The Ghost in Brocade
On hoardings, in fields, on the covers of magazines, on the back sheets of newspapers, an advertisement headed “S.S.S.” appears with the regularity of the sun. Additional information is accorded to the curious by the expansion of these mystic signs into the words, “Sarah’s Salutary Sauce “–a condiment invented by Sarah Brag to tickle the palates of the epicures.
Her husband, a compositor in the office of a provincial journal, made a fortune out of it for both of them. He commenced quite in a small way by advertising it in the columns he set up, while Sarah, renting suitable premises in the town, personally manufactured her invention. The advertisements were read, the sauce was approved of, and as circles on the water its fame widened round the world. In twenty years Mr. and Mrs. Brag were almost millionaires, and having turned their concern into a limited liability company, retired to enjoy an old age of well-earned ease and comfort at Alliston Hall. “S.S.S.” did its work well, and for once fortune bestowed her favours on the deserving.
They were wholly unlike the millionaires of commerce or of fiction, these two. For they were neither anxious to get into society nor desirous of displaying their wealth with ostentation. Mr. Brag, indeed, had rubbed off some of his natural roughness whilst shouldering his way through the world, but Sarah his wife was as much a cook as she had been when she presided over the kitchen of Alliston Hall. Now she sat in the drawing-room, and could without doubt have set up as a fine lady had she so desired. But her heart was ever in the back premises, and her visits there were by no means infrequent. She remained always the uneducated, rough, warm-hearted woman, devoted to her home and to her husband. I knew her value better than anyone, save perhaps Helen; and both of us were extremely fond of her, and indeed of Mr. Brag also. They were a typical Mr. and Mrs. Boffin.
But who am I, you will ask—and who is Helen, too? Well, I who tell you this story am Geoffrey Beauchamp, an idle Oxonian and private secretary to Mr. Brag.
When I left Balliol, my father, failing in business, took his loss of money and reputation so seriously that he died of a broken heart, and joined my mother in the next world, whither she had long preceded him. Finding myself an orphan, penniless, and without a profession, I cast about for employment. I answered an advertisement for a secretary. In this way it was that I became acquainted with Mr. Brag. For three years past I have looked after his affairs—that is to say, I have written his letters, advised him as best I could, and have stood between his too kindly soul and the hungry horde of money-hunters. And he on his part has treated me more like a son than a paid servant, which I have not failed to appreciate. So comfortable at position and so kindly a friend come not to every man.
Then there is Helen. She is looked upon as the daughter of the house, as indeed she is, seeing that she was born at the Hall.
When Sir Ralph Alliston died after a spendthrift career, he left his only child without a penny. The Hall was sold, and the proceeds went to pay off the mortgages and the rest of the debts. So Helen, poor helpless girl, had no choice but to go out as a governess. But Sarah Brag soon changed all that. She remembered Helen as a child, and when the Hall was purchased by the money made out of “S.S.S.” she sought out the orphan and insisted upon her returning.
“As my own child.” explained the good soul; “seein’ that ‘J. ’ and me ain’t bin bless’d with babies. Not that I’m a lady, my dear, nor could ever have a daughter like you. But we’ll put it like that to satisfy the ‘conveniences ‘ of society.”
What could Helen do but accept an offer so kindly and so liberally made. So she came back to her ancestral home, and found existence made as pleasant for her as Mr. and Mrs. Brag could make it. Then it came about that as I was young and Helen altogether charming we fell in love with each other, much to the delight, be it said, of our patrons. Eventually it was arranged that I should be Helen’s husband, and that she should expect to inherit the substantial profits from “S.S.S.”
“And if I might advise Mr. Beauchamp,” said Mrs. Brag, beaming, “ you should take the name and arms of Alliston, by right of ‘Elen here; so that when we are dead and gone the old family will still be in the old place where they have been for Lord knows what number of years.
“Think,” cried Mrs. Brag, jubilantly, “of the ancestors you’ll have. Why there’s a church chock full of ’em—all knights and bar’nites. Fine, ain’t it?”
I agreed that it was “fine,” and with Helen’s consent, indeed at her express wish, I promised the worthy couple to take the name of Alliston when I should lead the last scion of the family to the altar.
And this was the position of affairs when the ghost came; and I do not think there were four happier people in the whole world up to that time. Lady Marian spoilt it all.
Lady Marian was the ghost’s name. She had been a Georgian beauty a couple of hundred years ago—had rustled in silken brocade in the midst of Jacobite conspiracies. Her husband had preferred King George to King James, and desirous of keeping his head and property had given her to understand as much. But it would seem that excitement was the breath of Lady Marian’s nostrils and she made the Hall a centre of intrigue, which included the midnight visits of Jesuit priests, of French emissaries from his Majesty over the water, and of sulky Squires who cursed the Hanoverian in their cups.
Sir Walter Alliston, being a jealous husband as well as a loyal subject, disapproved of his wife’s pranks, and accused her of using politics for the masking of intrigues against his honour and her own. The lady, being of high spirit, denied the accusation, and swore never again to speak to her husband. He, more furious than ever, kept a close watch upon her, and one evening found a masked gallant leaving her apartments. Without a moment’s hesitation he ran the intruder through with his rapier. When he tore off the vizor he found to his horror that the victim was Lady Marian herself, disguised for some excursion. Dying, she cursed him and his, and declared that she would haunt him and his descendants evermore.
“And she’s kept her word!” said Mrs. Brag, who told me the story, “for when Sir Walter died she walked down the picture gallery the night before. She always comes to tell when one of the family is to die. I ’eard as she was seen just before ’Elen’s father went off, and when Lady Alliston died in giving birth to that dear girl I saw the ghost myself.”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Brag! There are no such things as ghosts,” I said.
“Oh, ain’t there, but there is. I tell you, as I’m a livin’ breathin’ woman I saw the Lady Marian gliding along the picture gallery in brocade and ‘igh-‘eeled shoes, just as she were when alive.”
“Have you seen the ghost since you bought the Hall, Mrs. Brag?”
“God forbid, my dear; for if Lady Marian comes again it will only be to take away ’Elen, seein’ as she’s the last of them.”
As Mrs. Brag, with the superstition of an uneducated person, firmly believed in the warning apparition. I was not surprised on returning from a month’s holiday in Switzerland shortly before Christmas, to find her in a state of great alarm at the reappearance of her bugbear. Two weeks before my return Lady Marian, brocade, high-heeled shoes, cane and all, had twice, been seen in the picture gallery—on each occasion at the midnight hour.
Mrs. Brag was certain that it meant Helen’s death, and unable utterly to keep feeling of any kind to herself, had succeeded in infecting the whole house with her fears. Not a servant would enter the Long Gallery, as it was called, after dark; and even Mr. Brag, sceptic as he was, became uneasy when he came to think of what it might mean.
The girl herself did not look so well as when I had left for my holiday. She was pale and thin, and singularly silent. Her eyes, too, seemed unnaturally bright. After Mrs. Brag had delivered herself of the story, and had stated her intention of calling in the vicar to exorcise the ghost, I was left alone in the drawing-room with Helen.
“My darling, you look ill,” I said, clasping her in my arms; “surely you do not believe in all this nonsense.”
She shivered. “I don’t know,” she said, nervously. “Both the housekeeper and the butler have seen the ghost. Mrs. Brag is always talking about it, and really I am beginning to think there must be some truth in it.”
“Nonsense l nonsense ! All this talk and fuss has made you nervous and ill; hasn’t it, dear?”
“Yes, Geoffrey; I was quite well until the ghost came.”
I saw very plainly how matters stood. Helen was sensitive and highly strung, and Mrs. Brag’s foolish talk had wrought her up to such a pitch that the tortured nerves reacted on her delicate body. She was never a strong girl, but she was always very healthy. Worry was evidently what had made her ill. I no longer wondered that the Allistons had died when Lady Marian was rumoured to have appeared. They were a nervous race. I realised therefore that if I did not do something to exorcise this spirit, if such it were, Helen would become seriously ill, and might even die.
“It is a good thing I returned,” I said to Mr. Brag, when Helen retired to dress for dinner. “That girl will die if this sort of thing goes on.”
“I dessay, I dessay, Geoffrey; but how do you propose to stop it?”
“Find out the trick, to be sure.”
“But how do you know it’s a trick, Geoffrey?”
“I’m sure of it. Tell me, have you seen the ghost?”
“Lor’ no. I ain’t a coward, Geoffrey, but wild ‘orses wouldn’t drag me to that gallery at night. I ain’t seen it, but Parsons and Mrs. Jackson ’ave.”
“Or think they have. What they have seen is some one dressed up as Lady Marian, mark me. Or else they suffer from hallucination. Parsons is sober, I know.”
“Oh, yes; and even if he ain’t, Mrs. Jackson is. She never touches a drop to my knowledge. No, ‘tain’t drink, whatever it is.”
“And they both declare that they have seen the ghost?”
“Lor’, yes. They take their oaths they have.”
“Then it must be a trick. And if I catch the person who is playing it I’ll—well, I’ll make the false ghost a real one. Will you let me take charge of this matter, Mr. Brag?”
“Of course, Geoffrey. I was just waitin’ for you to come back. Find out what’s wrong, and knock all this stuff out of my old woman’s head. She’s mostly in hysterics o’ nights.”
“And no wonder when Helen looks so ill. Believe me, ghosts went out when gas came in. I think I shall manage to prove to you that this spectral Lady Marian is very substantial flesh and blood.”
“But she may not be,” urged Mr. Brag, somewhat dubiously. “Lots of these ‘igh families ’ave their ghosts to see ’em into the next world, I believe. Besides, who could be playin’ this wild trick?”
“Ah, that’s just what we have to find out.”
But it was not so easy to find out. I questioned Mrs. Jackson and Parsons in the most exhaustive manner. They corroborated each other’s story with such verisimilitude and wealth of detail as to leave no doubt in my mind of their good faith. Evidently they had seen a brocaded lady in the picture gallery; but, of course, it could be no such thing as a visitant from the other world. That was where they went wrong. I was certain it was someone playing a trick.
“Oh, you may laugh, sir,” said Mrs. Jackson. She was such a stiff old dame. “But I do assure you that I saw the ghost with my own eyes. I was coming through the long gallery from Miss Alliston’s room and in the moonlight it came on, clack, clack, clack, in high-heeled shoes. I could hear distinctly the rustle of the dress, and as it swept past me I smelt a perfume like that of dried roseleaves. It was Lady Marian sure enough, as I saw from the portrait in the gallery. I fainted dead away, Mr. Beauchamp, sir; and when I came to myself it was gone.”
I confess to feeling a trifle uncomfortable at all this. Then Parsons took up the story.
“I didn’t faint, sir, not bein’ a woman,” said he, “but my flesh was mighty creepy as it went past. I stared at it like a stuck pig, though it was plain enough in the moonlight. It vanished all of a sudden by the painted winder at the end of the gallery.”
“What were you doing in the Long Gallery at that hour, Parsons?”
“Comin’ from master, sir. He’d a bad cold, and I took him up some ‘ot rum and water. I wouldn‘t go to that there gallery again, sir, for all the crown jewels. It was a ghost, sure enough.”
“Oh, was it!” said I, showing plainly by my tone that I did not think it was. “Call the servants Parsons.”
In a few minutes all the domestics in the house were assembled, and a very white-faced crowd they were. Many of them would have been frightened away from the Hall had it not been that the place was such a good one. I suppose, too, it was a case in which they felt there was comfort in numbers. I harangued them pretty freely for what I termed their nonsensical fears.
“Men and women come to years of sense,” I went on, “well—I’m surprised. How can you believe such rubbish? Some one of you is playing a trick; and who it is I shall find out, so beware all of you.”
Of course they protested vehemently. But that was to be expected.
“However,” I said, “you can take this warning from me. I shall watch in the gallery myself with a straight-shooting revolver, and if that ghost appears it shall have a taste of it. I am not going to have your master and mistress and Miss Alliston frightened by this silly trick.”
Again they all protested. But I sent the lot of them away with more blood in their cheeks. Then I turned upstairs to dress for dinner. As I did so I noticed a pretty, timid-looking young woman whose face I did not recognise. She glanced at me uneasily, and was evidently disturbed.
“Who are you?” I asked, abruptly, pausing before her.
“Jane Riordan, sir,” she replied with a curtsey. “I am new here.”
“What are you?”
“Under-housemaid, sir. Oh, please, sir, do you really think there is a ghost?”
“No, you silly girl. The dead never return to this world.”
“Please, sir, what about the Witch of Endor and Samuel, sir?”
“Oh, you are a theologian, I see. Well we won’t discuss that apparition. You must just look upon that as a miracle and not be afraid.”
She shuddered, and looked over her shoulder apprehensively.
“I am terribly afraid, sir, it’s no use my denying it. I shall ask mistress to let me go.”
“You will ask nothing of the kind,” said I in my most peremptory manner.
“Your going would only be the signal for general flight. You‘ll stay here like a sensible girl, until all this mystery is cleared up.”
“Oh, sir, but will it be cleared up?”
“Of course it will, and by a very substantial leaden bullet, too. Now get on with your work and don’t be a fool.”
I saw that there was only one way to deal with the thing, so that I spoke more brusquely to the girl than I would have otherwise done. Besides, she irritated me; she seemed so absolutely terrified with fear. She was calculated to infect the rest of them, though they seemed bad enough as it was. I went off to dress in no very good humour.
Mr. Brag’s want of common sense over this affair amazed me. Usually he was a cool headed and logical man as was conclusively proved by the position to which he had attained. Yet apparently he was as nervous and distraught now, as any of the women. The ghost seemed to have been too much for him; to have knocked the grit out of him, so to speak. He was no more fit than a baby to deal with the situation. I put down his short-coming at this juncture in no small degree to his lack of education.
Then there was the constant chatter of his wife, of whom this element of the supernatural had taken firm hold. She never ceased talking about it, and I suppose the strongest mind is in the end influenced by reiteration. It seemed as if Mrs. Brag’s mind were becoming unhinged.
I was glad that I returned so opportunely. At least if I could throw no light on the subject I could go to work with a cool head and an unprejudiced mind to clear it up.
Mrs. Brag continued to talk of little else but the ghost, whose appearance she seemed to think was quite in keeping with the season. It was astounding the numbers of legends she seemed to have accumulated. Headless phantoms, churchyard apparitions, ghosts in armour, and clanking chains and “presences,” who she said could not be seen but only felt in the most horrific way—upon all these she descanted in the most appalling manner. Helen shuddered, Mr. Brag shook his head portentously, and I must confess that even I felt uncomfortable. The old lady seemed so to environ us with the atmosphere of the supernatural that when a coal dropped from the fire we all jumped, and she shrieked. It was really a most terrible state of things especially for Christmas.
I asked her about Jane Riordan. My question fortunately turned the subject, for it seemed that Mrs. Brag had a good deal to say about this young woman.
“Ah,” she said, “hers is a sad history, my dear. Her father and mother were fellow-servants of mine when I was cook here. The name wasn’t Riordan, for that’s Jane’s married name. Craik’s what we called ‘em—‘Enry and Liza Craik, butler and housekeeper.”
Helen looked up with interest. “Henry Craik ? ” she said, “ why that was the man who stole my mother’s jewels!”
“The same, my dear. Oh, he was a bad one he was; but yet you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in ’is mouth to look at ’im. Liza was always sayin’ as ‘e ‘d die in gaol and disgrace ’er, and ’e did.”
“Were the jewels recovered Mrs. Brag?”
“No, Geoffrey, they weren’t. My Lady missed ‘em one morning after a ball ’ere, when the ‘ouse was full of guests. The whole box was stolen—five or six thousand pounds’ worth, no less; and she only saved what she wore at the ball. All kinds of people were suspected of ’aving gone to ’er room and taken ’em, but no one thought as Craik had done it.”
“I heard something of the story myself,” observed Mr. Brag. “He was caught selling a bracelet, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, J., he was. He got leave to visit a dying friend in London, the old fox; and the friend was a pawnbroker, and ’e told the police, seein’ as ‘e recognised the bracelet from the ’and bills put about. Craik was arrested and sent to gaol for years. He died there, and they never got anything out of ‘im. Where he hid the jewels no one knows, and no one ever will, my dears; for twenty years ’ave gone by since they were stolen.”
“And how does Jane Riordan come to be here?” I asked.
“Her mother died the other day and sent her to me, my dear. ‘Liza and I were born in the village and lived here for years as ’ousekeeper and cook. I can’t say as I liked ‘er over much, she was sly and deceitful; but I don’t think she had anything to do with Craik stealing the jewels. He was bad enough to do that by himself. When he died in gaol Liza wrote to me, and I sent her money to bring up Jane. Then Jane married a bad husband, who left ‘er and when Liza died she came ’ere and asked me to ‘elp ’er for ’er mother’s sake. So I made ‘er under’ousemaid. I think she’s a fool, Geoffrey, but honest enough.”
“She appeared to be nervous, however.”
“And no wonder with this ’orrid ghost,” cried Mrs. Brag, looking round. “I tell you what, J., if you don’t get the parson to exorcise that thing, I’ll leave the ’ouse, that I will.”
“Steady, old lady, we must see what Geoffrey can do first. He’s watching in the Long Gallery tonight.”
“Oh, Geoffrey, the ghost’ll ’ave you for sure.”
“The ghost will have a dose of lead, Mrs. Brag. If you hear a shot, don’t be alarmed.”
“But you can’t shoot ghosts, Geoffrey, they’re shadows, my dear. You can see through ’em.”
“I daresay. I never saw one myself. But this ghost is pretty substantial I’ll be bound. But tell me, Mrs. Brag; was anything ever found out about the jewels?”
“No!” said Helen, before the old lady could answer. “I remember my father searched everywhere for them and offered a big reward. He saw Craik, too: but he refused to say what he had done with them, and Mrs. Craik protested she knew nothing about it. They have been lost for years now.”
“H’m. I wonder if Jane Riordan knows anything about them.”
“That she don’t,” said Mrs. Brag, with energy. “Liza was an honest woman I know; and the gal seems straight enough. If they’d ’ad the jewels they wouldn’t ‘ave lived in poverty so.”
“Still, Craik might have told his wife where he concealed them.”
“No Geoffrey, dear. She’d ’ave come to my Lady or Sir Ralph about them, and got paid for bringing ’em back. If she knew anything she’d ‘ave told for ’er own sake: for she was as poor as poor. Jane told me the most ’arrowing tales of ‘ardship.”
“I’ll question Jane myself,” said I, after some thought. “If these jewels could be recovered they would suit Helen very well.”
Helen laughed and Mrs. Brag beamed.
“If its jewels she wants I will give ‘er ‘eaps. Won’t I, J.?”
“She’s only to ask and to ‘ave,” said Mr. Brag; “but I wish I saw you more rosy and ’ealthy, my dear.”
“I’m afraid this ghost is upsetting my nerves terribly,” said Helen; “do what I will I can’t help thinking about it.”
“Oh, J., can’t we ‘ave some ‘oly water and get it away?” implored Mrs. Brag.
“’Oly water, no. I won’t have no popery here, Sarah. S.S.S. shall never go to fatten the priests if I can ‘elp it. I’m surprised at you, I am.”
“She is over-wrought, Mr. Brag,” said Helen, rising. “Indeed, I think we all are, with this horrid Lady Marian about. Come along to bed, Mrs. Brag. I’ll come up with you.”
“You’ll have to stay with me all night, my dear,” whimpered the old lady, “for I don’t know as Geoffrey firin’ off pistols won’t be as bad as the ghost. Are you goin’ to stay up too, J.?”
“There is no necessity,” I interposed. “I can watch quite well alone. When Mr. Brag hears a shot he can come to me if he likes.”
“Oh, I’ll come fast enough,” said the old man, sturdily; “’tain’t flesh and blood I’m scared of, though I don’t like the other thing. However, if the blessed thing belongs to this world or the next it’s quite certain we’ve got to put a stop to its goin’s on ’ere. If you don’t catch it, Geoffrey, we’ll shut up the house and go abroad. I‘m getting quite skeery myself, and I ain’t got over much nerve to speak of.”
“Well, let me try my hand at exorcising the thing, Mr. Brag. If I can’t manage it we’ll do what you say. Helen will die if this sort of thing goes on.”
“Lord, you don’t think it’s come for ’er?”
“No, I don’t. It is some trick, I tell you. Leave me to find it out,”
Mr. Brag shook his head doubtfully and retired to bed in his turn. Left alone I started on an exploration of the house with a lamp in one hand and a revolver in the other. I examined all the doors and windows, and found them securely bolted and barred. I looked into what rooms I could, from cellar to attic, and found them empty. It was quite clear that beyond the inmates of the house there was no one. Then I made for the happy hunting ground of the ghost.
It had lately been snowing, but now the night was frosty and clear. A bright moon dispelled the darkness and the white world without was as clear as day.
The Long Gallery stretched the whole length of the west wing. On one side a row of tall windows admitted a good light on to the pictures on the opposite wall. There was a fair collection of these, but the Allistons had never been sufficiently artistic in their tastes, or sufficiently acute in their judgment, to acquire masterpieces.
The portraits of Helen’s ancestors were of most interest to me. There was a long series of them, dating from the Tudor time and representing some of the best work of the masters. These were let into the oak panelling with their gilded frames, and could not be detached from the wall. At the further end of the gallery was an ornate window of stained glass, and through this the moonlight fell now weaving coloured arabesques of the floor and portraits. Here I paused before the picture of Lady Marian Alliston.
She must have been a supremely beautiful woman, this Jacobite conspirator, with the high spirit and strong will. Here she was portrayed as tall and stately of figure. A proud expression was on her almost swarthy face, and in the slenderest of white hands she gripped a walking-cane. In a dress of rich brocade, with jewels on neck and arms, red-heeled shoes, and the towering head-dress of the period, she looked every inch a queen, and in her day must surely have moved and ruled as one. I could imagine those imperious brows frowning at the mention of the Elector! I could fancy those firm lips speaking the curse on her too hasty husband. There was something about this fair dead woman which reminded me of Beatrix Esmond; filled with the joy of life and born to dominate by the power of beauty and intellect. Yet she failed as Thackeray‘s heroine failed; but died more nobly, in the prime of loveliness without withering out into sad old age. Had Sir Walter’s rapier not struck through the proud heart she might have been a Sarah Jennings. As it was she was thwarted by Fate; and it was her sad destiny to appear as a bird of ill-omen to those who sat in her seat of pride. Yet I could imagine her wrath when alive at the idea that her fair phantom would descend to scaring an old cook and her plebian husband. How ironical a fate!
But all this preamble leads to nothing. Although I watched in the gallery until dawn I saw no ghost. It was bitterly cold; and the vigil was uncomfortable and in vain. Lady Marian did not appear. I did not even hear the rustle of her skirts, much less set eyes on her face; and when I descended to breakfast, after an hour or so of sleep, it was to laugh at the superstitions of my friends.
“It is as I thought,” said I. “Parsons and Mrs. Jackson both dreamed they saw the phantom. Lady Marian is too wise to revisit the scene of her death.”
“Ah, but she don’t appear every night,” protested Mrs. Brag, wisely. “You wait, Geoffrey. She’ll freeze your blood yet.”
“Not while she knows that an armed watcher has his eye on her, Mrs. Brag.”
“You still believe it is a trick, Geoffrey?”
“If Lady Marian’s phantom is not merely the creation of Parson’s and Mrs. Jackson’s dreams, I still believe it is a trick.”
But trick or no trick, all my vigils were in vain. Night after night for quite two weeks I watched in that infernal gallery for the ghost which never came. Yet notwithstanding my disappointment I could not rid myself of the feeling that there was some mystery about the apparition. It was possible that my public announcement to shoot the so-called ghost had scared the person who, I truly believed, represented it. With this idea I went on a new tack, and once more assembled the household.
“I have watched for fourteen nights, more or less,” I said, “and no ghost has come to scare me. Therefore, I believe Mr. Parsons and Mrs. Jackson have been deceived in thinking they saw one. There is no phantom here, so you can all set your minds at rest. For my part,” and this was the most important point of my speech, “I intend to watch no more. If Lady Marian comes again she must go without an audience. Now all of you go away, and let me have no more of this rubbish.”
Butler and housekeeper were both indignant at my aspersions, but they knew better than to protest openly, and went away with the rest of the servants to grumble in secret. An air of calm pervaded the table, and Mrs. Brag began to pluck up courage. Also Helen, to prove what was undermining her health, became more cheerful and less hysterical. My common sense had exorcised the ghost so far, but it had not solved the mystery. Determined to fathom this I still continued to watch in the gallery. But no one knew of my vigils, not even Helen; so if the trickster came, he or she, whatsoever it might he, would find me waiting.
For two or three nights the gallery was empty as the palm of my hand. But on the fourth night my chance came, and with it the ghost.
It was about midnight, and the moon shining through the clear glass of the side windows and reflecting her light from an expanse of snow made the gallery almost as brilliant as day. I was hidden behind a curtain, midway along the gallery, and half drowsily was looking out into the maze of shadow and silver radiance. Suddenly in the absolute stillness I heard a faint sound. It was a tapping of heels, the rustle of silk skirts, and in a moment under the painted window I saw the ghost. It appeared from nowhere, and I must confess it startled me very considerably.
It was Lady Marian sure enough. I was sufficiently close to it to see that. There she stood, with the tall head-dress and cane, and rich brocaded gown, exactly as she was represented in her portrait. I caught just a glimpse of her face, but it was not sufficient for me to say with certainty whether it was identical with that in the picture. But the figure was certainly the same. I sat quite still and watched, and waited, one finger ready on the trigger of my revolver.
With the clacking sound described by Mrs. Jackson it came down the gallery. The stick tapped, and the long train rustled, and the moonlight played upon the rich hues of the brocade. It did not come near me, but kept close by the range of the family pictures, fingering the frames and passing its white hand over the surfaces. At times it stopped, and with bent head scrutinised more closely the faces of the portraits. Then it began to glide back more swiftly than it had come. I rose, perhaps too incautiously, and I must have made some noise, for before I could raise my revolver to take aim the ghost started, retreated rapidly towards the painted window, and vanished.
Yes, before my very eyes it vanished. I hurried to the spot where I had last seen it, but not a trace of anything could I find. Unless it had dropped through the floor or had passed through a solid wall I could not see for the life of me how it had got away. Could it be a true phantom after all? No, my reason wouldn’t allow such a supposition. Beyond doubt it was flesh and blood—some member of the household got up to resemble Lady Marian. I was more than ever perplexed.
I related everything to Mr. Brag next morning. But he kept my story carefully from his wife and Helen. They were recovering their spirits somewhat, and it would not do to damp them again by saying that I had seen the thing myself. Mr. Brag, indeed, was considerably agitated at this seeming confirmation of the apparition, and it was as much as ever I could do to talk him out of the conviction that spiritual it was.
“But what on earth can it be, man?” he said.
“Well,” I replied, “ I have some sort of idea, but at present I won’t state it lest I should prove to be wrong. I propose that you watch with me to-night, Mr. Brag, and together we’ll see if we can’t unmask the ghost.”
“But do you think it will come again tonight?”
“I can’t say. Perhaps not. It may be that the trickster, whoever it may be, has had a fright and will delay further operations for a while. It is someone in the house, I am convinced of that. When I announced that I would watch nothing was seen of it. But directly I said I would give up watching, Lady Marian appears. What we must do is to watch regularly, Mr. Brag; even should it not appear for a week or more.”
It turned out that I was right. Night after night we concealed ourselves behind the curtain, I with my revolver, Brag with a large dinner bell, with which he intended alarming the house when Lady Marian was captured. This went on for no less than ten nights. Then I took Mrs. Brag and Helen into confidence and arranged a pretended departure from the house. I went off to London with great fuss and ceremony. But I got out of the train at the first station and returned to the hall by road secretly. And at eleven o’clock that night Brag and I were in our hiding place once more. And it was Christmas Eve, the very time when ghosts should be abroad, according to legend.
“Now,” I whispered, “the ghost is off its guard; take my word for it he or she, whichever it is, will come.” Brag said nothing, but gripped viciously at the handle of his dinner-bell.
It fell out as I had anticipated. Shortly after midnight Lady Marian re-appeared in the same guise as before. I could hear Brag’s teeth chattering as he saw the apparition. The moonlight was as strong as it had been on the previous occasion, and Lady Marian, clacking and tapping as before, moved through it in precisely the same way. She glided along by the pictures and fingered the frames. Suddenly we heard her give a joyous exclamation, and there was a sliding sound as of something pushed back. A portrait vanished, and a black cavity was seen in its place.
Now was the time. I jumped up, and poising my revolver fired as truly as I could, and at the same moment Brag’s bell clanged out vigorously. There was a shriek and a hurried scamper. Then as before the ghost of Lady Marian vanished before we could reach the spot.
“Where the deuce has she gone?” cried Brag, who was still ringing his bell hard.
“Through a sliding panel,” I replied, guessing the means of exit was through the cavity.
As I lighted the lamp there was more noise and pattering of feet, and the half-dressed servants in all stages of déshabille and alarm came crowding into the gallery. Some carried lights, others pokers and sticks, but one and all were as frightened as they well could be. And no wonder; for the clamour of Brag’s bell was enough to wake the dead. Then came Helen and Mrs. Brag fully dressed, for they both had waited up to witness the success of my scheme.
And it was a success—greater than I had dared to dream. As I said, a picture—that of Lady Marian had vanished—that is it had slid back into the wall, leaving a cavity which we proceeded to examine. Therein we found an iron box fast locked. But Brag soon had it torn open, to find that it contained velvet lined drawers and trays all heaped with the most splendid jewellery. Gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds —the mass glittered like a rainbow.
“See, Helen, your mother’s long lost jewels. So this is what the ghost of Lady Marian came for.”
“My gracious!” cried Mrs. Brag, dropping on her knees. “Look, my dear, all my Lady’s jewels! You’ll wear them at your wedding after all.”
But Helen did not look at them. She just stared at me, nervous and shaking.
“Geoffrey, who is the ghost?”
“Cannot you guess? Jane Riordan.”
“Impossible! Isn’t she here?”
“No, miss,” said Parsons, glancing round at the servants, “she ain’t with us.”
“Oh, Geoffrey, I hope you haven’t shot her.”
“Serve ‘er right if ‘e ‘as,” cried Brag. “But don’t cry, my pretty, she went through another sliding panel. Come, Geoffrey, let us look.”
“The spring is in the frame, Mr. Brag. I’m sure of that.”
Instantly a dozen hands were busy with the frames, and we soon came upon a spring in that of a picture at the far end of the gallery. It opened noiselessly, and I stepped into the open space, followed by Brag bearing the lamp. We proceeded along a narrow passage, ascended a flight of stone steps and finally emerged through another sliding panel into the back part of the house. On our way we picked up the tall cane, the grey wig and head-dress and the brocade skirt.
“She stripped herself to get away,” said Brag, nodding. “Let us go to her room. She has one to herself, you know. Asked my old woman to give her one as a special favour; and for Eliza Craik’s sake she got it.
The room was reached and we found it empty, with the last remnants of the disguise on the floor. On going to the back door we discovered that it was open, and through it Jane Riordan had vanished into the night never to return.
So it was that I exercised the ghost of Lady Marian. On Christmas Day at breakfast we discussed thoroughly the stirring events of the night. Mrs. Brag was filled with anger at the way in which Jane Riordan had tricked her.
“I wonder how she knew about my Lady’s jewels,” she said.
“Oh, there’s no difficulty in guessing that,” I replied. “The father must have told his wife where he had hidden them. I daresay he intended to fetch them himself when he came out of gaol. But he died before his sentence expired. However, he let his wife know, and she, of course, told Jane, who came here and tried to get them by masquerading as Lady Marian’s ghost.”
“And Eliza must have told her that story, Geoffrey. We often talked of the ghost. Oh, what a wicked woman!”
“But I wonder why Mrs. Craik, being poor, did not try to get the jewels for herself. She would hardly wait twenty years before doing so.”
It was Helen who said this, and I who replied.
“Well, I expect Mrs. Craik was either afraid, or did not learn from her husband behind which picture the jewels were hidden. I expect her reason was the last; for Jane, as I told you, went up and down the wall fingering the frames in order to find the right one. That was why she appeared so often in the gallery. Had she known the true hiding-place one appearance and visit would have done. I see now that she feigned fear to me in order to ward off suspicion. From her looks I never thought she would be so clever.”
“Ah, my dear,” said Mrs. Brag, “she married a scamp, and I daresay, after hearing the story from Liza, he put her up to the trick.”
“She brought the dress with her, I suppose?”
“She must have; and it was to carry on her wicked pranks that she made such a point of having a separate room.”
“I wonder how she knew of the secret passage,” said Brag.
“Liza again,” cried his wife. “She was years here before I came, and so was Craik. I daresay they found the secret passage together and made use of it when they stole the jewels. And now I come to think of it, my dears, it was an actor Jane Riordan married. Oh, I’m well quit of her, I am.”
“Yes, thank goodness she’s gone,” said Brag.
“We don’t want no row about the thing. We’ve got the jewels, and Helen shall wear them on her wedding day.”
“And what‘s more, we’ve got rid of the ghost,” said I, smiling. “I don’t think you can ever believe in ghosts again after this, eh, Mrs. Brag?”
“No, Geoffrey, I can‘t. I daresay the ghost of Lady Marian that I saw myself was either Craik or his wife dressed up. No, I’ll never believe in ghosts again.” Nor did she.
So this was our Christmas ghost, which was no ghost. But true or false it was a very seasonable apparition; and brought to Helen the Christmas gift of her mother’s jewels. She wore them at her wedding with me shortly afterwards; for next Christmas there was no Miss Alliston, but a pretty Mrs. Beauchamp. Nor was there any ghost. Lady Marian, in the person of Jane Riordan, had fulfilled her mission, and we never saw her again.
The Dancer in Red and Other Stories, Fergus Hume, 1906
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is always so satisfying when a ghost story contains lost jewels, sumptuous brocade dresses, and tap-tap-tapping 18th-century heels. Mrs Daffodil will note that the “idle Oxonian” narrator seems a bit contemptuous of those he terms uneducated, nervous, and hysterical, a common failing among “cool-headed” sorts. One is dubious about whether his devotion to Helen outweighs his snobbishness. But a happy ending to a Christmas ghost story is always welcome. The author, Mr Hume, is not always so forgiving to the females in his tales; one would have expected Jane Riordan to be have been found dead at the foot of the stone staircase in the secret passage or to become trapped in a secret compartment where her mouldering bones would be found years later.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.