Tag Archives: Gothic horror

Coals of Fire: 1860s

woman-at-fireplace

COALS OF FIRE.

BY LUCY H. HOOPER.

The Countess de Castro was dying. People— that is to say, her relatives and immediate heirs— were so hard-hearted as to say it was time; for the Countess had passed her seventy-fifth birthday by some months, and had been a hopeless paralytic for over ten years past.

She was dying in the odor of sanctity. Her enemies, and even the Countess de Castro had a few, said that people who can stir neither hand nor foot, can very well earn a reputation, even for exemplary piety. Others said, more charitably, that there was no cause for anybody to grieve over her approaching demise, for that it was rare that any one was so well prepared to take her departure. They talked of the money she had given in charity, of her holy conversation, of her resignation, of her Christian example.

The Countess inhabited an antique hotel in Paris. It was her own by right of inheritance, for she had been, in her youth, a great heiress— Madamoiselle de St. Yvon, of Keriodec, in Brittany. She had been celebrated for her intellect and strength of character, and in her youth she had refused to marry, with a persistency rare in a French damsel of rank. It was reported that Louis XVIII. had sued to her in person, on behalf of one of the greatest of the Legitimist nobles of France, but in vain. She was over fifty years of age, when Parisian society was startled by the announcement of her marriage with the young Count de Castro, who numbered scarce half her own age, and who was notorious for his extravagance and his profligacy. But he was handsome as a picture, and possessed a winning tongue and a graceful address. And so the ill-matched pair were wedded, and took up their residence in the grand old hotel, in the Faubourg St. Germain. There the Countess gave stately balls, whereat all the gentlemen wore white lilies in their button-holes, and the ladies looped their tresses and their draperies with the same flower, and where a giddy young marquise was pitilessly snubbed by the hostess, because she came to the festival in question, wearing a dress trimmed with bouquets of the obnoxious Bonaparte violets. There were state dinner-parties given, also, whereat the guests were all old and dried up, and the ladies wore garments of antique fashion, scorning the mode that followed the lead of a parvenu Empress. But these formal festivities soon ceased, and it was whispered abroad that the Count de Castro was rapidly winning high favor at the Court of Napoleon III.

Of course, such a rumor meant that he had quarreled with his elderly wife; and that portion, at least, of the report, was true. They led but a cat-and-dog’s life of it, in that grand old hotel beyond the Seine. The Count was fast and frivolous, the Countess jealous and severe. He wanted money beyond the income secured to him by the terms of the marriage contract, and she refused to comply with his demands. Stories got abroad of fearful scenes between the pair. Their daily lives had long been as widely parted as possible, Madame going continually to church, while Monsieur frequented balls, and operas, and theatres. This kind of thing went on for some years. At last matters reached a crisis. The Count lost heavily at cards, at the Jockey Club, one evening, and confided to a friend that other claims were weighing upon him. There was a house at Burgival for which he owed, and the furniture, also, had never been paid for. And so the fashionable world was not much surprised when the Count de Castro disappeared, one fine morning, leaving all his debts, whether of honor or dishonor, unpaid behind him.

Madame de Castro behaved remarkably well at this conjuncture, as everybody remarked. She paid the Count’s debts, to the uttermost farthing, and was seen in her usual places of resort a trifle paler, sterner, and stiffer-looking than before, but otherwise wearing an unchanged and placid aspect. One only circumstance revealed how deeply she mourned for her vanished spouse. She caused the suite of apartments wherein she had dwelt with the Count to be closed up, and transferred her abode to the other wing of the hotel. But the servants averred, that after nightfall their mistress would occasionally enter the locked-up rooms, and remain there for a space, as if to mourn for her husband’s absence in solitude and secrecy. Few who knew the grave, stern Countess, would have fancied her capable of any such romantic action; but the story got noised abroad, nevertheless, and spread a sentimental halo about the deserted wife, prosaic and severe as her age and aspect might be.

The Count never returned. Occasionally, vague rumors were current of his appearance in far-distant lands. One story declared that he had gone to America with a certain celebrated dancer, and that he had been seen driving out with her, on the Shell Road, New Orleans. Another report averred that he was holding a high official position under the Governor of Java. Some said he had gone to Algiers; others, that he was in the employ of the French Legation at Hong-Kong. Some of these stories were traced to their source, and were found to be utterly groundless; others remained unquestioned and uncontradicted, till time proved their falsity. At all events, the Count never returned to Paris.

As the years went on, the Countess dwelt more and more in solitude. She did not put on mourning, neither did she assume any of the privileges of a widow. But she never spoke of her husband, nor would she permit his name to be mentioned in her presence. It was ten years after his mysterious disappearance, that she was first stricken with paralysis. She then insisted upon again changing her quarters, and took up her abode anew in the rooms wherein the troubled years of her married life had been spent. At first she used to be drawn in a wheeled chair around the garden, or through the long corridors of the hotel; but years had passed since she had relinquished even that form of locomotion, and had refused to quit the room wherein she now lay.

It was a vast and cheerless apartment; the wood-work, black with age, even to the waxed and polished floor, whose boards, warped and loosened by time, creaked noisily beneath the unwary tread. Some antique tapestry, saved from the sack of the Chateau de Keriodec by the Republican troops, during the first Revolution, clothed the walls, its tints of dull and faded green and sickly yellow adding an unnecessary touch of gloom to the aspect of the room. The ceiling overhead, with massive cross-beams, was of the same dark wood as the wainscoting and the floor. The chairs were mostly huge, carved arm-chairs, with cushions of faded needle-work, the only exception being a patent invalid-chair, lately used by the Countess, which stretched itself out in one dusky corner like some shapeless and huge antediluvian lizard. The fireplace, vast and cavernous, with a chimney-piece that towered to the ceiling, was filled with blazing logs; for the month was November, and the weather was chill, even for the season. At the extreme end of the room stood the bed, a large, old-fashioned structure, with curtains that matched the hangings on the walls. These were drawn aside, and the figure of the Countess could plainly be seen there, stretched out, stark and straight, as though life had already departed, and looking, with her white draperies and bandaged brows, like some monumental effigy on an ancient tomb. She still lived, however, if the faint pulsation at heart and wrist, and the feeble flutter of breath upon her lips, could really be called life. And but for one point about her pallid, wrinkled face, one might readily have supposed that she had passed already beyond the reach of mortal aid. That point was her eyes. Wide open, keen, and glittering, they were turned with a fixed and steady gaze, not forward or upward, but toward the vast dim-lighted room, seeming to seek a particular point in the flooring, and to watch that with unwavering fixity.

Around the wide fire-place were clustered a number of individuals, who talked together in subdued whispers, and only stirred with due precaution and noiseless movements. These were the blood-relations and heirs of the aged Countess, summoned, by her direction, some days before, and now gathered together in the chamber of death, awaiting the event which the doctor, himself also present, declared to them might take place at any moment.

Prominent among these persons was the Count de St. Yvon, an elderly gentleman, with gray hair and most polished manners. Then there was the Demoiselle de Savarre, a hard-featured old maid, with the bluest blood in all Brittany flowing in her withered veins; a devout Legitimist, who passed her time between saying her prayers and embroidering fleurs de-lit upon banners and mantles, to be used at the future consecration of Henri Cinq, when the glad day of the restoration of the ancient monarchy should dawn for France. Then there was the Chevalier de Keriodec, a little older and more wrinkled than his cousin, the Count; and his daughter, a peachy-cheeked demoiselle, Anne Marie Antoinette de Keriodec by name, to whom the eldest son of Count de St. Yvon was whispering soft nonsense in the embrasure of one of the windows. These were all, the Countess having announced her intention of excluding from the succession such of her relatives as should be tinged either with Bonapartism or Republicanism; and as one or the other of these poisonous principles had crept even into Brittany, that sacred stronghold of Legitimism, she had been forced to restrict her bequests to a very few individuals. There was also present, as we have said before, her physician, Doctor Dumaresq, and her confidential maid. This last, a long, thin, stern-looking female, with a face like a German nut-cracker, was fast asleep in the large arm-chair, worn out with protracted vigils and constant toil in her lady’s service.

The silence in the room was very great, broken only by the subdued whispers of the waiting heirs, and by an occasional snore from Agathe, the maid. Outside, the wind went tearing down the Rue de Varennes, banging aristocratic shutters, and whistling around ducal chimney-pots, with no more reverence than it had shown to the shop-signs in the Marais, or the vanes on the Halles Centrales. Occasionally Doctor Dumaresq would rise and go to the bed to lay a finger on the pulse of the patient, and would then, with a sigh and a shake of the head, return to his seat. And so the night went on. The wind howled, and Agathe slept, and the heirs whispered together, and the Countess lay and watched the floor. Thus the hours wore away without change or incident.

Suddenly the blast, that had been sweeping and shrieking along the street, took a sudden turn, and came careering down the great, wide chimney, sending a volley of sparks and smoke into the room. It could do but little more than that. The heavy logs, of which the fire was built, scoffed at the puny efforts of a puff of wind. One glowing coal, however, was dislodged, and flew into the room, alighting on the very plank on which the eyes of the Countess were so pertinaciously fixed. Nobody noticed the coal. The Count was lost in thought; the Chevalier and Mademoiselle de Savarre were conferring together respecting the possible amount of the estate, in an undertone; the two young people were absorbed in each other; and the doctor was half asleep. And so it glowed, and scorched, and sparkled, gnawing its way into the dry oak of the ancient flooring, surrounded by an ever-widening ring of red and charring fire.

Suddenly the dying Countess, she who had been paralyzed for years, arose from her bed, walked straight to the fire-place, picked up the tongs, took up the coal, and threw it back into the fire, and then returned to her bed. Stiff and stark, and stretched out straight as before, she lay, only the wide-open eyes were closed, and her face was, if possible, a shade paler than before.

This strange incident, this sudden revival of vitality in that seemingly lifeless frame, and the apparition in the midst of that listless group, of the white-shrouded, spectral form of the Countess, startled every one present. The heirs ceased musing or whispering, and gathered together, amazed and startled. The doctor, aroused from his doze, sprang to his feet. Only Agathe slept on in peaceful unconsciousness.

Doctor Dumaresq approached the bed, and once more laid his finger on the patient’s wrist. Then he touched her breast gently, and bent his ear to her parted lips. After a brief pause, he turned to the bystanders.

“Pray for the soul of your noble relative,” he said, solemnly. “The Countess is no more!”

The funeral took place two days later. It was a grand affair, with much display of nodding plumes and silver-spotted draperies, of mourning carriages, and of mighty candles, and of all the other accessories of funereal pomp, as imagined by the great Burial Company of Paris. It was a first-class affair in every respect. The cords of the hearse were held by two dukes, a marquis, and three counts, all of the bluest blood in the Faubourg St Germain. The funeral sermon was preached by a bishop, who was himself of princely extraction. Nobody shed any tears, it is true. The only sincere mourner that followed the widowed and childless Countess to her grave, was probably her faithful old servant, Agathe. And she, serene in the knowledge of a snug little annuity, secured to her by the will of her late mistress, was far from feeling wholly broken-hearted.

On the evening of the following day, a mysterious meeting was held in the bed-room of the departed lady. The heavy tapestry curtains were closely drawn across the windows, so that no intrusive outside gaze could penetrate the chamber wherein sat the three principal heirs of the deceased, the Count, the Chevalier, and Mademoiselle de Savarre, in solemn conclave. Three flickering candles threw a pallid light upon the group, and vainly strove to dissipate the darkness that filled the farthest corners of the spacious room.

The Count was the first to break silence.

“We have decided, I believe,” he said, “that it is our duty to examine that point in the flooring which our departed relative watched so constantly.”

“And whose peril roused her to such strange and sudden exertions,” added the Chevalier.

“Who knows what may not lie concealed beneath the scorched plank?” said Mademoiselle de Savarre.

“Family papers, political secrets,” suggested the Chevalier.

“Coin or jewels,” remarked the Count. “Aged people are often like magpies, in their propensity for hiding things.”

“Let us look at once!” cried the old maid, fired to activity by the suggestion.

Each had brought a chisel, or some other tool, and they set to work with a will. The solid oaken plank was soon removed, revealing a cavity between the floor and the beams of the ceiling beneath, large enough to have contained the crown-jewels of an empire, or the archives of a republic. Within there appeared something, neither papers, nor jewels, nor gold, but a long, irregularly-shaped bundle, that rattled strangely when dragged forth to the light. A cry of horror broke from the lips of the three searchers, as the dim rays of their candles fell upon the thing that they had found—a human skeleton, clothed in remnants of what had once been superfine broadcloth and delicate linen; a jeweled pin, gleaming on the discolored shirt-front; a massive seal-ring, hanging loose upon the long hand, and great stains and streaks of rusty-brown upon the linen, which was revealed by the rents in the decaying cloth, splotches; that had once been of a ghastly red.

As if turned to stone, the three seekers after wealth stood speechless, in the presence of Death and Crime.

The Chevalier was the first to recover his presence of mind.

“It is the Count de Castro!” he said, in a horror-stricken whisper. “See, these are his arms!” And he picked up the seal-ring, which had dropped from the fleshless finger and rolled upon the floor.

“And who could have killed him? It must have been the Countess!” cried Mademoiselle de Savarre, trembling from head to foot.

“Hush—sh—sh!” whispered the Count, looking fearfully around. “No doubt it was she.”

“We had better hush this matter up,” remarked the Chevalier, with chattering teeth. And it was hushed up, accordingly. A roaring fire in the mighty chimney soon consumed every vestige of the poor, dried remains of what had once been the gay and gallant Count de Castro.

And when, a few years later, a grand new street was run right over the site of the demolished hotel, the few who remembered anything at all about the deceased Countess, spoke of her with bated breath, and called her “a saint upon earth.”

The Peterson Magazine, 1876: pp. 395-8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A dark and gothic tale, is it not? While Mrs Daffodil enjoys the odd spot of fiction but rarely, she reads such narratives as the above with a professionally critical eye. Poisoned wine was the obvious solution to the Countess’s wayward husband, yet a more bloody method was selected, perhaps in the heat of the moment. One understands the reluctance to involve others in a private domestic murder, but to leave the corpse under the floor-boards for future discovery argues a carelessness quite out of keeping with that lady’s prudent character.

Surely she and Agathe, whose annuity must have been the result of her discretion, could have managed to do what the Count, the Chevalier, and Mademoiselle de Savarre did: cremate the mummified Count de Castro in the immense fireplace. But perhaps paralysis overtook her before this could be done or it was a case such as we have seen at the courts of Versailles and of Spain, where certain members of the nobility feel that certain tasks are beneath them. Mrs Daffodil seems to remember a King of Spain who died because no person of lowly-enough rank could be found to move a red-hot brazier. Perhaps the Countess did not deign to soil her blue-blooded fingers with the dishonourable corpse of a—one shudders to think of it—Bonapartist.

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.

 

The Undertaker’s Story: A Gothic Narrative: 1886

undertaker2

Artwork by Jessica Wiesel

Mrs Daffodil was interested to read that 22 May was denominated “World Goth Day,” celebrating “Goth Music and Culture. It was pleasing to think that these plucky opponents of the Roman Empire were at last going to get their own gala day. Alas! On further investigation, Mrs Daffodil’s hopes were dashed to find not Visigoths, but vampires celebrating a festival of kohl, black tulle,  and misery. Not quite the sacking of Rome for which one had longed… But never mind. It furnishes Mrs Daffodil an excuse to share this gripping Gothic tale of terror.

THE UNDERTAKER’S STORY.

Perhaps I am more sensitive to the horrible than most of my fellow-men—am, in fact, more easily wrought upon. At all events, I have fancied that at times, when I have been telling this experience of mine, I could detect certain indications that some of my hearers were of that opinion; but I have not yet so far failed in charity as to wish any of these scoffers put to a similar test.

I had run over to Paris, had spent a couple of weeks in that bright city, and was on my way home again. I took a night train from Dover to London, and in the compartment which I occupied there was but one other passenger—a sharp, intelligent-looking man, with a very grave face. We got into conversation after traveling more than half the distance in that silence which is invariably adopted by Englishmen when they meet. After discussing general subjects, a remark of my companion’s led me to say that he seemed to have had a very wide experience and among nearly all classes of society.

“Yes,” he answered, slowly, and with a marked hesitation. “Yes, I am an undertaker. I have had a good deal of experience, and I have had my share, I think, of remarkable adventures. I never take this ride from Dover to London without a very painful recollection of one such.”

We had still nearly a half-hour’s ride before us, and his manner, as much as his words, roused my interest. “Do you care to tell it?” I asked. A quick, involuntary shudder gave to his voice a slight tremor, as he answered:

“I wish I could keep from thinking of it, but I might as well tell it as sit here quaking in silence over the awful memory of it.” He paused a moment, drew a long, shuddering breath, and then he commenced:

“A little over a year ago what I am about to relate happened to me. I had established a very good business, chiefly among the upper class of tradespeople—though, of course, I did not decline any call upon me that promised a reasonable profit. I received one day a telegraphic dispatch from Paris, asking me to take charge of a dead body that was to be sent from Paris to London for burial. I was to meet it at Dover on the arrival of the night-boat from Calais, and make all the arrangements for its further transportation by rail, and I was referred to a well-known banker as security for my expenses.

“This looked like good business, so I lost no time in getting the necessary permits, and went to Dover in the evening. I had some details to attend to there, in order that everything might be in readiness and no time lost after the boat arrived. Then I had nothing to do but wait. I sat up reading to keep myself awake.

“It was a beautiful, still night in the late fall, with an almost full moon, I remember; and the boat got in to time. I received the box containing the body, and saw it placed in one of the luggage-vans of the train, and in due course arrived with it at Victoria Station. One of my wagons was there, waiting to take the body to my place, where I was instructed to keep it until the next morning, when the proper parties would call to make arrangements about the burial.

“So far, of course, there was nothing specially remarkable about the affair. It is a little unusual in such cases not to find some one connected with the deceased accompanying the body; but I hardly gave that matter a second thought. I had no doubt but that the right persons would appear later in the day.

“When I got to my shop it still lacked about two hours of daylight, and, as I felt no slight responsibility, I didn’t think of going home, but made myself as comfortable as possible in my office for the rest of the night. You must bear in mind that all the sleep I had secured was a broken, uneasy slumber on the journey from Dover to London, and when I went to sleep in my chair, after stirring the fire into a blaze, I slept very soundly—very soundly, that is, for awhile, for it was still dark when I woke up in a sudden and startling way.

“Have you ever wondered,” the undertaker asked, turning his eyes full upon mine for the first time since he had begun his story, “what mysterious influence that is which makes you feel another presence in the same room as yourself, though you hear no one and see no one? It’s a queer feeling at any time, but I don’t know of any occasion when it can seem more queer and awful than when it comes to a man locked up in the dead of night, with nothing but black plumes and grave-clothes and palls and coffins about him.”

He turned his eyes to the floor again, and a cold tremor crept through my own flesh in the brief and ominous pause he made before he went on, in a lower voice:

“That was the feeling I had when I suddenly woke from sound sleep to full consciousness with a chilling shudder of horror. I was sitting before the fireplace, with my back to the door that led from the office to the shop. I had purposely left the door ajar. The fire had died down to a dull glow, and it seemed to me that a breath from the Arctic Zone had penetrated the room. I cannot describe the kind of cold it was. My very bones seemed to be ice. And then I felt that presence!”

The undertaker seemed terribly affected even now by his recollections of that night. It was impossible to resist the infection, and my own flesh was creeping in a very uncomfortable way. He made a strong effort to recover himself and to steady his voice, but, in spite of all, it trembled with an ever-deepening terror as he went on, curdling my very blood in sympathy.

“I had turned the gas out when I sat down in my chair to sleep, so that the only light in the room came from the dying fire. I became aware of that presence the very instant I awoke. Mind, sir, this is not a dream. I was as fully awake as I am at this moment. The thing was there! It was at the back of me. It was between me and the door. I had got to turn my head to see it. But I knew it was there! Who it was, or what it was, I didn’t know; but I was sure that some living thing was standing behind me motionless in the dim, ghostly light, and was looking at me. My God, sir! it was awful to sit still and feel this thing, and try to make up my mind to turn my head toward it! I am pretty well accustomed to corpses, but I can tell you that I did not feel just then that the corpse out in the other room was any company for me.

“Well, there I sat—feeling that horrible gaze fixed upon me in the utter silence, and the deathlike cold creeping through my veins—striving, struggling to nerve myself to look around and to face the thing, whatever it was.

“Were you ever locked up in a tomb at night?” the undertaker suddenly asked me. I could only shake my head in response; I could not speak.

“I have been,” he said, ” but it was nothing— nothing to those few minutes, while I sat palsied with terror, with that thing behind me! At last, in a kind of nervous spasm, I sprang to my feet, and turned toward the door. The sight froze me! There is no other word for it—I was rigid. I could no more stir than I could arrest the motion of this train now and instantly. My very heart stopped its beating. I wonder I didn’t drop dead myself, for there—not six feet from me—with the livid pallor of death on its face, and its glassy eyes glued to mine, stood the corpse!

“Then it began to approach me. It did not seem to walk—it glided, and not till it reached me did it make a single apparent movement.

“Then—just stand up, will you? I can illustrate better what occurred.”

I did so, and he arose at the same time, and we stood facing each other in the compartment. I was dimly conscious at the moment that we were crossing Battersea Bridge. The undertaker, as he went on, repeated upon me the actions he described.

“Then this dead thing,” he said to me. “slowly lifted its arms and laid its icy lingers on my cheeks and moved them gently downward to my shoulders, pressing hard against me all the time on either side, as I do now on you, and wherever the hands lay they seemed to draw the very life out of the flesh beneath them. Slowly—oh! how slowly—they glided on downward from my shoulders to my breast, beneath my coat, like this. Try to conceive it —try, if you can. Wherever they touched they drew something away from me—some virtue seemed to go out of me. And then the frightful thought came to me that I was dying by piecemeal!—that I was parting with something dear to me as life—bit by bit I could feel it ebbing— ebbing, and at last the horror grew to a conviction. This ghoul was drawing my life’s blood into his own veins! was sucking my substance! What I lost he gained! He enriched himself by making me poor, and it would end—”

“Victoria!” shouted a guard, opening the carriage-door.

“Bless my soul!” exclaimed the undertaker, “are we in? I must hurry to catch my train out.” He seized his satchel, and was on the step before I could get my breath to say, “But the story! I want to hear the end of it.”

He was on the platform now. “Oh! there isn’t much more,” he called back. “The ghoul succeeded—that’s all!”—and he was gone before I could say another word.

As I followed a porter to a cab, and all the way home, I tried to conceive what the undertaker could mean. How could the dead man have succeeded? Here the undertaker was alive and well, and telling me the story. It was very annoying and disappointing to be so baulked, after being so wrought upon. The undertaker had left me no address, so that I was, apparently, doomed never to know the solution.

Only “apparently,” however. When I got out of the cab at my own door I could find no loose change to pay the driver—yet I had some when I took that train at Dover; my well-furnished pocket-book—though that, too, I had at Dover—was gone as well; and my watch and chain had followed suit.

It is painful to lose confidence in human nature in this way.

Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1886

For “The Countess Elga,” an authenticated vampire story, see this link over at the Haunted Ohio books blog.

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.

 

Something Nameless, but Unutterably Awful: 1868

misty drapery ghost of woman and man

THE GHOST’S SUMMONS

BY ADA BUISSON

“Wanted, sir—a patient.”

It was in the early days of my professional career, when patients were scarce and fees scarcer; and though I was in the act of sitting down to my chop, and had promise! myself a glass of steaming punch afterwards, in honour of the Christmas season, I hurried instantly into my surgery.

I entered briskly; but no sooner did I catch sight of the figure standing leaning against the counter than I started back with a strange feeling of horror which for the life of me I could not comprehend.

Never shall I forget the ghastliness of that face—the white horror stamped upon every feature — the agony which seemed to sink the very eyes beneath the contracted brows; it was awful to me to behold, accustomed as I was to scenes of terror.

“You seek advice,” I began, with some hesitation.

“No; I am not ill.”

“You require then—”

“Hush!” he interrupted, approaching more nearly, and dropping his already low murmur to a mere whisper. “I believe you are not rich. Would you be willing to earn a thousand pounds?”

A thousand pounds! His words seemed to burn my very ears.

“I should be thankful, if I could do so honestly,” I replied with dignity. “What is the service required of me?”

A peculiar look of intense horror passed over the white face before me; but the blue-black lips answered firmly, “To attend a death-bed.”

“A thousand pounds to attend a death-bed! Where am I to go, then ?—whose is it?”

Mine.”

The voice in which this was said sounded so hollow and distant, that involuntarily I shrank back. “Yours! What nonsense! You are not a dying man. You are pale, but you appear perfectly healthy. You—”

“Hush!” he interrupted; “I know all this. You cannot be more convinced of my physical health than I am myself; yet I know that before the clock tolls the first hour after midnight I shall be a dead man.”

“But—”

He shuddered slightly; but stretching out his hand commandingly, motioned me to be silent. “I am but too well informed of what I affirm,” he said quietly; “I have received a mysterious summons from the dead. No mortal aid can avail me. I am as doomed as the wretch on whom the judge has passed sentence. I do not come either to seek your advice or to argue the matter with you, but simply to buy your services. I offer you a thousand pounds to pass the night in my chamber, and witness the scene which takes place. The sum may appear to you extravagant. But I have no further need to count the cost of any gratification; and the spectacle you will have to witness is no common sight of horror.”

The words, strange as they were, were spoken calmly enough; but as the last sentence dropped slowly from the livid lips, an expression of such wild horror again passed over the stranger’s face, that, in spite of the immense fee, I hesitated to answer.

“You fear to trust to the promise of a dead man! See here, and be convinced,” he exclaimed eagerly; and the next instant, on the counter between us lay a parchment document; and following the indication of that white muscular hand, I read the words, “And to Mr. Frederick Kead, of 14 High-street, Alton, I bequeath the sum of one thousand pounds for certain services rendered to me.”

“I have had that will drawn up within the last twenty-four hours, and I signed it an hour ago, in the presence of competent witnesses. I am prepared, you see. Now, do you accept my offer, or not?”

My answer was to walk across the room and take down my hat, and then lock the door of the surgery communicating with the house.

It was a dark, icy-cold night, and somehow the courage and determination which the sight of my own name in connection with a thousand pounds had given me, flagged considerably as I found myself hurried along through the silent darkness by a man whose death-bed I was about to attend.

He was grimly silent; but as his hand touched mine, in spite of the frost, it felt like a burning coal.

On we went—tramp, tramp, through the snow—on, on, till even I grew weary, and at length on my appalled ear struck the chimes of a church-clock; whilst close at hand I distinguished the snowy hillocks of a churchyard.

Heavens! was this awful scene of which I was to be the witness to take place veritably amongst the dead?

“Eleven,” groaned the doomed man. “Gracious God! but two hours more, and that ghostly messenger will bring the summons. Come, come; for mercy’s sake, let us hasten.”

There was but a short road separating us now from a wall which surrounded a large mansion, and along this we hastened until we reached a small door.

Passing through this, in a few minutes we were stealthily ascending the private staircase to a splendidly-furnished apartment, which left no doubt of the wealth of its owner.

All was intensely silent, however, through the house; and about this room in particular there was a stillness that, as I gazed around, struck me as almost ghastly.

My companion glanced at the clock on the mantelshelf, and sank into a large chair by the side of the fire with a shudder. “Only an hour and a half longer,” he muttered. “Great heaven! I thought I had more fortitude. This horror unmans me.” Then, in a fiercer tone, and clutching my arm, he added, “Ha! you mock me, you think me mad; but wait till you see—wait till you see!”

I put my hand on his wrist; for there was now a fever in his sunken eyes which checked the superstitious chill which had been gathering over me, and made me hope that, after all, my first suspicion was correct, and that my patient was but the victim of some fearful hallucination.

“Mock you!” I answered soothingly. “Far from it; I sympathise intensely with you, and would do much to aid you. You require sleep. Lie down, and leave me to watch.”

He groaned, but rose, and began throwing off his clothes; and, watching my opportunity, I slipped a sleeping-powder, which I had managed to put in my pocket before leaving the surgery, into the tumbler of claret that stood beside him.

The more I saw, the more I felt convinced that it was the nervous system of my patient which required my attention; and it was with sincere satisfaction I saw him drink the wine, and then stretch himself on the luxurious bed.

“Ha,” thought I, as the clock struck twelve, and instead of a groan, the deep breathing of the sleeper sounded through the room; “you won’t receive any summons to-night, and I may make myself comfortable.”

Noiselessly, therefore, I replenished the fire, poured myself out a large glass of wine, and drawing the curtain so that the firelight should not disturb the sleeper, I put myself in a position to follow his example.

How long I slept I know not, but suddenly I aroused with a start and as ghostly a thrill of horror as ever I remember to have felt in my life.

Something—what, I knew not—seemed near, something nameless, but unutterably awful.

I gazed round.

The fire emitted a faint blue glow, just sufficient to enable me to see that the room was exactly the same as when I fell asleep, but that the long hand of the clock wanted but five minutes of the mysterious hour which was to be the death-moment of the “summoned” man!

Was there anything in it, then?—any truth in the strange story he had told?

The silence was intense.

I could not even hear a breath from the bed; and I was about to rise and approach, when again that awful horror seized me, and at the same moment my eye fell upon the mirror opposite the door, and I saw—

Great heaven! that awful Shape—that ghastly mockery of what had been humanity—was it really a messenger from the buried, quiet dead?

It stood there in visible death-clothes; but the awful face was ghastly with corruption, and the sunken eyes gleamed forth a green glassy glare which seemed a veritable blast from the infernal fires below.

To move or utter a sound in that hideous presence was impossible; and like a statue I sat and saw that horrid Shape move slowly towards the bed.

What was the awful scene enacted there, I know not. I heard nothing, except a low stifled agonised groan; and I saw the shadow of that ghastly messenger bending over the bed.

Whether it was some dreadful but wordless sentence its breathless lips conveyed as it stood there, I know not; but for an instant the shadow of a claw-like hand, from which the third finger was missing, appeared extended over the doomed man’s head; and then, as the clock struck one clear silvery stroke, it fell, and a wild shriek rang through the room—a death-shriek.

I am not given to fainting, but I certainly confess that the next ten minutes of my existence was a cold blank; and even when I did manage to stagger to my feet, I gazed round, vainly endeavouring to understand the chilly horror which still possessed me.

Thank God! the room was rid of that awful presence—I saw that; so, gulping down some wine, I lighted a wax-taper and staggered towards the bed. Ah, how I prayed that, after all, I might have been dreaming, and that my own excited imagination had but conjured up some hideous memory of the dissecting-room!

But one glance was sufficient to answer that.

No! The summons had indeed been given and answered.

I flashed the light over the dead face, swollen, convulsed still with the death-agony; but suddenly I shrank back.

Even as I gazed, the expression of the face seemed to change: the blackness faded into a deathly whiteness; the convulsed features relaxed, and, even as if the victim of that dread apparition still lived, a sad solemn smile stole over the pale lips.

I was intensely horrified, but still I retained sufficient self-consciousness to be struck professionally by such a phenomenon.

Surely there was something more than supernatural agency in all this?

Again I scrutinised the dead face, and even the throat and chest; but, with the exception of a tiny pimple on one temple beneath a cluster of hair, not a mark appeared. To look at the corpse, one would have believed that this man had indeed died by the visitation of God, peacefully, whilst sleeping.

How long I stood there I know not, but time enough to gather my scattered senses and to reflect that, all things considered, my own position would be very unpleasant if I was found thus unexpectedly in the room of the mysteriously dead man.

So, as noiselessly as I could, I made my way out of the house. No one met me on the private staircase; the little door opening into the road was easily unfastened; and thankful indeed was I to feel again the fresh wintry air as I hurried along that road by the churchyard.

There was a magnificent funeral soon in that church; and it was said that the young widow of the buried man was inconsolable; and then rumours got abroad of a horrible apparition which had been seen on the night of the death; and it was whispered the young widow was terrified, and insisted upon leaving her splendid mansion.

I was too mystified with the whole affair to risk my reputation by saying what I knew, and I should have allowed my share in it to remain for ever buried in oblivion, had I not suddenly heard that the widow, objecting to many of the legacies in the last will of her husband, intended to dispute it on the score of insanity, and then there gradually arose the rumour of his belief in having received a mysterious summons.

On this I went to the lawyer, and sent a message to the lady, that, as the last person who had attended her husband, I undertook to prove his sanity; and I besought her to grant me an interview, in which I would relate as strange and horrible a story as ear had ever heard. The same evening I received an invitation to go to the mansion. I was ushered immediately into a splendid room, and there, standing before the fire, was the most dazzlingly beautiful young creature I had ever seen.

She was very small, but exquisitely made; had it not been for the dignity of her carriage, I should have believed her a mere child. With a stately bow she advanced, but did not speak.”I come on a strange and painful errand,” I began, and then I started, for I happened to glance full into her eyes, and from them down to the small right hand grasping the chair. The wedding-ring was on that hand!

“I conclude you are the Mr. Kead who requested permission to tell me some absurd ghost-story, and whom my late husband mentions here.” And as she spoke she stretched out her left hand towards something—but what I knew not, for my eyes were fixed on that hand.

Horror! White and delicate it might be, but it was shaped like a claw, and the third finger was missing!

One sentence was enough after that. “Madam, all I can tell you is, that the ghost who summoned your husband was marked by a singular deformity. The third finger of the left hand was missing,” I said sternly; and the next instant I had left that beautiful sinful presence.

That will was never disputed. The next morning, too, I received a check for a thousand pounds; and the next news I heard of the widow was, that she had herself seen that awful apparition, and had left the mansion immediately.

Belgravia, Vol. 4, Mary Elizabeth Graddon, 1868

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One wonders what this gentleman did to arouse the enmity of his dainty wife. Even a husband with a private staircase leading to his bed-chamber is innocent until proven guilty. And, the last time Mrs Daffodil examined the criminal statutes of Great Britain (for one likes to stay abreast of  legal developments) the penalty for a gentleman proven guilty of infidelity or intemperance is still not death. Surely a separation agreement with adequate maintenance including a London townshouse and a pied-a-terre in Paris would be a pleasanter outcome than a conviction for mariticide. But, of course, that would make for a far less atmospheric Gothic narrative. The lady was unfortunate that her late husband chose such an observant death-bed watcher, although Mrs Daffodil notes that she got away with it, at least for the present. One suspects that she will try the same game with her next husband… The amateur never knows quite when to stop.

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.