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In The Barn






BY BURGES JOHNSON


The moment we had entered the barn, I regretted the rash good nature
which prompted me to consent to the plans of those vivacious young
students. Miss Anstell and Miss Royce and one or two others, often
leaders in student mischief, I suspect, were the first to enter, and
they amused themselves by hiding in the darkness and greeting the rest
of our party as we entered with sundry shrieks and moans such as are
commonly attributed to ghosts. My wife and I brought up the rear,
carrying the two farm lanterns. She had selected the place after an
amused consideration of the question, and I confess I hardly approved
her judgment. But she is native to this part of the country, and she had
assured us that there were some vague traditions hanging about the
building that made it most suitable for our purposes.

It was a musty old place, without even as much tidiness as is usually
found in barns, and there was a dank smell about it, as though
generations of haymows had decayed there. There were holes in the floor,
and in the dusk of early evening it was necessary for us to pick our
way with the greatest care. It occurred to me then, in a premonitory
sort of way, that if some young woman student sprained her ankle in this
absurd environment, I should be most embarrassed to explain it.
Apparently it was a hay barn, whose vague dimensions were lost in
shadow. Rafters crossed its width about twenty feet above our heads, and
here and there a few boards lay across the rafters, furnishing foothold
for anyone who might wish to operate the ancient pulley that was
doubtless once used for lifting bales. The northern half of the floor
was covered with hay to a depth of two or three feet. How long it had
actually been there I cannot imagine. It was extremely dusty, and I
feared a recurrence of my old enemy, hay fever; but it was too late to
offer objection on such grounds, and my wife and I followed our
chattering guides, who disposed themselves here and there on this
ancient bed of hay, and insisted that we should find places in the
center of their circle.

At my suggestion, the two farm lanterns had been left at a suitable
distance, in fact, quite at the other side of the barn, and our only
light came from the rapidly falling twilight of outdoors, which found
its way through a little window and sundry cracks high in the eaves
above the rafters.

There was something about the place, now that we were settled and no
longer occupied with adjustments of comfort, that subdued our spirits,
and it was with much less hilarity that the young people united in
demanding a story. I looked across at my wife, whose face was faintly
visible within the circle. I thought that even in the half-light I
glimpsed the same expression of amused incredulity which she had worn
earlier in the day when I had yielded to the importunities of a
deputation of my students for this ghost-story party on the eve of a
holiday.

"There is no reason," I thought to myself, repeating the phrases I had
used then--"there is no reason why I should not tell a ghost story.
True, I had never done so before, but the literary attainments which
have enabled me to perfect my recent treatise upon the 'Disuse of the
Comma' are quite equal to impromptu experimentation in the field of
psychic phenomena." I was aware that the young people themselves hardly
expected serious acquiescence, and that, too, stimulated me. I cleared
my throat in a prefatory manner, and silence fell upon the group. A
light breeze had risen outside, and the timbers of the barn creaked
persistently. From the shadows almost directly overhead there came a
faint clanking. It was evidently caused by the rusty pulley-wheel which
I had observed there as we entered. An iron hook at the end of an
ancient rope still depended from it, and swung in the lightly stirring
air several feet above our heads, directly over the center of our
circle.

Some curious combination of influences--perhaps the atmosphere of the
place, added to the stimulation of the faintly discernible faces around
me, and my impulse to prove my own ability in this untried field of
narration--gave me a sudden sense of being inspired. I found myself
voicing fancies as though they were facts, and readily including
imaginary names and data which certainly were not in any way
premeditated.

"This barn stands on the old Creed place," I began. "Peter Creed was its
last owner, but I suppose that it has always been and always will be
known as the Turner barn. A few yards away to the south you will find
the crumbling brick-work and gaping hollows of an old foundation, now
overgrown with weeds that almost conceal a few charred timbers. That is
all that is left of the old Ashley Turner house."

I cleared my throat again, not through any effort to gain time for my
thoughts, but to feel for a moment the satisfaction arising from the
intent attitude of my audience, particularly my wife, who had leaned
forward and was looking at me with an expression of startled surprise.

"Ashley Turner must have had a pretty fine-looking farm here thirty
years or so ago," I continued, "when he brought his wife to it. This
barn was new then. But he was a ne'er-do-well, with nothing to be said
in his favor, unless you admit his fame as a practical joker. Strange
how the ne'er-do-well is often equipped with an extravagant sense of
humor! Turner had a considerable retinue among the riffraff boys of the
neighborhood, who made this barn a noisy rendezvous and followed his
hints in much whimsical mischief. But he committed most of his practical
jokes when drunk, and in his sober moments he abused his family and let
his wife struggle to keep up the acres, assisted only by a
half-competent man of all work. Finally he took to roving. No one knew
how he got pocket-money; his wife could not have given him any. Then
someone discovered that he was going over to Creed's now and then, and
everything was explained."

This concise data of mine was evidently not holding the close attention
of my youthful audience. They annoyed me by frequent pranks and
whisperings. No one could have been more surprised at my glibness than I
myself, except perhaps my wife, whose attitude of strained attention had
not relaxed. I resumed my story.

"Peter Creed was a good old-fashioned usurer of the worst type. He went
to church regularly one day in the week and gouged his neighbors--any
that he could get into his clutches--on the other six. He must have been
lending Turner drinking money, and everyone knew what the security must
be.

"At last there came a day when the long-suffering wife revolted. Turner
had come home extra drunk and in his most maudlin humor. Probably he
attempted some drunken prank upon his over-taxed helpmate. Old Ike, the
hired man, said that he thought Turner had rigged up some scare for her
in the barn and that he had never heard anything so much like straight
talking from his mistress, either before or since, and he was working in
the woodshed at the time, with the door shut. Shortly after that tirade
Ashley Turner disappeared, and no one saw or heard of him or thought
about him for a couple of years except when the sight of his
tired-looking wife and scrawny children revived the recollection.

"At last, on a certain autumn day, old Peter Creed turned up here at the
Turner place. I imagine Mrs. Turner knew what was in store for her when
his rusty buggy came in sight around the corner of the barn. At any
rate, she made no protest, and listened meekly to his curt statement
that he held an overdue mortgage, with plenty of back interest owing,
and it was time for her to go. She went. Neither she nor anyone else
doubted Creed's rights in the matter, and, after all, I believe it got a
better home for her somewhere in the long run."

I paused here in my narration to draw breath and readjust my leg, which
had become cramped. There was a general readjustment and shifting of
position, with some levity. It was darker now. The rafters above us were
invisible, and the faces about me looked oddly white against the shadowy
background. After a moment or two of delay I cleared my throat sharply
and continued.

"Old Creed came thus into possession of this place, just as he had come
to own a dozen others in the county. He usually lived on one until he
was able to sell it at a good profit over his investment; so he settled
down in the Turner house, and kept old Ike because he worked for little
or nothing. But he seemed to have a hard time finding a purchaser.

"It must have been about a year later when an unexpected thing happened.
Creed had come out here to the barn to lock up--he always did that
himself--when he noticed something unusual about the haymow--this
haymow--which stood then about six feet above the barn floor. He looked
closer through the dusk, and saw a pair of boots; went nearer, and found
that they were fitted to a pair of human legs whose owner was sound
asleep in his hay. Creed picked up a short stick and beat on one boot.

"'Get out of here,' he said, 'or I'll have you locked up.' The sleeper
woke in slow fashion, sat up, grinned, and said:

"'Hello, Peter Creed.' It was Ashley Turner, beyond question. Creed
stepped back a pace or two and seemed at a loss for words. An object
slipped from Turner's pocket as he moved, slid along the hay, and fell
to the barn floor. It was a half-filled whisky-flask.

"No one knows full details of the conversation that ensued, of course.
Such little as I am able to tell you of what was said and done comes
through old Ike, who watched from a safe distance outside the barn,
ready to act at a moment's notice as best suited his own safety and
welfare. Of one thing Ike was certain--Creed lacked his usual
browbeating manner. He was apparently struggling to assume an unwonted
friendliness. Turner was very drunk, but triumphant, and his
satisfaction over what he must have felt was the practical joke of his
life seemed to make him friendly.

"'I kept 'em all right,' he said again and again. 'I've got the proof. I
wasn't working for nothing all these months. I ain't fool enough yet to
throw away papers even when I'm drunk.'

"To the watchful Ike's astonishment, Creed evidently tried to persuade
him to come into the house for something to eat. Turner slid off the
haymow, found his steps too unsteady, laughed foolishly, and suggested
that Creed bring some food to him there. 'Guess I've got a right to
sleep in the barn or house, whichever I want,' he said, leering into
Creed's face. The old usurer stood there for a few minutes eying Turner
thoughtfully. Then he actually gave him a shoulder back onto the hay,
said something about finding a snack of supper, and started out of the
barn. In the doorway he turned, looked back, then walked over to the
edge of the mow and groped on the floor until he found the whisky-flask,
picked it up, tossed it into Turner's lap, and stumbled out of the barn
again."

I was becoming interested in my own story and somewhat pleased with the
fluency of it, but my audience annoyed me. There was intermittent
whispering, with some laughter, and I inferred that one or another
would occasionally stimulate this inattention by tickling a companion
with a straw. Miss Anstell, who is so frivolous by nature that I
sometimes question her right to a place in my classroom, I even
suspected of irritating the back of my own neck in the same fashion.
Naturally, I ignored it.

"Peter Creed," I repeated, "went into the house. Ike hung around the
barn, waiting. He was frankly curious. In a few minutes his employer
reappeared, carrying a plate heaped with an assortment of scraps. Ike
peered and listened then without compunction.

"'It's the best I've got,' he heard Creed say grudgingly. Turner's tones
were now more drunkenly belligerent.

"'It had better be,' he said loudly. 'And I'll take the best bed after
to-night.' Evidently he was eating and muttering between mouthfuls. 'You
might have brought me another bottle.'

"'I did,' said Creed, to the listening Ike's great astonishment. Turner
laughed immoderately.

"A long silence followed. Turner was either eating or drinking. Then he
spoke again, more thickly and drowsily.

"'Damn unpleasant that rope. Why don't you haul it up out of my way?'

"'It don't hurt you any,' said Creed.

"'Don't you wish it would?' said Turner, with drunken shrewdness. 'But I
don't like it. Haul it away.'

"'I will,' said Creed.

"There was a longer silence, and then there came an intermittent rasping
sound. A moment later Creed came suddenly from the barn. Ike fumbled
with a large rake, and made as though to hang it on its accustomed peg
near the barn door. Creed eyed him sharply. 'Get along to bed,' he
ordered, and Ike obeyed.

"That was a Saturday night. On Sunday morning Ike went to the barn later
than usual and hesitatingly. Even then he was first to enter. He found
the drunkard's body hanging here over the mow, just about where we are
sitting, stark and cold. It was a gruesome end to a miserable
home-coming."

My audience was quiet enough now. Miss Anstell and one or two others
giggled loudly, but it was obviously forced, and found no further echo.
The breeze which had sprung up some time before was producing strange
creakings and raspings in the old timbers, and the pulley-wheel far
above us clanked with a dismal repetitious sound, like the tolling of a
cracked bell.

I waited a moment, well satisfied with the effect, and then continued.

"The coroner's jury found it suicide, though some shook their heads
meaningly. Turner had apparently sobered up enough to stand, and, making
a simple loop around his neck by catching the rope through its own hook,
had then slid off the mow. The rope which went over the pulley-wheel up
there in the roof ran out through a window under the eaves, and was made
fast near the barn door outside, where anyone could haul on it. Creed
testified the knot was one he had tied many days before. Ike was a
timorous old man, with a wholesome fear of his employer, and he
supported the testimony and made no reference to his eavesdropping of
the previous evening, though he heard Creed swear before the jury that
he did not recognize the tramp he had fed and lodged. There were no
papers in Turner's pockets; only a few coins, and a marked pocket-knife
that gave the first clue to his identity.

"A few of the neighbors said that it was a fitting end, and that the
verdict was a just one. Nevertheless, whisperings began and increased.
People avoided Creed and the neighborhood. Rumors grew that the barn was
haunted. Passers-by on the road after dark said they heard the old
pulley-wheel clanking when no breeze stirred, much as you hear it now.
Some claim to have heard maudlin laughter. Possible purchasers were
frightened away, and Creed grew more and more solitary and misanthropic.
Old Ike hung on, Heaven knows why, though I suppose Creed paid him some
sort of wage.

"Rumors grew. Folks said that neither Ike nor Creed entered this barn
after a time, and no hay was put in, though Creed would not have been
Creed if he had not sold off the bulk of what he had, ghost or no ghost.
I can imagine him slowly forking it out alone, daytimes, and the amount
of hay still here proves that even he finally lost courage."

I paused a moment, but though there was much uneasy stirring about, and
the dismal clanking directly above us was incessant, no one of my
audience spoke. It was wholly dark now, and I think all had drawn closer
together.

"About ten years ago people began calling Creed crazy." Here I was
forced to interrupt my own story. "I shall have to ask you, Miss

Anstell, to stop annoying me. I have been aware for some moments that
you are brushing my head with a straw, but I have ignored it for the
sake of the others." Out of the darkness came Miss Anstell's voice,
protesting earnestly, and I realized from the direction of the sound
that in the general readjustment she must have settled down in the very
center of our circle, and could not be the one at fault. One of the
others was childish enough to simulate a mocking burst of raucous
laughter, but I chose to ignore it.

"Very well," said I, graciously; "shall I go on?"

"Go on," echoed a subdued chorus.

"It was the night of the twenty-eighth of May, ten years ago----"

"Not the twenty-eighth," broke in my wife's voice, sharply; "that is
to-day's date." There was a note in her voice that I hardly recognized,
but it indicated that she was in some way affected by my narration, and
I felt a distinct sense of triumph.

"It was the night of May twenty-eighth," I repeated firmly.

"Are you making up this story?" my wife's voice continued, still with
the same odd tone.

"I am, my dear, and you are interrupting it."

"But an Ashley Turner and later a Peter Creed owned this place," she
persisted almost in a whisper, "and I am sure you never heard of them."

I confess that I might wisely have broken off my story then and called
for a light. There had been an hysterical note in my wife's voice, and I
was startled at her words, for I had no conscious recollection of either
name; yet I felt a resultant exhilaration. Our lanterns had grown
strangely dim, though I was certain both had been recently trimmed and
filled; and from their far corner of the barn they threw no light
whatever into our circle. I faced an utter blackness.

"On that night," said I, "old Ike was wakened by sounds as of someone
fumbling to unbar and open the housedoor. It was an unwonted hour, and
he peered from the window of his little room. By the dim starlight--it
was just before dawn--he could see all of the open yard and roadway
before the house, with the great barn looming like a black and sinister
shadow as its farther barrier. Crossing this space, he saw the figure of
Peter Creed, grotesquely stooped and old in the obscuring gloom, moving
slowly, almost gropingly, and yet directly, as though impelled, toward
the barn's overwhelming shadow. Slowly he unbarred the great door,
swung it open, and entered the blacker shadows it concealed. The door
closed after him.

"Ike in his secure post of observation did not stir. He could not. Even
to his crude imagining there was something utterly horrible in the
thought of Creed alone at that hour in just such black darkness as this,
with the great timbered chamber haunted at least by its dread memories.
He could only wait, tense and fearful of he knew not what.

"A shriek that pierced the silence relaxed his tension, bringing almost
a sense of relief, so definite had been his expectancy. But it was a
burst of shrill laughter, ribald, uncanny, undeniable, accompanying the
shriek that gave him power of motion. He ran half naked a quarter of a
mile to the nearest neighbor's and told his story."

* * * * *

"They found Creed hanging, the rope hooked simply around his neck. It
was a silent jury that filed from the barn that morning after viewing
the body. 'Suicide,' said they, after Ike, shivering and stammering, had
testified, harking back to the untold evidence of that other morning
years before. Yes, Creed was dead, with a terrible look on his wizen
face, and the dusty old rope ran through its pulley-wheel and was fast
to a beam high above.

"'He must of climbed to the beam, made the rope fast, and jumped,' said
the foreman, solemnly. 'He must of, he must of,' repeated the man,
parrot-like, while the sweat stood out on his forehead, 'because there
wasn't no other way; but as God is my judge, the knot in the rope and
the dust on the beam ain't been disturbed for years.'"

At this dramatic climax there was an audible sigh from my audience. I
sat quietly for a time, content to allow the silence and the atmosphere
of the place, which actually seemed surcharged with influences not of my
creation, to add to the effect my story had caused. There was scarcely a
movement in our circle; of that I felt sure. And yet once more, out of
the almost tangible darkness above me, something seemed to reach down
and brush against my head. A slight motion of air, sufficient to disturb
my rather scanty locks, was additional proof that I was the butt of some
prank that had just missed its objective. Then, with a fearful
suddenness, close to my ear burst a shrill discord of laughter, so
uncanny and so unlike the usual sound of student merriment that I
started up, half wondering if I had heard it. Almost immediately after
it the heavy darkness was torn again by a shriek so terrible in its
intensity as completely to differentiate it from the other cries which
followed.

"Bring a light!" cried a voice that I recognized as that of my wife,
though strangely distorted by emotion. There was a great confusion.
Young women struggled from their places and impeded one another in the
darkness; but finally, and it seemed an unbearable delay, someone
brought a single lantern.

Its frail light revealed Miss Anstell half upright from her place in the
center of our circle, my wife's arms sustaining her weight. Her face, as
well as I could see it, seemed darkened and distorted, and when we
forced her clutching hands away from her bared throat we could see, even
in that light, the marks of an angry, throttling scar entirely
encircling it. Just above her head the old pulley-rope swayed menacingly
in the faint breeze.

My recollection is even now confused as to the following moments and our
stumbling escape from that gruesome spot. Miss Anstell is now at her
home, recovering from what her physician calls mental shock. My wife
will not speak of it. The questions I would ask her are checked on my
lips by the look of utter terror in her eyes. As I have confessed to
you, my own philosophy is hard put to it to withstand not so much the
community attitude toward what they are pleased to call my taste in
practical joking, but to assemble and adjust the facts of my
experience.





Next: A Shady Plot

Previous: The Specter Of Tappington



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