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The Death Bogle Of The Cross Roads And The Inextinguishable Candle Of The Old White House Pitlochry






Several years ago, bent on revisiting Perthshire, a locality which had
great attractions for me as a boy, I answered an advertisement in a
popular ladies' weekly. As far as I can recollect, it was somewhat to
this effect: Comfortable home offered to a gentleman (a bachelor) at
moderate terms in an elderly Highland lady's house at Pitlochry. Must
be a strict teetotaller and non-smoker. F.M., Box so-and-so.

The naivete and originality of the advertisement pleased me. The idea
of obtaining as a boarder a young man combining such virtues as
abstinence from alcohol and tobacco amused me vastly. And then a
bachelor, too! Did she mean to make love to him herself? The sly old
thing! She took care to insert the epithet elderly, in order to
avoid suspicion; and there was no doubt about it--she thirsted for
matrimony. Being tabooed by all the men who had even as much as
caught a passing glimpse of her, this was her last resource--she would
entrap some unwary stranger, a man with money of course, and inveigle
him into marrying her. And there rose up before me visions of a tall,
angular, forty-year-old Scottish spinster, with high cheek-bones,
virulent, sandy hair, and brawny arms--the sort of woman that ought
not to have been a woman at all--the sort that sets all my teeth on
edge. Yet it was Pitlochry, heavenly Pitlochry, and there was no one
else advertising in that town. That I should suit her in every respect
but the matrimonial, I did not doubt. I can pass muster in any company
as a teetotaller; I abominate tobacco (leastways it abominates me,
which amounts to much about the same thing), and I am, or rather I can
be, tolerably amenable, if my surroundings are not positively
infernal, and there are no County Council children within shooting
distance.

But for once my instincts were all wrong. The advertiser--a Miss Flora
Macdonald of Donald Murray House--did not resemble my
preconception of her in any respect. She was of medium height, and
dainty build--a fairy-like creature clad in rustling silks, with wavy,
white hair, bright, blue eyes, straight, delicate features, and hands,
the shape and slenderness of which at once pronounced her a psychic.
She greeted me with all the stately courtesy of the Old School; my
portmanteau was taken upstairs by a solemn-eyed lad in the Macdonald
tartan; and the tea bell rang me down to a most appetising repast of
strawberries and cream, scones, and delicious buttered toast. I fell
in love with my hostess--it would be sheer sacrilege to designate such
a divine creature by the vulgar term of landlady--at once. When
one's impressions of a place are at first exalted, they are often,
later on, apt to become equally abased. In this case, however, it was
otherwise. My appreciation both of Miss Flora Macdonald and of her
house daily increased. The food was all that could be desired, and my
bedroom, sweet with the perfume of jasmine and roses, presented such
a picture of dainty cleanliness, as awakened in me feelings of shame,
that it should be defiled by all my dusty, travel-worn accoutrements.
I flatter myself that Miss Macdonald liked me also. That she did not
regard me altogether as one of the common herd was doubtless, in some
degree, due to the fact that she was a Jacobite; and in a discussion
on the associations of her romantic namesake, Flora Macdonald, with
Perthshire, it leaked out that our respective ancestors had commanded
battalions in Louis XIV.'s far-famed Scottish and Irish Brigades. That
discovery bridged gulfs. We were no longer payer and paid--we were
friends--friends for life.

A lump comes into my throat as I pen these words, for it is only a
short time since I heard of her death.

A week or so after I had settled in her home, I took, at her
suggestion, a rest (and, I quite agree with her, it was a very
necessary rest) from my writing, and spent the day on Loch Tay,
leaving again for Donald Murray House at seven o'clock in the
evening. It was a brilliant, moonlight night. Not a cloud in the sky,
and the landscape stood out almost as clearly as in the daytime. I
cycled, and after a hard but thoroughly enjoyable spell of pedalling,
eventually came to a standstill on the high road, a mile or two from
the first lights of Pitlochry. I halted, not through fatigue, for I
was almost as fresh as when I started, but because I was entranced
with the delightful atmosphere, and wanted to draw in a few really
deep draughts of it before turning into bed. My halting-place was on a
triangular plot of grass at the junction of four roads. I propped my
machine against a hedge, and stood with my back leaning against a
sign-post, and my face in the direction whence I had come. I remained
in this attitude for some minutes, probably ten, and was about to
remount my bicycle, when I suddenly became icy cold, and a frightful,
hideous terror seized and gripped me so hard, that the machine,
slipping from my palsied hands, fell to the ground with a crash. The
next instant something--for the life of me I knew not what, its
outline was so blurred and indefinite--alighted on the open space in
front of me with a soft thud, and remained standing as bolt upright
as a cylindrical pillar. From afar off, there then came the low rumble
of wheels, which momentarily grew in intensity, until there thundered
into view a waggon, weighed down beneath a monstrous stack of hay, on
the top of which sat a man in a wide-brimmed straw hat, engaged in a
deep confabulation with a boy in corduroys who sprawled beside him.
The horse, catching sight of the motionless thing opposite me, at
once stood still and snorted violently. The man cried out, Hey! hey!
What's the matter with ye, beast? And then in an hysterical kind of
screech, Great God! What's yon figure that I see? What's yon figure,
Tammas?

The boy immediately raised himself into a kneeling position, and,
clutching hold of the man's arm, screamed, I dinna ken, I dinna ken,
Matthew; but take heed, mon, it does na touch me. It's me it's come
after, na ye.

The moonlight was so strong that the faces of the speakers were
revealed to me with extraordinary vividness, and their horrified
expressions were even more startling than was the silent, ghastly
figure of the Unknown. The scene comes back to me, here, in my little
room in Norwood, with its every detail as clearly marked as on the
night it was first enacted. The long range of cone-shaped mountains,
darkly silhouetted against the silvery sky, and seemingly hushed in
gaping expectancy; the shining, scaly surface of some far-off tarn or
river, perceptible only at intervals, owing to the thick clusters of
gently nodding pines; the white-washed walls of cottages, glistening
amid the dark green denseness of the thickly leaved box trees, and the
light, feathery foliage of the golden laburnum; the undulating
meadows, besprinkled with gorse and grotesquely moulded crags of
granite; the white, the dazzling white roads, saturated with
moonbeams; all--all were overwhelmed with stillness--the stillness
that belongs, and belongs only, to the mountains, and trees, and
plains--the stillness of shadowland. I even counted the buttons, the
horn buttons, on the rustics' coats--one was missing from the man's,
two from the boy's; and I even noted the sweat-stains under the
armpits of Matthew's shirt, and the dents and tears in Tammas's soft
wideawake. I observed all these trivialities and more besides. I saw
the abrupt rising and falling of the man's chest as his breath came in
sharp jerks; the stream of dirty saliva that oozed from between his
blackberry-stained lips and dribbled down his chin; I saw their
hands--the man's, square-fingered, black-nailed, big-veined, shining
with perspiration and clutching grimly at the reins; the boy's,
smaller, and if anything rather more grimy--the one pressed flat down
on the hay, the other extended in front of him, the palm stretched
outwards and all the fingers widely apart.

And while these minute particulars were being driven into my soul, the
cause of it all--the indefinable, esoteric column--stood silent and
motionless over-against the hedge, a baleful glow emanating from it.

The horse suddenly broke the spell. Dashing its head forward, it broke
off at a gallop, and, tearing frantically past the phantasm, went
helter-skelter down the road to my left. I then saw Tammas turning a
somersault, miraculously saved from falling head first on to the
road, by rebounding from the pitchfork which had been wedged upright
in the hay, whilst the figure, which followed in their wake with
prodigious bounds, was apparently trying to get at him with its
spidery arms. But whether it succeeded or not I cannot say, for I was
so uncontrollably fearful lest it should return to me, that I mounted
my bicycle and rode as I had never ridden before and have never ridden
since.

I described the incident to Miss Macdonald on my return. She looked
very serious.

It was stupid of me not to have warned you, she said. That that
particular spot in the road has always--at least ever since I can
remember--borne the reputation of being haunted. None of the peasants
round here will venture within a mile of it after twilight, so the
carters you saw must have been strangers. No one has ever seen the
ghost except in the misty form in which it appeared to you. It does
not frequent the place every night; it only appears periodically; and
its method never varies. It leaps over a wall or hedge, remains
stationary till some one approaches, and then pursues them with
monstrous springs. The person it touches invariably dies within a
year. I well recollect when I was in my teens, on just such a night as
this, driving home with my father from Lady Colin Ferner's croquet
party at Blair Atholl. When we got to the spot you name, the horse
shied, and before I could realise what had happened, we were racing
home at a terrific pace. My father and I sat in front, and the groom,
a Highland boy from the valley of Ben-y-gloe, behind. Never having
seen my father frightened, his agitation now alarmed me horribly, and
the more so as my instinct told me it was caused by something other
than the mere bolting of the horse. I was soon enlightened. A gigantic
figure, with leaps and bounds, suddenly overtook us, and, thrusting
out its long, thin arms, touched my father lightly on the hand, and
then with a harsh cry, more like that of some strange animal than that
of a human being, disappeared. Neither of us spoke till we reached
home,--I did not live here then, but in a house on the other side of
Pitlochry,--when my father, who was still as white as a sheet, took me
aside and whispered, 'Whatever you do, Flora, don't breathe a word of
what has happened to your mother, and never let her go along that road
at night. It was the death bogle. I shall die within twelve months.'
And he did.

Miss Macdonald paused. A brief silence ensued, and she then went on
with all her customary briskness: I cannot describe the thing any
more than you can, except that it gave me the impression it had no
eyes. But what it was, whether the ghost of a man, woman, or some
peculiar beast, I could not, for the life of me, tell. Now, Mr.
O'Donnell, have you had enough horrors for one evening, or would you
like to hear just one more?

Knowing that sleep was utterly out of the question, and that one or
two more thrills would make very little difference to my already
shattered nerves, I replied that I would listen eagerly to anything
she could tell me, however horrible. My permission thus gained--and
gained so readily--Miss Macdonald, not without, I noticed, one or two
apprehensive glances at the slightly rustling curtains, began her
narrative, which ran, as nearly as I can remember, as follows:--

After my father's death, I told my mother about our adventure the
night we drove home from Lady Colin Ferner's party, and asked her if
she remembered ever having heard anything that could possibly account
for the phenomenon. After a few moments' reflection, this is the story
she told me:--





Next: The Inextinguishable Candle Of The Old White House




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