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On The Leads






Having realised a competence in Australia, and having a hankering after
country life for the remainder of my days in the old home, on my return
to England I went to an agent with the object of renting a house with
shooting attached, over at least three thousand acres, with the option
of a purchase should the place suit me. I was no more intending to buy a
country seat without having tried what it was like, than is a king
disposed to go to war without knowing something of the force that can be
brought against him. I was rather taken with photographs of a manor
called Fernwood, and I was still further engaged when I saw the place
itself on a beautiful October day, when St. Luke's summer was turning
the country into a world of rainbow tints under a warm sun, and a soft
vaporous blue haze tinted all shadows cobalt, and gave to the hills a
stateliness that made them look like mountains. Fernwood was an old
house, built in the shape of the letter H, and therefore, presumably,
dating from the time of the early Tudor monarchs. The porch opened into
the hall which was on the left of the cross-stroke, and the drawing-room
was on the right. There was one inconvenience about the house; it had a
staircase at each extremity of the cross-stroke, and there was no
upstair communication between the two wings of the mansion. But, as a
practical man, I saw how this might be remedied. The front door faced
the south, and the hall was windowless on the north. Nothing easier than
to run a corridor along at the back, giving communication both upstairs
and downstairs, without passing through the hall. The whole thing could
be done for, at the outside, two hundred pounds, and would be no
disfigurement to the place. I agreed to become tenant of Fernwood for a
twelvemonth, in which time I should be able to judge whether the place
would suit me, the neighbours be pleasant, and the climate agree with my
wife. We went down to Fernwood at once, and settled ourselves
comfortably in by the first week in November.

The house was furnished; it was the property of an elderly gentleman, a
bachelor named Framett, who lived in rooms in town, and spent most of
his time at the club. He was supposed to have been jilted by his
intended, after which he eschewed female society, and remained
unmarried.

I called on him before taking up our residence at Fernwood, and found
him a somewhat blase, languid, cold-blooded creature, not at all proud
of having a noble manor-house that had belonged to his family for four
centuries; very willing to sell it, so as to spite a cousin who
calculated on coming in for the estate, and whom Mr. Framett, with the
malignity that is sometimes found in old people, was particularly
desirous of disappointing.

"The house has been let before, I suppose?" said I.

"Oh, yes," he replied indifferently, "I believe so, several times."

"For long?"

"No--o. I believe, not for long."

"Have the tenants had any particular reasons for not remaining on
there--if I may be so bold as to inquire?"

"All people have reasons to offer, but what they offer you are not
supposed to receive as genuine."

I could get no more from him than this. "I think, sir, if I were you I
would not go down to Fernwood till after November was out."

"But," said I, "I want the shooting."

"Ah, to be sure--the shooting, ah! I should have preferred if you could
have waited till December began."

"That would not suit me," I said, and so the matter ended.

When we were settled in, we occupied the right wing of the house. The
left or west wing was but scantily furnished and looked cheerless, as
though rarely tenanted. We were not a large family, my wife and myself
alone; there was consequently ample accommodation in the east wing for
us. The servants were placed above the kitchen, in a portion of the
house I have not yet described. It was a half-wing, if I may so describe
it, built on the north side parallel with the upper arm of the western
limb of the hall and the [Symbol: H]. This block had a gable to the
north like the wings, and a broad lead valley was between them, that, as
I learned from the agent, had to be attended to after the fall of the
leaf, and in times of snow, to clear it.

Access to this valley could be had from within by means of a little
window in the roof, formed as a dormer. A short ladder allowed anyone to
ascend from the passage to this window and open or shut it. The western
staircase gave access to this passage, from which the servants' rooms in
the new block were reached, as also the untenanted apartments in the old
wing. And as there were no windows in the extremities of this passage
that ran due north and south, it derived all its light from the
aforementioned dormer window.

One night, after we had been in the house about a week, I was sitting up
smoking, with a little whisky-and-water at my elbow, reading a review of
an absurd, ignorantly written book on New South Wales, when I heard a
tap at the door, and the parlourmaid came in, and said in a nervous tone
of voice: "Beg your pardon, sir, but cook nor I, nor none of us dare go
to bed."

"Why not?" I asked, looking up in surprise.

"Please, sir, we dursn't go into the passage to get to our rooms."

"Whatever is the matter with the passage?"

"Oh, nothing, sir, with the passage. Would you mind, sir, just coming to
see? We don't know what to make of it."

I put down my review with a grunt of dissatisfaction, laid my pipe
aside, and followed the maid.

She led me through the hall, and up the staircase at the western
extremity.

On reaching the upper landing I saw all the maids there in a cluster,
and all evidently much scared.

"Whatever is all this nonsense about?" I asked.

"Please, sir, will you look? We can't say."

The parlourmaid pointed to an oblong patch of moonlight on the wall of
the passage. The night was cloudless, and the full moon shone slanting
in through the dormer and painted a brilliant silver strip on the wall
opposite. The window being on the side of the roof to the east, we could
not see that, but did see the light thrown through it against the wall.
This patch of reflected light was about seven feet above the floor.

The window itself was some ten feet up, and the passage was but four
feet wide. I enter into these particulars for reasons that will
presently appear.

The window was divided into three parts by wooden mullions, and was
composed of four panes of glass in each compartment.

Now I could distinctly see the reflection of the moon through the window
with the black bars up and down, and the division of the panes. But I
saw more than that: I saw the shadow of a lean arm with a hand and thin,
lengthy fingers across a portion of the window, apparently groping at
where was the latch by which the casement could be opened.

My impression at the moment was that there was a burglar on the leads
trying to enter the house by means of this dormer.

Without a minute's hesitation I ran into the passage and looked up at
the window, but could see only a portion of it, as in shape it was low,
though broad, and, as already stated, was set at a great height. But at
that moment something fluttered past it, like a rush of flapping
draperies obscuring the light.

I had placed the ladder, which I found hooked up to the wall, in
position, and planted my foot on the lowest rung, when my wife arrived.
She had been alarmed by the housemaid, and now she clung to me, and
protested that I was not to ascend without my pistol.

To satisfy her I got my Colt's revolver that I always kept loaded, and
then, but only hesitatingly, did she allow me to mount. I ascended to
the casement, unhasped it, and looked out. I could see nothing. The
ladder was over-short, and it required an effort to heave oneself from
it through the casement on to the leads. I am stout, and not so nimble
as I was when younger. After one or two efforts, and after presenting
from below an appearance that would have provoked laughter at any other
time, I succeeded in getting through and upon the leads.

I looked up and down the valley--there was absolutely nothing to be seen
except an accumulation of leaves carried there from the trees that were
shedding their foliage.

The situation was vastly puzzling. As far as I could judge there was no
way off the roof, no other window opening into the valley; I did not go
along upon the leads, as it was night, and moonlight is treacherous.
Moreover, I was wholly unacquainted with the arrangement of the roof,
and had no wish to risk a fall.

I descended from the window with my feet groping for the upper rung of
the ladder in a manner even more grotesque than my ascent through the
casement, but neither my wife--usually extremely alive to anything
ridiculous in my appearance--nor the domestics were in a mood to make
merry. I fastened the window after me, and had hardly reached the
bottom of the ladder before again a shadow flickered across the patch of
moonlight.

I was fairly perplexed, and stood musing. Then I recalled that
immediately behind the house the ground rose; that, in fact, the house
lay under a considerable hill. It was just possible by ascending the
slope to reach the level of the gutter and rake the leads from one
extremity to the other with my eye.

I mentioned this to my wife, and at once the whole set of maids trailed
down the stairs after us. They were afraid to remain in the passage, and
they were curious to see if there was really some person on the leads.

We went out at the back of the house, and ascended the bank till we were
on a level with the broad gutter between the gables. I now saw that this
gutter did not run through, but stopped against the hall roof;
consequently, unless there were some opening of which I knew nothing,
the person on the leads could not leave the place, save by the dormer
window, when open, or by swarming down the fall pipe.

It at once occurred to me that if what I had seen were the shadow of a
burglar, he might have mounted by means of the rain-water pipe. But if
so--how had he vanished the moment my head was protruded through the
window? and how was it that I had seen the shadow flicker past the light
immediately after I had descended the ladder? It was conceivable that
the man had concealed himself in the shadow of the hall roof, and had
taken advantage of my withdrawal to run past the window so as to reach
the fall pipe, and let himself down by that.

I could, however, see no one running away, as I must have done, going
outside so soon after his supposed descent.

But the whole affair became more perplexing when, looking towards the
leads, I saw in the moonlight something with fluttering garments running
up and down them.

There could be no mistake--the object was a woman, and her garments were
mere tatters. We could not hear a sound.

I looked round at my wife and the servants,--they saw this weird object
as distinctly as myself. It was more like a gigantic bat than a human
being, and yet, that it was a woman we could not doubt, for the arms
were now and then thrown above the head in wild gesticulation, and at
moments a profile was presented, and then we saw, or thought we saw,
long flapping hair, unbound.

"I must go back to the ladder," said I; "you remain where you are,
watching."

"Oh, Edward! not alone," pleaded my wife.

"My dear, who is to go with me?"

I went. I had left the back door unlocked, and I ascended the staircase
and entered the passage. Again I saw the shadow flicker past the moonlit
patch on the wall opposite the window.

I ascended the ladder and opened the casement.

Then I heard the clock in the hall strike one.

I heaved myself up to the sill with great labour, and I endeavoured to
thrust my short body through the window, when I heard feet on the
stairs, and next moment my wife's voice from below, at the foot of the
ladder. "Oh, Edward, Edward! please do not go out there again. It has
vanished. All at once. There is nothing there now to be seen."

I returned, touched the ladder tentatively with my feet, refastened the
window, and descended--perhaps inelegantly. I then went down with my
wife, and with her returned up the bank, to the spot where stood
clustered our servants.

They had seen nothing further; and although I remained on the spot
watching for half an hour, I also saw nothing more.

The maids were too frightened to go to bed, and so agreed to sit up in
the kitchen for the rest of the night by a good fire, and I gave them a
bottle of sherry to mull, and make themselves comfortable upon, and to
help them to recover their courage.

Although I went to bed, I could not sleep. I was completely baffled by
what I had seen. I could in no way explain what the object was and how
it had left the leads.

Next day I sent for the village mason and asked him to set a long ladder
against the well-head of the fall pipe, and examine the valley between
the gables. At the same time I would mount to the little window and
contemplate proceedings through that.

The man had to send for a ladder sufficiently long, and that occupied
some time. However, at length he had it planted, and then mounted. When
he approached the dormer window--

"Give me a hand," said I, "and haul me up; I would like to satisfy
myself with my own eyes that there is no other means of getting upon or
leaving the leads."

He took me under both shoulders and heaved me out, and I stood with him
in the broad lead gutter.

"There's no other opening whatever," said he, "and, Lord love you, sir,
I believe that what you saw was no more than this," and he pointed to a
branch of a noble cedar that grew hard by the west side of the house.

"I warrant, sir," said he, "that what you saw was this here bough as has
been carried by a storm and thrown here, and the wind last night swept
it up and down the leads."

"But was there any wind?" I asked. "I do not remember that there was."

"I can't say," said he; "before twelve o'clock I was fast asleep, and it
might have blown a gale and I hear nothing of it."

"I suppose there must have been some wind," said I, "and that I was too
surprised and the women too frightened to observe it," I laughed. "So
this marvellous spectral phenomenon receives a very prosaic and natural
explanation. Mason, throw down the bough and we will burn it to-night."

The branch was cast over the edge, and fell at the back of the house. I
left the leads, descended, and going out picked up the cedar branch,
brought it into the hall, summoned the servants, and said derisively:
"Here is an illustration of the way in which weak-minded women get
scared. Now we will burn the burglar or ghost that we saw. It turns out
to be nothing but this branch, blown up and down the leads by the wind."

"But, Edward," said my wife, "there was not a breath stirring."

"There must have been. Only where we were we were sheltered and did not
observe it. Aloft, it blew across the roofs, and formed an eddy that
caught the broken bough, lifted it, carried it first one way, then spun
it round and carried it the reverse way. In fact, the wind between the
two roofs assumed a spiral movement. I hope now you are all satisfied. I
am."

So the bough was burned, and our fears--I mean those of the
females--were allayed.

In the evening, after dinner, as I sat with my wife, she said to me:
"Half a bottle would have been enough, Edward. Indeed, I think half a
bottle would be too much; you should not give the girls a liking for
sherry, it may lead to bad results. If it had been elderberry wine, that
would have been different."

"But there is no elderberry wine in the house," I objected.

"Well, I hope no harm will come of it, but I greatly mistrust----"

"Please, sir, it is there again."

The parlourmaid, with a blanched face, was at the door.

"Nonsense," said I, "we burnt it."

"This comes of the sherry," observed my wife. "They will be seeing
ghosts every night."

"But, my dear, you saw it as well as myself!"

I rose, my wife followed, and we went to the landing as before, and,
sure enough, against the patch of moonlight cast through the window in
the roof, was the arm again, and then a flutter of shadows, as if cast
by garments.

"It was not the bough," said my wife. "If this had been seen immediately
after the sherry I should not have been surprised, but--as it is now it
is most extraordinary."

"I'll have this part of the house shut up," said I. Then I bade the
maids once more spend the night in the kitchen, "and make yourselves
lively on tea," I said--for I knew my wife would not allow another
bottle of sherry to be given them. "To-morrow your beds shall be moved
to the east wing."

"Beg pardon," said the cook, "I speaks in the name of all. We don't
think we can remain in the house, but must leave the situation."

"That comes of the tea," said I to my wife. "Now," to the cook, "as you
have had another fright, I will let you have a bottle of mulled port
to-night."

"Sir," said the cook, "if you can get rid of the ghost, we don't want to
leave so good a master. We withdraw the notice."

Next day I had all the servants' goods transferred to the east wing, and
rooms were fitted up for them to sleep in. As their portion of the house
was completely cut off from the west wing, the alarm of the domestics
died away.

A heavy, stormy rain came on next week, the first token of winter
misery.

I then found that, whether caused by the cedar bough, or by the nailed
boots of the mason, I cannot say, but the lead of the valley between the
roofs was torn, and water came in, streaming down the walls, and
threatening to severely damage the ceilings. I had to send for a
plumber as soon as the weather mended. At the same time I started for
town to see Mr. Framett. I had made up my mind that Fernwood was not
suitable, and by the terms of my agreement I might be off my bargain if
I gave notice the first month, and then my tenancy would be for the six
months only. I found the squire at his club.

"Ah!" said he, "I told you not to go there in November. No one likes
Fernwood in November; it is all right at other times."

"What do you mean?"

"There is no bother except in November."

"Why should there be bother, as you term it, then?"

Mr. Framett shrugged his shoulders. "How the deuce can I tell you? I've
never been a spirit, and all that sort of thing. Mme. Blavatsky might
possibly tell you. I can't. But it is a fact."

"What is a fact?"

"Why, that there is no apparition at any other time It is only in
November, when she met with a little misfortune. That is when she is
seen."

"Who is seen?"

"My aunt Eliza--I mean my great-aunt."

"You speak mysteries."

"I don't know much about it, and care less," said Mr. Framett, and
called for a lemon squash. "It was this: I had a great-aunt who was
deranged. The family kept it quiet, and did not send her to an asylum,
but fastened her in a room in the west wing. You see, that part of the
house is partially separated from the rest. I believe she was rather
shabbily treated, but she was difficult to manage, and tore her clothes
to pieces. Somehow, she succeeded in getting out on the roof, and would
race up and down there. They allowed her to do so, as by that means she
obtained fresh air. But one night in November she scrambled up and, I
believe, tumbled over. It was hushed up. Sorry you went there in
November. I should have liked you to buy the place. I am sick of it."

I did buy Fernwood. What decided me was this: the plumbers, in mending
the leads, with that ingenuity to do mischief which they sometimes
display, succeeded in setting fire to the roof, and the result was that
the west wing was burnt down. Happily, a wall so completely separated
the wing from the rest of the house, that the fire was arrested. The
wing was not rebuilt, and I, thinking that with the disappearance of the
leads I should be freed from the apparition that haunted them, purchased
Fernwood. I am happy to say we have been undisturbed since.





Next: Aunt Joanna

Previous: The 930 Up-train



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