brass. A raking east wind that drove his parents into their thickest furs, and taught them the number of their teeth by enabling them to count a separate and well defined ache for each, only brought a deeper colour into the cheek, and a brighter light into the eye of the weather-proof youth. Decidedly he would not go to Cannes, though it was no use annoying his father and mother, and disappointing his sisters, by telling them beforehand of his determination.

Will knew very well how to write a letter to his mother in which his defection should appear as an event brought about by the over-mastering power of circumstances, to which the sons of Adam must submit. No doubt that a prospect of hunting or skating, as the fates might decree, influenced his decision. But he had also long promised himself the pleasure of a visit from two of his college friends, Hugh Armitage and Horace Lawley, and he asked that they might spend a fortnight with him at Stonecroft, as a little relaxation had been positively ordered for him by his tutor.

'Bless him,' said his mother fondly, when she had read his letter, 'I will write to the dear boy and tell him how pleased I am with his firmness and determination.' But Mr Musgrave muttered inarticulate sounds as he listened to his wife, expressive of incredulity rather than acquiescence, and when he spoke it was to say, 'Devil of a row three young fellows will kick up alone at Stonecroft! We shall find the stables full of broken-kneed horses when we go home again.'

Will Musgrave spent Christmas day with the Armitages at their lace near Ripon. And the following night they gave a dance at which he enjoyed himself as only a very young man can do, who has not yet had his fill of dancing, and who would like nothing better than to waltz through life with his arm round his pretty partner's waist. The following day, Musgrave and Armitage left for Stonecroft, picking up Lawley on the way, and arriving at their destination late in the evening, in the highest spirits and with the keenest appetites. Stonecroft was a delightful haven of refuge at the end of a long journey across country in bitter weather, when the east wind was driving the light dry snow into every nook and cranny. The wide, hospitable front door opened into an oak-panelled hall with a great open fire burning cheerily, and lighted by lamps from overhead that effectually dispelled all gloomy shadows. As soon as Musgrave had entered the house he seized his friends, and before they had time to shake the snow from their coats, kissed them both under the mistletoe bough and set the servants tittering in the background.

'You're miserable substitutes for your betters,' he said, laughing and pushing them from him, 'but it's awfully unlucky not to use the mistletoe. Barker, I hope supper's ready, and that it is something very hot and plenty of it, for we've travelled on empty stomachs and brought them with us,' and he led his guests upstairs to their rooms.

'What a jolly gallery!' said Lawley enthusiastically as they entered a long wide corridor, with many doors and several windows in it, and hung with pictures and trophies of arms.

'Yes, it's our one distinguishing feature at Stonecroft,' said Musgrave. 'It runs the whole length of the house, from the modern end of it to the back, which is very old, and built on the foundations of a Cistercian monastery which once stood on this spot. The gallery's wide enough to drive a carriage and pair down it, and it's the main thoroughfare of the house. My mother takes a constitutional here in bad weather, as though it were the open air, and does it with her bonnet on to aid the delusion.'

Armitage's attention was attracted by the pictures on the walls, and especially by the life-size portrait of a young man in a blue coat, with powdered hair, sitting under a tree with a staghound lying at his feet.

'An ancestor of yours?' he said, pointing at the picture.

'Oh, they're all one's ancestors, and a motley crew they are, I must say for them. It may amuse you and Lawley to find from which of them I derive my good looks. That pretty youth whom you seem to admire is my great-great-grandfather. He died at twenty-two, a preposterous age for an ancestor. But come along Armitage, you'll have plenty of time to do justice to the pictures by daylight, and I want to show you your rooms. I see everything is arranged comfortably, we are close together. Our pleasantest rooms are on the gallery, and here we are nearly at the end of it. Your rooms are opposite to mine, and open into Lawley's in case you should be nervous in the night and feel lonely so far from home, my dear children.'

And Musgrave bade his friends make haste, and hurried away whistling cheerfully to his own room.

The following morning the friends rose to a white world. Six inches of fine snow, dry as salt, lay everywhere, the sky overhead a leaden lid, and all the signs of a deep fall yet to come.

'Cheerful this, very,' said Lawley, as he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking out of the window after breakfast. 'The snow will have spoilt the ice for skating.'

'But it won't prevent wild duck shooting,' said Armitage, 'and I say, Musgrave, we'll rig up a toboggan out there. I see a slope that might have been made on purpose for it. If we get some tobogganing, it may snow day and night for all I care, we shall be masters of the situation any way.'

'Well thought of, Armitage,' said Musgrave, jumping at the idea.

'Yes, but you need two slopes and a little valley between for real good tobogganing,' objected Lawley, 'otherwise you only rush down the hillock like you do from the Mount Church to Funchal, and then have to retrace your steps as you do there, carrying your car on your back. Which lessens the fun considerably.'

'Well, we can only work with the material at hand,' said Armitage; 'let's go and see if we can't find a better place for our toboggan, and something that will do for a car to slide in.'

'That's easily found - empty wine cases are the thing, and stout sticks to steer with,' and away rushed the young men into the open air, followed by half a dozen dogs barking joyfully.

'By Jove! if the snow keeps firm, we'll put runners on strong chairs and walk over to see the Harradines at Garthside, and ask the girls to come out sledging, and we'll push them,' shouted Musgrave to Lawley and Armitage, who had outrun him in the vain attempt to keep up with a deer-hound that headed the party. After a long and careful search they found a piece of land exactly suited to their purpose, and it would have amused their friends to see how hard the young men worked under the beguiling name of pleasure. For four hours they worked like navvies making a toboggan slide. They shovelled away the snow, then with pickaxe and spade, levelled the ground, so that when a carpet of fresh snow was spread over it, their improvised car would run down a steep incline and be carried by the impetus up another, till it came to a standstill in a snow drift.

'If we can only get this bit of engineering done today,' said Lawley, chucking a spadeful of earth aside as he spoke, 'the slide will be in perfect order for tomorrow.'

'Yes, and when once it's done, it's done for ever,' said Armitage, working away cheerfully with his pick where the ground was frozen hard and full of stones, and cleverly keeping his balance on the slope as he did so. 'Good work lasts no end of time, and posterity will bless us for leaving them this magnificent slide.'

'Posterity may, my dear fellow, but hardly our progenitors if my father should happen to slip down it,' said Musgrave.

When their task was finished, and the friends were transformed in appearance from navvies into gentlemen, they set out through thick falling snow to walk to Garthside to call on their neighbours the Harradines. They had earned their pleasant tea and lively talk, their blood was still aglow from their exhilarating work, and their spirits at the highest point. They did not return to Stonecroft till they had compelled the girls to name a time when they would come with their brothers and be launched down the scientifically prepared slide, in wine cases well padded with cushions for the occasion.

Late that night the young men sat smoking and chatting together in the library. They had played billiards till they were tired, and Lawley had sung sentimental songs, accompanying himself on the banjo, till even he was weary, to say nothing of what his listeners might be. Armitage sat leaning his light curly head back in the chair, gently puffing out a cloud of tobacco smoke. And he was the first to break the silence that had fallen on the little company.

'Musgrave,' he said suddenly, 'an old house is not complete unless it is haunted. You ought to have a ghost of your own at Stonecroft.'

Musgrave threw down the yellow-backed novel he had just picked up, and became all attention.

'So we have, my dear fellow. Only it has not been seen by any of us since my grandfather's time. It is the desire of my life to become personally acquainted with our family ghost.'

Armitage laughed. But Lawley said, 'You would not say that if you really believed in ghosts.'

'I believe in them most devoutly, but I naturally wish to have my faith confirmed by sight. You believe in them too, I can see.'

'Then you see what does not exist, and so far you are in a fair way to see ghosts. No, my state of mind is this,' continued Lawley, 'I neither believe, nor entirely disbelieve in ghosts. I am open to conviction on the subject. Many men of sound judgement believe in them. I merely regard the case of the bogies as not proven. They may or may not exist, but till their existence is plainly demonstrated, I decline to add such an uncomfortable article to my creed as belief in bogies.'

Musgrave did not reply, but Armitage laughed a strident laugh.

'I'm one against two, I'm in an overwhelming minority,' he said. 'Musgrave frankly confesses his belief in ghosts, and you are neutral, neither believing nor disbelieving, but open to conviction. Now I'm a complete unbeliever in the supernatural, root and branch. People's nerves no doubt play them queer tricks, and will continue to do so to the end of the chapter, and if I were so fortunate as to see Musgrave's family ghost tonight, I should no more believe in it than I do now. By the way, Musgrave, is the ghost a lady or a gentleman?' he asked flippantly.

'I don't think you deserve to be told.'

'Don't you know that a ghost is neither he nor she?' said Lawley, 'Like a corpse, it is always it.'

'That is a piece of very definite information from a man who neither believes nor disbelieves in ghosts. How do you come by it, Lawley?' asked Armitage.

'Mayn't a man be well informed on a subject although he suspends his judgement about it? I think I have the only logical mind among us. Musgrave believes in ghosts though he has never seen one, you don't believe in them, and say that you would not be convinced if you saw one, which is not wise, it seems to me.'

'It is not necessary to my peace of mind to have a definite opinion on the subject. After all, it is only a matter of patience, for if ghosts really exist we shall each be one in the course of time, and then, if we've nothing better to do, and are allowed to play such unworthy pranks, we may appear again on the scene, and impartially scare our credulous and incredulous surviving friends.'

'Then I shall try to be beforehand with you, Lawley, and turn bogie first; it would suit me better to scare than to be scared. But, Musgrave, do tell me about your family ghost; I'm really interested in it, and I'm quite respectful now.'

'Well, mind you are, and I shall have no objection to tell you what I know about it, which is briefly this: Stonecroft, as I told you, is built on the site of an old Cistercian Monastery destroyed at the time of the Reformation. The back part of the house rests on the old foundations, and its walls are built with the stones that were once part and parcel of the monastery. The ghost that has been seen by members of the Musgrave family for three centuries past, is that of a Cistercian monk, dressed in the white habit of his order. Who he was, or why he has haunted the scenes of his earthly life so long, there is no tradition to enlighten us. The ghost has usually been seen once or twice in each generation. But as I said, it has not visited us since my grandfather's time, so, like a comet, it should be due again presently.'

'How you must regret that was before your time,' said Armitage.

'Of course I do, but I don't despair of seeing it yet. At least I know where to look for it. It has always made its appearance in the gallery, and I have my bedroom close to the spot where it was last seen, in the hope that if I open my door suddenly some moonlight night I may find the monk standing there.'

'Standing where?' asked the incredulous Armitage.

'In the gallery, to be sure, midway between your two doors and mine, That is where my grandfather last saw it. He was waked in the dead of night by the sound of a heavy door shutting. He ran into the gallery where the noise came from, and, standing opposite the door of the room I occupy, was the white figure of the Cistercian monk. As he looked, it glided the length of the gallery and melted like mist into the wall. The spot where he disappeared is on the old foundations of the monastery, so that he was evidently returning to his own quarters.'

'And your grandfather believed that he saw a ghost?' asked Armitage disdainfully.

'Could he doubt the evidence of his senses? He saw the thing as clearly as we see each other now, and it disappeared like a thin vapour against the wall.'

'My dear fellow, don't you think that it sounds more like an anecdote of your grandmother than of your grandfather?' remarked Armitage. He did not intend to be rude, though he succeeded in being so, as he was instantly aware by the expression of cold reserve that came over Musgrave's frank face.

'Forgive me, but I never can take a ghost story seriously,' he said. 'But this much I will concede - they may have existed long ago in what were literally the dark ages, when rushlights and spluttering dip candles could not keep the shadows at bay. But in this latter part of the nineteenth century, when gas and the electric light have turned night into day, you have destroyed the very conditions that produce the ghost - or rather the belief in it, which is the same thing. Darkness has always been bad for human nerves. I can't explain why, but so it is. My mother was in advance of the age on the subject, and always insisted on having a good light burning in the night nursery, so that when as a child I woke from a bad dream I was never frightened by the darkness. And in consequence I have grown up a complete unbeliever in ghosts, spectres, wraiths, apparitions, doppelgänger, and the whole bogie crew of them,' and Armitage looked round calmly and complacently.

'Perhaps I might have felt as you do if I had not begun life with the knowledge that our house was haunted,' replied Musgrave with visible pride in the ancestral ghost. 'I only wish that I could convince you of the existence of the supernatural from my own personal experience. I always feel it to be the weak point in a ghost story, that it is never told in the first person. It is a friend, or a friend of one's friend, who was the lucky man, and actually saw the ghosts.' And Armitage registered registered a vow to himself, that within a week from that time Musgrave should see his family ghost with his own eyes, and ever after be able to speak with his enemy in the gate.

Several ingenious schemes occurred to his inventive mind for producing the desired apparition. But he had to keep them burning in his breast. Lawley was the last man to aid and abet him in playing a practical joke on their host, and he feared he should have to work without an ally. And hough he would have enjoyed his help and sympathy, it struck him that it would be a double triumph achieved, if both his friends should see the Cistercian monk. Musgrave already believed in ghosts, and was prepared to meet one more than half-way, and Lawley, though he pretended to a judicial and impartial mind concerning them, was not unwilling to be convinced of their existence, if it could be visibly demonstrated to him.

Armitage became more cheerful than usual as circumstances favoured his impious plot. The weather was propitious for the attempt he meditated, as the moon rose late and was approaching the full. On consulting the almanac he saw with delight that three nights hence she would rise at 2 a.m., and an hour later the end of the gallery nearest Musgrave's room would be flooded with her light. Though Armitage could not have an accomplice under the roof, he needed one within reach, who could use needle and thread, to run up a specious imitation of the white robe and hood of a Cistercian monk. And the next day, when they went to the Harradines to take the girls out in their improvised sledges, it fell to his lot to take charge of the youngest Miss Harradine. As he pushed the low chair on runners over the hard snow, nothing was easier than to bend forward and whisper to Kate, 'I am going to take you as fast as I can, so that no-one can hear what we are saying. I want you to be very kind, and help me to play a perfectly harmless practical joke on Musgrave. Will you promise to keep my secret for a couple of days, when we shall all enjoy a laugh over it together?'

'Oh yes, I'll help you with pleasure, but make haste and tell me what your practical joke is to be.'

'I want to play ancestral ghost to Musgrave, and make him believe that he has seen the Cistercian monk in his white robe and cowl, that was last seen by his respected credulous grandpapa.'

'What a good idea! I know he is always longing to see the ghost, and takes it as a personal affront that it has never appeared to him. But might it not startle him more than you intend?' and Kate turned her glowing face towards him, and Armitage involuntarily stopped the little sledge, 'for it is one thing to wish to see a ghost, you know, and quite another to think that you see it.'

'Oh, you need not fear for Musgrave! We shall be conferring a positive favour on him, in helping hi to see what he's so wishful to see. I'm arranging it so that Lawley shall have the benefit of the show as well, and see the ghost at the same time with him. And if two strong men are not a match for one bogie, leave alone a home-made counterfeit one, it's a pity.'

'Well, if you think it's a safe trick to play, no doubt you are right. But how can I help you? With the monk's habit, I suppose?'

'Exactly. I shall be so grateful to you if you will run up some sort of garment, that will look passably like a white Cistercian habit to a couple of men, who I don't think will be in a critical frame of mind during the short time they are allowed to see it. I really wouldn't trouble you if I were anything of a sempster (is that the masculine of sempstress?) myself, but I'm not. A thimble bothers me very much, and at college, when I have to sew on a button, I push the needle through on one side with a threepenny bit, and pull it out on the other with my teeth, and it's a laborious process.'

Kate laughed merrily. 'Oh, I can easily make something or other out of a white dressing-gown, fit for a ghost to wear, and fasten a hood to it.'

Armitage then told her the details of his deeply-laid scheme, how he would go to his room when Musgrave and Lawley went to theirs on the eventful night, and sit up till he was sure that they were fast asleep. Then when the moon had risen, and if her light was obscured by clouds he would be obliged to postpone the entertainment till he could be sure of her aid, he would dress himself as the ghostly monk, put out the candles, softly open the door, and look into the gallery to see that all was ready. 'Then I shall slam the door with an awful bang, for that was the noise that heralded the ghost's last appearance, and it will wake Musgrave and Lawley, and bring them both out of their rooms like a shot. Lawley's door is next to mine, and Musgrave's opposite, so that each will command a magnificent view of the monk at the same instant, and they can compare notes afterwards at their leisure.'

'But what shall you do if they find you out at once?'

'Oh, they won't do that! The cowl will be drawn over my face, and I shall stand with my back to the moonlight. My private belief is, that in spite of Musgrave's yearnings after a ghost, he won't like it when he thinks he sees it. Nor will Lawley, and I expect they'll dart back into their rooms and lock themselves in as soon as they catch sight of the monk. That would give me time to whip back into my room, turn the key, strip off my finery, hide it, and be roused with difficulty from a deep sleep when they come knocking at my door to tell me what a horrible thing has happened. And one more ghost story will be added to those already in circulation,' and Armitage laughed aloud in anticipation of the fun.

'It is to be hoped that everything will happen just as you have planned it, and then we shall all be pleased. And now will you turn the sledge round and let us join the others, we have done conspiring for the present. If we are seen talking so exclusively to each other, they will suspect that we are brewing some mischief together. Oh, how cold the wind is! I like to hear it whistle in my hair!' said Kate as Armitage deftly swung the little sledge round and drove it quickly before him, facing the keen north wind, as she buried her chin in her warm furs.

Armitage found an opportunity to arrange with Kate, that he would meet her half-way between Stonecroft and her home, on the afternoon of the next day but one, when she would give him a parcel containing the monk's habit. The Harradines and their house party were coming on Thursday afternoon to try the toboggan slide at Stonecroft. But Kate and Armitage were willing to sacrifice their pleasure to the business they had in hand.

There was no other way but for the conspirators to give their friends the slip for a couple of hours, when the important parcel would be safely given to Armitage, secretly conveyed by him to his own room, and locked up till he should want it in the small hours of the morning.

When the young people arrived at Stonecroft Miss Harradine apologised for her younger sister's absence - occasioned, she said, by a severe headache. Armitage's heart beat rapidly when he heard the excuse, and he thought how convenient it was for the inscrutable sex to be able to turn on a headache at will, as one turns on hot or cold water from a tap.

After luncheon, as there were more gentlemen than ladies, and Armitage's services were not necessary at the toboggan slide, he elected to take the dogs for a walk, and set off in the gayest spirits to keep his appointment with Kate. Much as he enjoyed maturing his ghost plot, he enjoyed still more the confidential talks with Kate that had sprung out of it, and he was sorry that this was to be the last of them. But the moon in heaven could not be stayed for the performance of his little comedy, and her light was necessary to its due performance. The ghost must be seen at three o'clock next morning, at the time and place arranged, when the proper illumination for its display would be forthcoming.

As Armitage walked swiftly over the hard snow, he caught sight of Kate at a distance. She waved her hand gaily and pointed smiling to the rather large parcel she was carrying. The red glow of the winter sun shone full upon her, bringing out the warm tints in her chestnut hair, and filling her brown eyes with soft lustre, and Armitage looked at her with undisguised admiration.

'It's awfully good of you to help me so kindly,' he said as he took the parcel from her, 'and I shall come round tomorrow to tell you the result of our practical joke. But how is the headache?' he asked smiling, 'you look so unlike aches or pains of any kind, I was forgetting to enquire about it.'

'Thank you, it is better. It was not altogether a made-up headache, though it happened opportunely. I was awake in the night, not in the least repenting that I was helping you, of course, but wishing it was all well over. One has heard of this kind of trick sometimes proving too successful, of people being frightened out of their wits by a make-believe ghost, and I should never forgive myself if Mr Musgrave or Mr Lawley were seriously alarmed.'

'Really, Miss Harradine, I don't think that you need give yourself a moment's anxiety about the nerves of a couple of burley young men. If you are afraid for anyone, let it be for me. If they find me out, they will fall upon me and rend me limb from limb on the spot. I can assure you I am the only one for whom there is anything to fear,' and the transient gravity passed like a cloud from Kate's bright face. And she admitted that it was rather absurd to be uneasy about two stalwart young men compounded more of muscle than of nerves. And they parted, Kate hastening home as the early twilight fell, and Armitage, after watching her out of sight, retracing his steps with the precious parcel under his arm.

He entered the house unobserved, and reaching the gallery by a back staircase, felt his way in the dark to his room. He deposited his treasure in the wardrobe, locked it up, and attracted by the sound of laughter, ran downstairs to the drawing-room. Will Musgrave and his friends, after a couple of hours of glowing exercise, had been driven indoors by the darkness, nothing loath to partake of tea and hot cakes, while they talked and laughed over the adventures of the afternoon.

'Wherever have you been, old fellow?' said Musgrave as Armitage entered the room. 'I believe you've a private toboggan of your own somewhere that you keep quiet. If only the moon rose at a decent time, instead of some unearthly hour in the night, when it's not of the slightest use to anyone, we would have gone out looking for you.'

'You wouldn't have had far to seek, you'd have met me on the turnpike road.'

'But why this subdued and chastened taste? Imagine preferring a constitutional on the high road when you might have been tobogganing with us! My poor friend, I'm afraid you are not feeling well!' said Musgrave with an affectation of sympathy that ended in boyish laughter and a wrestling match between the two young men, in the course of which Lawley more than once saved the tea table from being violently overthrown.

Presently, when the cakes and toast had disappeared before the youthful appetites, lanterns were lighted, and Musgrave and his friends, and the Harradine brothers, set out as a bodyguard to take the young ladies home. Armitage was in riotous spirits, and finding that Musgrave and Lawley had appropriated the two prettiest girls in the company, waltzed untrammelled along the road before them lantern in hand, like a very will-o'-the-wisp.

The young people did not part till they had planned fresh pleasures for the morrow, and Musgrave, Lawley, and Armitage returned to Stonecroft to dinner, making the thin air ring to the jovial songs with which they beguiled the homeward journey.

Late in the evening, when the young men were sitting in the library, Musgrave suddenly exclaimed, as he reached down a book from an upper shelf, 'Hallo! I've come on my grandfather's diary! Here's his own account of how he saw the white monk in the gallery. Lawley, you may read it if you like, but it shan't be wasted on an unbeliever like Armitage. By Jove! what an odd coincidence! It's forty years this very night, the thirtieth of December, since he saw the ghost,' and he handed the book to Lawley, who read Mr Musgrave's narrative with close attention.

'Is it a case of "almost thou persuadest me"?' asked Armitage, looking at his intent and knitted brow.

'I hardly know what to think. Nothing positive either way at any rate.' And he dropped the subject, for he saw Musgrave did not wish to discuss the family ghost in Armitage's unsympathetic presence.

They retired late, and the hour that Armitage had so gleefully anticipated drew near. 'Good night both of you,' said Musgrave as he entered his room, 'I shall be asleep in five minutes. All this exercise in the open air makes a man absurdly sleep at night,' and the young men closed their doors, and silence settled down upon Stonecoft Hall. Armitage and Lawley's rooms were next to each other, and in less than a quarter of an hour Lawley shouted a cheery goodnight, which was loudly returned by his friend. Then Armitage felt somewhat mean and stealthy. Musgrave and Lawley were both confidently asleep, while he sat up alert and vigilant maturing a mischievous plot that had for its object the awakening and scaring of both the innocent sleepers. He dared not smoke to pass the tedious time, lest the tell-tale fumes should penetrate into the next room through the keyhole, and inform Lawley if he woke for an instant that his friend was awake too, and behaving as though it were high noon.

Armitage spread the monk's white habit on the bed, and smiled as he touched it to think that Kate's pretty fingers had been so recently at work upon it. He need not put it on for a couple of hours yet, and to occupy the time he sat down to write. He would have liked to take a nap. But he knew that if he once yielded to sleep, nothing would wake him till he was called at eight o'clock in the morning. As he bent over his desk the big clock in the hall struck one, so suddenly and sharply it was like a blow on the head, and he started violently. 'What a swinish sleep Lawley must be in that he can't hear a noise like that!' he thought, as snoring became audible from the next room. Then he drew the candles nearer to him, and settled once more to his writing, and a pile of letters testified to his industry, when again the clock struck. But this time he expected it, and it did not startle him, only the cold made him shiver. 'If I hadn't made up my mind to go through with this confounded piece folly, I'd go to bed now,' he thought, 'but I can't break faith with Kate. She's made the robe and I've got to wear it, worse luck,' and with a great yawn he threw down his pen, and rose to look out of the window. It was a clear frosty night. At the edge of the dark sky, sprinkled with stars, a faint band of cold light heralded the rising moon. How different from the grey light of dawn, that ushers in the cheerful day, is the solemn rising of the moon in the depth of a winter night. Her light is not to rouse a sleeping world and lead men forth to their labour, it falls on the closed eyes of the weary, and silvers the graves of those whose rest shall be broken no more. Armitage was not easily impressed by the sombre aspect of nature, though he was quick to feel her gay and cheerful influence, but he would be glad when the farce was over, and he no longer obliged to watch the rise and spread of the pale light. solemn as the dawn of the last day.

He turned from the window, and proceeded to make himself into the best imitation of a Cistercian monk that he could contrive. He slipt the white habit over all his clothing, that he might seem of portly size, and marked dark circles round his eyes, and thickly powdered his face a ghostly white.

Armitage silently laughed at his reflection in the glass, and wished that Kate could see him now. Then he softly opened the door and looked into the gallery. The moonlight was shimmering duskily on the end window to the right of his door and Lawley's. It would soon be where he wanted it, and neither too light nor too dark for the success of his plan. He stepped silently back again to wait, and a feeling as much akin to nervousness as he had ever known came over him. His heart beat rapidly, he started like a timid girl when the silence was suddenly broken by the hooting of an owl. He no longer cared to look at himself in the glass. He had taken fright at the mortal pallor of his powdered face. 'Hang it all! I wish Lawley hadn't left off snoring. It was quite companionable to hear him.' And again he looked into the gallery, and now the moon shed her cold beams where he intended to stand. He put out the light and opened the door wide, and stepping into the gallery threw it to with an echoing slam that only caused Musgrave and Lawley to start and turn on their pillows. Armitage stood dressed as the ghostly monk of Stonecroft, in the pale moonlight in the middle of the gallery, waiting for the door on either side to fly open and reveal the terrified faces of his friends.

He had time to curse the ill-luck that made them sleep so heavily that night of all nights, and to fear lest the servants had heard the noise their master had been deaf to, and would come hurrying to the spot and spoil the sport. But no-one came, and as Armitage stood, the objects in the long gallery became clearer every moment, as his sight accommodated itself to the dim light. 'I never noticed before that there was a mirror at the end of the gallery! I should not have believed the moonlight was bright enough for me to see my own reflection so far off, only white stands out so in the dark. But is it my own reflection? Confound it all, the thing's moving and I'm standing still! I know what it is! It's Musgrave dressed up to try to give me a fright, and Lawley's helping him. They've forestalled me, that's why they didn't come out of their rooms when I made a noise fit to wake the dead. Odd we're both playing the same practical joke at the same moment! Come on, my counterfeit bogie, and we'll see which of us turns white-livered first!'

But to Armitage's surprise, that rapidly became terror, the white figure that he believed to be Musgrave disguised, and like himself playing ghost, advanced towards him, slowly gliding over the floor which its feet did not touch. Armitage's courage was high, and he determined to hold his ground against the something ingeniously contrived by Musgrave and Lawley to terrify him into belief in the supernatural. But a feeling was creeping over the strong young man that he had never known before. He opened his dry mouth as the thing floated towards him, and there issued a hoarse inarticulate cry, that woke Musgrave and Lawley and brought them to their doors in a moment, not knowing by what strange fright they had been startled out of their sleep. Do not think them cowards that they shrank back appalled from the ghostly forms the moonlight revealed to them in the gallery. But as Armitage vehemently repelled the horror that drifted nearer and nearer to him, the cowl slipped from his head, and his friends recognised his white face, distorted by fear and, springing towards him as he staggered, supported him in their arms. The Cistercian monk passed them like a white mist that sank into the wall, and Musgrave and Lawley were alone with the dead body of their friend, whose masquerading dress had become his shroud.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Shadow on the Blind ~ Mrs Alfred Baldwin

Mrs Alfred (Louisa) Baldwin (1845–1925) was one of the remarkable daughters of Reverend George Browne MacDonald, a Wesleyan Methodist Minister. Her eldest sister, Alice, was the mother of Rudyard Kipling. Another sister, Georgiana, married the artist Edward Burne-Jones, whilst her elder sister, Agnes, married another artist, Edward John Poynter, who painted the portrait of Louisa shown here. Louisa married the industrialist Alfred Baldwin, and their only son, Stanley Baldwin, went on to become the British Prime Minister. Her lifelong interest in the supernatural began when she was just a child, when she attempted to contact her sister during a séance. She began writing novels for adults and books for children during the early years of her marriage, but none of them did terribly well. Her first supernatural tale, ‘The Weird of the Walfords’, appeared in Longman’s Magazine in November 1889, and ‘The Shadow on the Blind’ was published in The Cornhill Magazine in September 1894. Mrs Baldwin published only one collection of supernatural tales, and these days she is all but forgotten.

The Shadow on the Blind and Other Ghost Stories was first published by J. M. Dent & Co. in 1895. It contains: 'The Shadow on the Blind', 'The Weird of the Walfords', 'The Un-canny Bairn', 'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love', 'How He Left the Hotel', 'The Real and the Counterfeit', 'My Next-Door Neighbour', 'The Empty Picture Frame', and 'Sir Nigel Otterburn's Case'.

In 'The Shadow on the Blind', Mr Stackpoole, a cheerful and energetic man of sixty years of age who likes to do up old houses, takes a fancy to Harbledon Hall, which has stood empty for seven years. When the old sexton tries to warn him that the previous tenants left in a hurry, 'as if they was running away from the plague', and that ghosts were at the bottom of things, Stackpoole is not put off, despite his wife experiencing a feeling of depressed foreboding. Despite hearing more tales of ghosts once he has taken on the house, he is sure that no spectres will haunt its passages, as he has installed electric lights and banished all dark corners where spooks may once have been thought to lurk. But has he?

The narrator of 'The Weird of the Walfords', Humphrey Walford of Walford Grange, destroys a much hated oak bed that has served his family as deathbed for ten generations. He is hell bent on its complete destruction, but allows his carpenter, Gillam, to salvage two or three beautifully carved panels, as long as he himself never has to set eyes on them again. Then he locks up the hated death chamber, and it remains so until a few years later, when his new wife, unaware of the room's history, insists on using it as her sitting room.

In 'The Uncanny Bairn', David Galbraith owns a farm in East Lothian and lives there with his wife and young son Alexander. When, at the age of seven, young Sandy exhibits signs of having second sight, his father is extremely concerned, as his own grandmother had it and was 'the terror of her family'.

In 'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love', it is the autumn of 1857 and John Horton, wanting a few weeks' holiday in the country, takes rooms at Maitland's Farm. He has been there a month when he is woken in the wee small hours by an unearthly sound of weeping.

Mole, the narrator of 'How He Left the Hotel' used to work the passenger lift in the Empire Hotel. Colonel Saxby, of room number 210 on the fourth floor, used to go up in the lift every day, as regular as clockwork, until he fell ill. Only then did he go down in it, and out into the midnight snow.

In 'The Real and the Counterfeit', Will Musgrave invites his two good friends, Hugh Armitage and Horace Lawley, to spend Christmas with him at Stonecroft Hall. When Musgrave announces that the place is haunted by the ghost of a Cistercian monk, but that the spectre hasn't been seen for forty years, Armitage gets it into his head to play a prank on his friends.

The narrator of 'My Next-Door Neighbour', once a wealthy man but now quite poor, falls ill and has to spend the winter months in hospital in a public ward. During the first week of the new year, a new patient arrives in the neighbouring bed, a Breton called Jean-Marie Thégonnec Pipraic, whose prognosis isn't good. As Jean-Marie's condition worsens, he has a dream about his dead fiancée, in which she tells him he has only three days left to live.

In 'The Empty Picture Frame', Miss Katherine Swinford, spinster and owner of Eastwick Court, invites her cousin, Joceline Hammersley, to stay with her. Joceline is named after her ancestor, Joceline Swinford, who pined to death when her lover Colonel Dacres died. The two women have never met before, and Miss Swinford is struck immediately by her cousin's resemblance to their dead ancestor, a portrait of whom hangs in the library. Indeed, the likeness is uncanny.

Mr Caxton, the narrator of 'Sir Nigel Otterburn's Case' is a medical student who is asked, by celebrated physician Dr Grindrod, to watch over Sir Nigel Otterburn's case. Sir Nigel has malaria, but the usual treatments fail to bring improvement, and both the patient and his daughter appear mysteriously convinced from the outset that there is no hope of recovery, and that 'they will come'.

If you like fairly gentle Victorian supernatural tales, then this collection will be just your cup of tea. I like all of the stories, but my personal favourites are 'The Empty Picture Frame' and 'The Real and the Counterfeit'. The latter, as it is set during the festive season, I intend to post here for you to read for yourself in a couple of days time. Ho ho ho!

The Shadow on the Blind is a difficult book to find, and it's almost impossible to get hold of a copy in nice condition. If you can find an attractive copy, it will set you back about £600 (approx. $900). But generally speaking, copies show up with tatty covers, and they cost around £200.

Ash-Tree Press published the collection as a limited edition hardback in 2001, and added 'The Ticking of the Clock' which was first published in Longman’s Magazine in 1894. Copies cost about £30 (around $45) at the moment, but they can be hard to find.

Wordsworth Editions published a paperback edition, The Shadow on the Blind and Other Stories, in 2007, which also contains the supernatural tales of Lettice Galbraith, and that costs a mere £2.99. And there's a Kindle version, published by Black Heath Editions, for less than a pound. I can't vouch for the content of these two, as I've not read them.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Curfew & Other Eerie Tales ~ Lucy M. Boston

Lucy Maria Boston (1892~1990) is best known today for her series of children's novels set in Green Knowe, an ancient house based on Boston's own home, Hemingford Grey Manor near Huntingdon, Cambridge, which was built in the 1130s. Her first two books, Yew Hall (a novel for adults) and the first of the Green Knowe series, The Children of Green Knowe, were published in 1954. At the time, Boston was already in her sixties. She won the Carnegie Medal for A Stranger of Green Knowe, the fourth book in the series, in 1961.

Curfew & Other Eerie Tales was published by Swan River Press as a limited edition hardback in 2011. It contains six tales and a play: Curfew, Pollution, Blind Man's Buff, Many Coloured Glass, The Italian Desk, The Tiger-Skin Rug, The Horned Man.

As their parents are abroad, the narrator of 'Curfew' and his two brothers are staying with their Uncle Tom and Aunt Catherine, at the cottage they have bought in the outlaying land of a fifteenth century manor house. In the process of doing up the garden, after rolling away a boulder atop a hillock, Aunt Catherine and Uncle Tom discover a stone coffer, the lid of which carries the inscription 'Deliver us O Lord from the Evil One'. Well, as we all know, digging up ancient hillocks is never a good thing to do, any more than discovering old coffers is.

The narrator of 'Pollution', Mr Gable, has taken a post as holiday tutor to a delicate boy at St. Mark's Abbey Lodge. Gable and his charge share an interest in entomology, but when revolting insects begin dropping out of taps in households throughout the area they soon lose all enthusiasm for their hobby.

In 'Blind Man's Buff', Captain Fernley, at an early stage in his career in the diplomatic service, is sent out to Venezuela, where he takes the opportunity to do some climbing on the Sierra Nevada. He takes with him a native guide, Quibar. But events take a tragic turn, the consequences of which poison the rest of the Captain's life.

In 'Many Coloured Glass', Sir Joshua Waters is hosting a ball in the Costume wing of the Museum to celebrate his son's coming of age, and his return with an Olympic medal. All invitees are instructed to turn up as characters from Jane Austen's books. But Sir Joshua's ball doesn't go quite according to plan when an uninvited guest sweeps the Olympic medallist's girlfriend off her feet. This story starts out quite light hearted, but turns sinister with the introduction of mechanical toys.

In 'The Italian Desk', Francis Caxton, a doctor on the staff of a mental hospital, is recovering from appendicitis and has been advised to take a kong holiday in the country, so he takes a furnished house in Cumberland. When he moves in, the housekeeper suggests he keep his papers in an Italian ivory-inlaid desk... the desk of Miss Stephanie who, once a refined and educated young woman, is now a raving lunatic.

The narrator of 'The Tiger-Skin Rug' and his wife buy a Chinese tiger-skin rug at an estate sale, despite warnings from the previous owner's butler that no good can come of it. Following the arrival of the rug, and the disappearance of an itinerant organ-grinder's monkey, a stranger called Dr. Sathanos appears at the narrator's home late at night, and strange happenings follow.

'The Horned Man' is a play about a witch-hunt. The action takes place during the reign of King James I, in the home of Sir Martin Westbury. Mr Simon Upjohn, the King's Agent, is down from London to lead the hunt and, as he intends to whip up a frenzy, and the frightened locals will undoubtedly believe 'the very fact that there is an investigation of witchcraft proves that there are witches to be examined', no old woman in the district is safe.

I greatly enjoyed reading this collection, especially 'Curfew' and 'The Horned Man'. I know reading plays isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I've always liked reading them (incidentally, the first one I ever read was The Crucible). There isn't a poor tale amongst these, and it's a collection I shall definitely keep on returning to. I highly recommend it.

As with all the books published by Swan River Press, Curfew & Other Eerie Tales is a beautifully produced volume. After the first printing in 2011, there was a second printing in 2014, but at the moment I can't find a single copy of either printing for sale on the Internet or anywhere else. I can only assume that, like me, nobody is willing to part with their copy. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Not After Midnight ~ Daphne du Maurier

I don't often write about the same author in one post after another, but I'm on a Daphne du Maurier kick at the moment, so I'm going straight from The Apple Tree to Not After Midnight (which was published in the States as Don't Look Now). 

Not After Midnight was first published in the UK by Victor Gollancz Ltd. in 1971, with a dust jacket illustrated by Flavia Tower, du Maurier's daughter. The collection contains five tales: Don't Look Now, Not After Midnight, A Border-Line Case, The Way of the Cross, The Breakthrough.

'Don't Look Now' is the most famous story of the collection, having been made into an excellent film, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, in 1973. John and Laura are on holiday in Venice, trying to come to terms with the death of their five-year-old daughter, Christine. They are having dinner in a restaurant when they encounter a pair of elderly twins, one of whom is blind and psychic. The psychic twin tells Laura that she can see little Christine, and later issues a warning that Laura and her husband must leave Venice at once because there is danger for them if they stay. Receiving news that their son is in hospital, Laura immediately books a flight back to England to be with him, leaving John to drive their car back home. But following his wife's departure, John is convinced that he has seen her in Venice with the twins, and a search for her ensues.

The narrator of 'Not After Midnight', Timothy Grey, is a rather timid English schoolmaster and amateur artist. He's on a solo painting holiday in Crete, hoping to capture the Aegean seascape on canvas, when he encounters a strange American couple, the Stolls. Having surrendered to his own curiosity, Grey follows the odd pair and ends up receiving an invitation to visit the Americans in their chalet... but not after midnight.

'A Border-Line Case', which has no supernatural element, is the one tale in this collection that I'm not all that keen on. Shelagh Money, her father having just died suddenly, sets off for Ireland to find an old friend of his, Commander Nicolas Barry. Having arrived at a village near Barry's home, she finds herself being forcibly escorted to the island on which he lives as a recluse. It starts out well, but becomes too predictable, and though I know that some readers do find it to be filled with tension and atmosphere, I am not one of them.

'The Way of the Cross', like 'A Border-Line Case', has no supernatural element. It concerns Rev. Edward Babcock and a group of eight pilgrims on a twenty-four hour excursion from Haifa to Jerusalem. Each one, aside from the youngest member of the group, suffers some form of humiliation and has a dreadful time.

The narrator of 'The Breakthrough', Stephen Saunders, is transferred to Saxmere, a facility on the east coast, to assist with the research of James MacLean and his small team. MacLean is trying to tap Force Six, as he calls it, the untapped source of energy within all of us that awaits release. But he wants to tap it at the point of death, to extract the vital spark - what some call the soul - and use it for the benefit of the living.

I found this collection to be a bit of a mixed bag. 'Don't Look Now' is, for me, the best story in it; 'A Border-Line Case' and 'The Way of the Cross' are the weakest. A fine copy of Not After Midnight, complete with a fine dust jacket, costs about £70 at the moment (approx. $105). There's a modern paperback version, entitled Don't Look Now and Other Stories, published by Penguin, and that costs £9.98. And there's a Virago Modern Classics Kindle edition for £8.99.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Apple Tree ~ Daphne du Maurier

Dame Daphne du Maurier (1907~1989), granddaughter of the artist and writer George du Maurier, and daughter of Gerald du Maurier, the most famous actor-manager of his day, began writing short stories in her early twenties. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. She is best known, and best loved, for her three novels Jamaica Inn (which immortalised an actual inn on Cornwall's Bodmin Moor), Frenchman's Creek and Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier was a very private person, but you can watch a rare interview with her at the BBC web site.

The Apple Tree was first published by Victor Gollancz Ltd. in 1952. It contains six tales: 'Monte Verità', 'The Birds', 'The Apple Tree', 'The Little Photographer', 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger', and 'The Old Man'.

I won't go into detail about 'Monte Verità', as it's difficult to say much at all without giving too much away. It is a haunting tale about the quest for truth... a fantasy, the mystery at the centre of which is never explained to the reader. It concerns a love triangle between two men and one woman: the unnamed bachelor narrator, his friend Victor, and Victor's beautiful wife, Anna, who appears to possess unearthly qualities. The narrator begins his story by disclosing the outcome of events, then we travel back to the run up to the First World War, to Victor's marriage to Anna, their subsequent journey to Monte Verità, The Mountain of Truth, and Anna's disappearance when she climbs to the summit alone to fulfil her destiny. Apparently, Victor Gollancz was bewildered by this tale and insisted that the ending be changed.*

'The Birds' is the most well-known of the tales in this book, because it was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. But the movie and the original story, aside from being about birds attacking people, have little in common. Apparently, du Maurier didn't like Hitchcock's adaptation, in which he transported the tale from the cold, bleak English coastline to a Californian setting, and transformed du Maurier's farmers into polished city folk.

Du Maurier's tale takes place in winter in an isolated spot on the Cornish coast. In it, Nat Hocken, who was injured during the war, works part time on a farm. During his lunch break, he sits on the cliff's edge and watches the birds. He understands the rhythm and ritual of their lives, and he knows when there's something not quite right about that ritual. An east wind has turned the weather bitterly cold, and brought with it a change in the birds' behaviour. Finches and robins, sparrows, gulls and birds of prey... 'birds that by nature's law kept to their own flock and their own territory', seeming to respond to each turn of the tide, have joined together in their urge for battle, and Nat and his family find themselves prisoners in their small cottage, boarded in and under relentless attack, and cut off from the rest of the country. With the birds persistent and relentless, drawing back with every retreating tide, then recommencing battle with a vengeance on each returning one, there is an ominous rhythm to Du Maurier's tale that Hitchcock's film just doesn't have.

In 'The Apple Tree', a recent widower is enjoying his new found freedom, following the death of his wife Midge, whose purpose in life, according to him, was to put a blight on everything. But he begins to believe that one of his apple trees resembles her, with its 'martyred bent position' and 'stooping top', and the tree begins to disgust him as much as his late wife did. Then, after years of being barren and presumed almost dead, the tree begins to sprout buds, and then fruit. And as the tree flourishes, his hatred for it grows, until he becomes obsessed with its destruction.

In 'The Little Photographer', a wealthy and extremely conceited French Marquise, on holiday with her children but without her husband, fantasises about having a meaningless fling with a stranger. She begins an affair with a crippled photographer, toying with his genuine devotion to her whilst her own emotions remain entirely untouched. Quickly bored with the arrangement, she begins to torment the photographer in order to recapture the excitement she felt at the outset of her little adventure. But there are consequences when you treat a person cruelly, as the cold-hearted Marquise discovers.

The narrator of 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger', a shy car mechanic who's never had any real interest in girls, or much experience with them for that matter, takes a fancy to an attractive usherette when he goes to the pictures one evening. He follows her when she leaves work, daydreaming about making her his steady girlfriend, but there's more to the quiet young woman than meets the eye. There's no supernatural element to this tale, but it's a creepy little gem all the same.

The narrator of 'The Old Man' suspects his neighbour of having killed his own son. I usually have the ending of a story figured out long before I get to it, but this one took me completely by surprise.

I love this collection of stories. 'Monte Verità' is probably the best of them, but if I were to pick a personal favourite I think it would be 'The Apple Tree'. Ask me next week and I'll probably change my mind, but I do tend to go back to that tale over and over again. It's certainly a collection not to be missed.

A fine copy of The Apple Tree, complete with its lovely dust jacket, costs about £200 at the moment (approx. $300). There's a Virago paperback, The Birds and Other Stories, priced at £8.99, and that contains all the tales from The Apple Tree. There's also a Kindle version by Virago for just over four pounds.

* See Margaret Forster's Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (1993).

Friday, 14 August 2015

Ghosts from the Mist of Time ~ R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Ronald Henry Glynn Chetwynd-Hayes (1919~2001) was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, the son of Henry Chetwynd-Hayes (a Master Sergeant and cinema manager) and May Rose Cooper. He attended Hanworth Council School, and until 1973 he worked as a furniture showroom manager in Berkeley Street, London. He grew up a film fan and appeared as an extra in a few films, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). His first published short story was 'The Empty Grave', which appeared in Reveille in 1953. His first novel, The Man from the Bomb, was published six years later. He went on to write around two hundred short stories and a dozen novels, and his books were always in demand at lending libraries.

A number of Chetwynd-Hayes' short story collections and anthologies edited by him were published by William Kimber & Co. during the 1970s and 1980s. Kimber published Ghosts from the Mist of Time, with a dust jacket designed by Ionicus, in 1985. It contains seven tales: Time Check, The Wanderer, Prometheus Chained, Doppel-gänger, Cold Fingers, The Echo, Shona and the Water Horse.

The first story, 'Time Check', is set during the inter-war years. It's about five-year-old Rodney Winston, who is just starting Week School. He lives with Mrs Balcombe, who he calls Mumma, and her daughter Rose, who's a religious fanatic. Mrs Balcombe is paid to look after him, because his father ran off before he was born and his mother, who's 'a beautiful brainless butterfly', can't afford to keep him. But little Rodney is special, because he can see and hear things that haven't happened yet... tragic things.

'The Wanderer' is set in Clavering in 1665. Clavering Grange has always had its ghosts... the shades of those who haunted the place in life, who seem unable to detach themselves from it in death. But now it also has a wanderer - a ghost who does not belong, who is drawn to the Grange because of the tainted ground upon which it was built, and who wanders the planes of time only to bring disaster.

In 'Prometheus Chained', Stephen Markham is a writer of weird stories. It is 1984 and Markham is walking along a street when he stumbles and falls... and gets up someone else, in 2164, in a world where fiction has become reality.

In 'Doppelgänger', Matthew Bayswater, a rather famous writer, is driving home from a party when he spots his double at the doorway to an old-fashioned hardware shop. A couple of days later, he sees him again, standing against a gate in the vicinity of the house of Sir Henry Handel. But is double is thinner, down on his luck, and shabby... an unsuccessful, miserable mirror-ghost of the well-off author. And as he continues to appear, the line between reality and unreality begin to blur.

In 'Cold Fingers' Paul Etherington is an archaeology student who, in need of lodgings, answers an advertisement in the Comet, placed by the elderly Miss Partridge. The place seems ideal, and the rent is cheap, but during his first night in his new room he feels cold fingers against his throat... cold fingers that gradually tighten their grip.

In 'The Echo', Oliver and Anne, old friends who haven't seen each other for six years, meet by chance by the riverside. He invites her back to his musty old house, a place where words echo strangely, where 'Nothing can get out... Sound, energy, emotion.' He collapses after declaring his love for her, and she promises to return the following day. But Oliver has a secret... a sinister, deadly secret.

In 'Shona and the Water Horse', a tall young man turns up at the house of Reverend Angus Buchanan claiming to be the legendary Water Horse, and tells him that the devil walks the moor again and intends to take the whole Highland village that very night. The good reverend is having none of it... but then darkness falls, and the mist rolls in...

If I were to pick one of the stories as my favourite, it would have to be "Cold Fingers', partly because I like the humour in it. 'Doppelgänger' is the creepiest, but 'Prometheus Chained' comes a very close second. They're all very entertaining, and I do like Chetwynd-Hayes' sense of humour.

A fine copy of Ghosts from the Mist of Time goes for about £30 ($45) at the moment. But, as with all the Kimber-Ionicus books, it's not all that easy to get hold of one. They tend to turn up a bit dog-eared or as ex-library books.

I've put together a section all about the William Kimber books with jackets designed by Ionicus, and you can access it by clicking here.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

B. M. Croker ~ A Photographic Portrait

I had just finished typing up 'Number Ninety' for my last post when I came across this photograph of the story's author, B. M. Croker. It was taken by F. J. Garrison, of 14 St George Gate, Doncaster. It is undated, but its creator, Francis John Garrison (b. 1861), appears to have moved to St George Gate in 1901, having previously worked at Sydney Studio in Goole. In old advertisements, F. J. Garrison described himself as a 'portrait, animal and landscape photographer', offering 'instantaneous portraits of children'. I think this portrait of Croker and her cute canine chum must have been taken between 1901 and 1910.

Monday, 27 July 2015

'Number Ninety' ~ B. M. Croker

Following on from my last post, I thought it might be a nice idea to type up one of B. M. Croker's ghost stories, so you can get an idea of the style and content of her tales. Enjoy!

By B. M. Croker
First published in Chapman's Magazine of Fiction, December 1895

‘To let furnished, for a term of years, at a very low rental, a large old-fashioned family residence, comprising eleven bed-rooms, four reception-rooms, dressing-rooms, two stair-cases, complete servants’ offices, ample accommodation for a Gentleman’s establishment, including six-stall stable, coach-house, etc.’

The above advertisement referred to number ninety. For a period extending over some years this notice appeared spasmodically in various daily papers. Occasionally you saw it running for a week or a fortnight at a stretch, as if it were resolved to force itself into consideration by sheer persistency. Sometimes for months I looked for it in vain. Other ignorant folk might possibly fancy that the effort of the house agent had been crowned at last with success — that it was let, and no longer in the market.

I knew better. I knew that it would never, never find a tenant as long as oak and ash endured. I knew that it was passed on as a hopeless case, from house-agent to house-agent. I knew that it would never be occupied, save by rats — and, more than this, I knew the reason why!

I will not say in what square, street, or road number ninety may be found, nor will I divulge to any human being its precise and exact locality, but this I’m prepared to state, that it is positively in existence, is in London, and is still empty.

Twenty years ago, this very Christmas, my friend John Hollyoak (civil engineer) and I were guests at a bachelor’s party; partaking, in company with eight other celibates, of a very recherché little dinner, in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly. Conversation became very brisk, as the champagne circulated, and many topics were started, discussed, and dismissed.

They (I say they advisedly, as I myself am a man of few words) talked on an extraordinary variety of subjects.

I distinctly recollect a long argument on mushrooms — mushrooms, murders, racing, cholera; from cholera we came to sudden death, from sudden death to churchyards, and from churchyards, it was naturally but a step to ghosts.

On this last topic the arguments became fast and furious, for the company was divided into two camps. The larger, ‘the opposition,’ who scoffed, sneered, and snapped their fingers, and laughed with irritating contempt at the very name of ghosts, was headed by John Hollyoak; the smaller party, who were dogged, angry, and prepared to back their opinions to any extent, had for their leader our host, a bald-headed man of business, whom I certainly would have credited (as I mentally remarked) with more sense.

The believers in the supernatural obtained a hearing, so far as to relate one or two blood-curdling, first or second-hand experiences, which, when concluded, instead of being received with an awe-struck and respectful silence, were pooh-poohed, with shouts of laughter, and taunting suggestions that were by no means complimentary to the intelligence, or sobriety, of the victims of superstition. Argument and counter-argument waxed louder and hotter, and there was every prospect of a very stormy conclusion to the evening’s entertainment.

John Hollyoak, who was the most vehement, the most incredulous, the most jocular, and the most derisive of the anti-ghost faction, brought matters to a climax by declaring that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to pass a night in a haunted house — and the worse its character, the better he would be pleased!

His challenge was instantly taken up by our somewhat ruffled host, who warmly assured him that his wishes could be easily satisfied, and that he would be accommodated with a night’s lodging in a haunted house within twenty-four hours — in fact, in a house of such a desperate reputation, that even the adjoining mansions stood vacant.

He then proceeded to give a brief outline of the history of number ninety. It had once been the residence of a well-known country family, but what evil events had happened therein tradition did not relate.

On the death of the last owner — a diabolical looking aged person, much resembling the typical wizard — it had passed into the hands of a kinsman, resident abroad, who had no wish to return to England, and who desired his agents to let it, if they could — a most significant proviso!

Year by year went by, and still this ‘Highly desirable family mansion’ could find no tenant, although the rent was reduced, and reduced, and again reduced, to almost zero!

The most ghastly whispers were afloat — the most terrible experiences were actually proclaimed on the housetops!

No tenant would remain, even gratis; and for the last ten years, this, ‘handsome, desirable town family residence’ had been the abode of rats by day, and something else by night — so said the neighbours.

Of course it was the very thing for John, and he snatched up the gauntlet on the spot. He scoffed at its evil repute, and solemnly promised to rehabilitate its character within a week.

It was in vain that he was solemnly warned — that one of his fellow guests gravely assured him ‘that he would not pass a night in number ninety for ninety thousand pounds — it would be the price of his reason.’

‘You value your reason at a very high figure,’ replied John, with an indulgent smile. ‘I will venture mine for nothing.'

‘Those laugh who win,’ put in our host sharply. ‘You have not been through the wood yet though your name is Hollyoak! I invite all present to dine with me in three days from this; and then, if our friend here has proved that he has got the better of the spirits, we will all laugh together. Is that a bargain?’

This invitation was promptly accepted by the whole company; and then they fell to making practical arrangements for John's lodgings for the next night.

I had no actual hand — or, more properly speaking, tongue — in this discussion, which carried us on till a late hour; but nevertheless, the next night at ten o’clock — for no ghost with any self respect would think of appearing before that time — I found myself standing, as John's second, on the steps of the notorious abode; but I was not going to remain; the hansom that brought us was to take me back to my respectable chambers.

This ill-fated house was large, solemn-looking, and gloomy. A heavy portico frowned down on neighbouring bare-faced hall-doors. The caretaker (an army pensioner, bravest of the brave in daylight) was prudently awaiting us outside with a key, which said key he turned in the lock, and admitted us into a great echoing hall, black as Erebus, saying as he did so: ‘My missus has haired the bed, and made up a good fire in the first front, sir. Your things is all laid hout, and (dubiously to John) I hope you’ll have a comfortable night, sir.’

‘No, sir! Thank you, sir! Excuse me, I'll not come in! Good-night!’ and with the words still on his lips, he clattered down the steps with most indecent haste, and — vanished.

‘And of course you will not come in either?’ said John. ‘It is not in the bond, and I prefer to face them alone!’ and he laughed contemptuously, a laugh that had a curious echo, it struck me at the time. A laugh strangely repeated, with an unpleasant mocking emphasis. ‘Call for me, alive or dead, at eight o’clock to-morrow morning!’ he added, pushing me forcibly out into the porch, and closing the door with a heavy, reverberating clang, that sounded half-way down the street.

I did call for him the next morning as desired, with the army pensioner, who stared at his common-place, self-possessed appearance, with an expression of respectful astonishment.

‘So it was all humbug, of course,’ I said, as he took my arm, and we set off for our club.

‘You shall have the whole story whenever we have had something to eat,’ he replied somewhat impatiently. ‘It will keep till after breakfast — I’m famishing!’

I remarked that he looked unusually grave as we chatted over our broiled fish and omelette, and that occasionally his attention seemed wandering, to say the least of it. The moment he had brought out his cigar-case and lit up he turned to me and said:

‘I see you are just quivering to know my experience, and I won’t keep you on tenter-hooks any longer. In four words — I have seen them!’

I am (as before hinted) a silent man. I merely looked at him with widely-parted mouth and staring interrogative eyes.

I believe I had best endeavour to give the narrative without comment, and in John Hollyoak’s own way. This is, as well as I can recollect, his experience word for word: —

‘I proceeded upstairs, after I had shut you out, lighting my way by a match, and found the front room easily, as the door was ajar, and it was lit up by a roaring and most cheerful-looking fire, and two wax candles. It was a comfortable apartment, furnished with old-fashioned chairs and tables, and the traditional four-poster. There were numerous doors, which proved to be cupboards; and when I had executed a rigorous search in each of these closets and locked them, and investigated the bed above and beneath, sounded the walls, and bolted the door, I sat down before the fire, lit a cigar, opened a book, and felt that I was going to be master of the situation, and most thoroughly and comfortably ‘at home.’ My novel proved absorbing. I read on greedily, chapter after chapter, and so interested was I, and amused — for it was a lively book — that I positively lost sight of my whereabouts, and fancied myself reading in my own chamber! There was not a sound — not even a mouse in wainscot. The coals dropping from the grate occasionally broke the silence, till a neighbouring church-clock slowly boomed twelve! “The Hour!” I said to myself, with a laugh, as I gave the fire a rousing poke, and commenced a fresh chapter; but ere I had read three pages I had occasion to pause and listen. What was that distinct sound now coming nearer and nearer? “Rats, of course,” said Common-sense — “it was just the house for vermin.” Then a longish silence. Again a stir, sounds approaching, as if apparently caused by many feet passing down the corridor — high heeled shoes, the sweeping switch of silken trains! Of course it was all imagination, I assured myself — or rats! Rats were capable of making such curious improbably noises!

‘Then another silence. No sound but cinders and the ticking of my watch, which I had laid upon the table.

‘I resumed my book, rather ashamed, and a little indignant with myself for having neglected it, and calmly dismissed my late interruption as ‘rats — nothing but rats.’

‘I had been reading and smoking for some time in a placid and highly incredulous frame of mind, when I was somewhat rudely startled by a loud single knock at my room door. I took no notice of it, but merely laid down my novel and sat tight. Another knock more imperious this time. After a moment’s mental deliberation I arose, armed myself with a poker, prepared to brain any number of rats, and threw the door open with a violent swing that strained its very hinges, and beheld, to my amazement, a tall powdered footman in a laced scarlet livery, who, making a formal inclination of his head, astonished me still further by saying:

‘ “Dinner is ready!”

‘ “I’m not coming!” I replied, without a moment’s hesitation, and thereupon I slammed the door in his face, locked it, and resumed my seat, also my book; but reading was a farce; my ears were aching for the next sound.

‘It came soon — rapid steps running up the stairs, and again a single knock. I went over to the door, and once more discovered the tall footman, who repeated, with a studied courtesy:

‘ “Dinner is ready, and the company are waiting.”

‘ “I told you I was not coming. Be off, and be hanged to you!” I cried again, shutting the door violently.

‘This time I did not make even a pretence at reading, I merely sat and waited for the next move.

‘I had not long to sit. In ten minutes I heard a third loud summons. I rose, went to the door, and tore it open. There, as I expected, was the servant again, with his parrot speech:

‘ “Dinner is ready, the company are waiting, and the master says you must come!”

‘ “All right, then, I’ll come,” I replied, wearied by reason of his importunity, and feeling suddenly fired with a desire to see the end of the adventure.

‘He accordingly led the way downstairs, and I followed him, noting as I went the gilt buttons on his coat, and his splendidly turned calves, also that the hall and passages were now brilliantly illuminated, and that several liveried servants were passing to and fro, and that from — presumably — the dining room, there issued a buzz of tongues, loud volleys of laughter, many hilarious voices, and a clatter of knives and forks. I was not left much time for speculation, as in another second I found myself inside the door, and my escort announced me in a stentorian voice as “Mr. Hollyoak.”

‘I could hardly credit my senses, as I looked round and saw about two dozen people, dressed in a fashion of the last century, seated at the table, which was loaded with gold and silver plate, and lighted up by a blaze of wax candles in massive candelabra.

‘A swarthy elderly gentleman, who presided at the head of the board, rose deliberately as I entered. He was dressed in a crimson coat, braided with silver. He wore a peruke, had the most piercing black eyes I ever encountered, made me the finest bow I ever received in all my life, and with a polite wave of a taper hand, indicated my seat — a vacant chair between two powdered and patched beauties, with overflowing white shoulders and necks sparkling with diamonds.

‘At first I was fully convinced that the whole affair was a superbly-matured practical joke. Everything looked so real, so truly flesh and blood, so complete in every detail; but I gazed around in vain for one familiar face.

‘I saw young, old, and elderly; handsome and the reverse. On all faces there was a similar expression — reckless, hardened defiance, and something else that made me shudder, but that I could not classify or define.

‘Were they a secret community? Burglars or coiners? But no; in one rapid glance I noticed that they belonged exclusively to the upper stratum of society — bygone society. The jabber of talking had momentarily ceased, and the host, imperiously hammering the table with a knife-handle, said in a singularly harsh grating voice:

‘ “Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to give you a toast! ‘Our guest!’ ” looking straight at me with his glittering coal-black eyes.

‘Every glass was immediately raised. Twenty faces were turned towards mine, when, happily, a sudden impulse seized me. I sprang to my feet and said:

‘ “Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to thank you for your kind hospitality, but before I accept it, allow me to say grace!”

‘I did not wait for permission, but hurriedly repeated a Latin benediction. Ere the last syllable was uttered, in an instant there was a violent crash, an uproar, a sound of running, of screams, groans and curses, and then utter darkness.

‘I found myself standing alone by a big mahogany table which I could just dimly discern by the aid of a street-lamp that threw its meagre rays into the great empty dining-room from the other side of the area.

‘I must confess that I felt my nerves a little shaken by the instantaneous change from light to darkness — from a crowd of gay and noisy companions, to utter solitude and silence. I stood for a moment trying to recover my mental balance. I rubbed my eyes hard to assure myself that I was wide awake, and then I placed this very cigar-case in the middle of the table, as a sign and token that I had been downstairs — which cigar-case I found exactly where I left it this morning — and then went and groped my way into the hall and regained my room.

‘I met with no obstacle en route. I saw no one, but as I closed and double-locked my door I distinctly heard a low laugh outside the keyhole — a sort of suppressed, malicious titter, that made me furious.

‘I opened the door at once. There was nothing to be seen. I waited and listened — dead silence. I then undressed and went to bed, resolved that a whole army of footmen would fail to allure me once more to that festive board. I was determined not to lose my night’s rest — ghosts or no ghosts.

‘Just as I was dozing off I remember hearing the neighbouring clock chime two. It was the last sound I was aware of; the house was now as silent as a vault. My fire burnt away cheerfully. I was no longer in the least degree inclined for reading, and I fell fast asleep and slept soundly till I heard the cabs and milk-carts beginning their morning career.

‘I then rose, dressed at my leisure, and found you, my good, faithful friend, awaiting me, rather anxiously, on the hall-door steps.

‘I have not done with that house yet. I’m determined to find out who these people are, and where they come from. I shall sleep there again to-night, and so shall “Crib,” my bulldog; and you will see that I shall have news for you to-morrow morning — if I am still alive to tell the tale,’ he added with a laugh.

In vain I would have dissuaded him. I protested, argued, and implored. I declared that rashness was not courage; that he had seen enough; that I, who had seen nothing, and only listened to his experiences, was convinced that number ninety was a house to be avoided.

I might just as well have talked to my umbrella! So, once more, I reluctantly accompanied him to his previous night’s lodging. Once more I saw him swallowed up inside the gloomy, forbidding-looking, re-echoing hall.

I then went home in an unusually anxious, semi-excited, nervous state of mind; and I, who generally outrival the Seven Sleepers, lay wide awake, tumbling and tossing hour after hour, a prey to the most foolish ideas — ideas I would have laughed to scorn in daylight.

More than once I was certain that I heard John Hollyoak distractedly calling me; and I sat up in bed and listened intently. Of course it was fancy, for the instant I did so, there was no sound.

At the first gleam of winter dawn, I rose, dressed, and swallowed a cup of good strong coffee to clear my brain from the misty notions it had harboured during the night. And then I invested myself in my warmest topcoat and comforter, and set off for number ninety. Early as it was — it was but half-past seven — I found the army pensioner was before me, pacing the pavement with a countenance that would have made a first-rate frontispiece for ‘Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy’ — a countenance the reverse of cheerful.

I was not disposed to wait for eight o’clock. I was too uneasy, and too impatient for further particulars of the dinner-party. So I rang with all my might, and knocked with all my main.

No sound within — no answer! But John was always a heavy sleeper. I was resolved to arouse him all the same, and knocked and rang, and rang and knocked, incessantly for fully ten minutes.

I then stooped down and applied my eye to the keyhole; I looked steadily into the aperture, till I became accustomed to the darkness, and then it seemed to me that another eye — a very strange, fiery eye — was glaring into mine from the other side of the door!

I removed my eye and applied my mouth instead, and shouted with all the power of my lungs (I did not care a straw if passers-by took me for an escaped lunatic):

‘John! John! Hollyoak!’

How his name echoed and re-echoed up through that great empty house! ‘He must hear that,’ I said to myself as I pressed my ear closely against the lock, and listened with throbbing suspense.

The echo of ‘Hollyoak’ had hardly died away when I swear that I distinctly heard a low, sniggering, mocking laugh — that was my only answer — that; and a vast unresponsive silence.

I was now quite desperate. I shook the door frantically, with all my strength. I broke the bell; in short, my behaviour was such that it excited the curiosity of a policeman, who crossed the road to know ‘What was up?’

‘I want to get in!’ I panted, breathless with my exertions.

‘You’d better stay where you are!’ said Bobby; ‘the outside of this house is the best of it! There are terrible stories —’

‘But there is a gentleman inside it!’ I interrupted impatiently. ‘He slept there last night, and I can’t wake him. He has the key!’

‘Oh, you can’t wake him!’ returned the policeman gravely. ‘Then we must get a locksmith!’

But already the thoughtful pensioner had procured one; and already a considerable and curious crowd surrounded the steps.

After five minutes of (to me) maddening delay, the great heavy door was opened and swung slowly back, and I instantly rushed in, followed less precipitately by the policeman and the pensioner.

I had not far to seek John Hollyoak! He and his dog were lying at the foot of the stairs, both stone dead!