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The Story Of A Disappearance And An Appearance






The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person
who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt
about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the
ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of
question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the
writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of
the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent--obviously
a married brother--is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary
explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all
that could be expected.


LETTER I

GREAT CHRISHALL, Dec. 22, 1837.

MY DEAR ROBERT,--It is with great regret for the enjoyment I am
losing, and for a reason which you will deplore equally with myself,
that I write to inform you that I am unable to join your circle for
this Christmas: but you will agree with me that it is unavoidable when
I say that I have within these few hours received a letter from Mrs.
Hunt at B----, to the effect that our Uncle Henry has suddenly and
mysteriously disappeared, and begging me to go down there immediately
and join the search that is being made for him. Little as I, or you
either, I think, have ever seen of Uncle, I naturally feel that this
is not a request that can be regarded lightly, and accordingly I
propose to go to B---- by this afternoon's mail, reaching it late in
the evening. I shall not go to the Rectory, but put up at the King's
Head, and to which you may address letters. I enclose a small draft,
which you will please make use of for the benefit of the young people.
I shall write you daily (supposing me to be detained more than a
single day) what goes on, and you may be sure, should the business be
cleared up in time to permit of my coming to the Manor after all, I
shall present myself. I have but a few minutes at disposal. With
cordial greetings to you all, and many regrets, believe me, your
affectionate Bro.,

W. R.


LETTER II

KING'S HEAD, Dec. 23, '37.

MY DEAR ROBERT,--In the first place, there is as yet no news of Uncle
H., and I think you may finally dismiss any idea--I won't say
hope--that I might after all turn up for Xmas. However, my thoughts
will be with you, and you have my best wishes for a really festive
day. Mind that none of my nephews or nieces expend any fraction of
their guineas on presents for me.

Since I got here I have been blaming myself for taking this affair of
Uncle H. too easily. From what people here say, I gather that there is
very little hope that he can still be alive; but whether it is
accident or design that carried him off I cannot judge. The facts are
these. On Friday the 19th, he went as usual shortly before five
o'clock to read evening prayers at the Church; and when they were over
the clerk brought him a message, in response to which he set off to
pay a visit to a sick person at an outlying cottage the better part of
two miles away. He paid the visit, and started on his return journey
at about half-past six. This is the last that is known of him. The
people here are very much grieved at his loss; he had been here many
years, as you know, and though, as you also know, he was not the most
genial of men, and had more than a little of the martinet in his
composition, he seems to have been active in good works, and unsparing
of trouble to himself.

Poor Mrs. Hunt, who has been his housekeeper ever since she left
Woodley, is quite overcome: it seems like the end of the world to her.
I am glad that I did not entertain the idea of taking quarters at the
Rectory; and I have declined several kindly offers of hospitality from
people in the place, preferring as I do to be independent, and finding
myself very comfortable here.

You will, of course, wish to know what has been done in the way of
inquiry and search. First, nothing was to be expected from
investigation at the Rectory; and to be brief, nothing has transpired.
I asked Mrs. Hunt--as others had done before--whether there was either
any unfavourable symptom in her master such as might portend a sudden
stroke, or attack of illness, or whether he had ever had reason to
apprehend any such thing: but both she, and also his medical man, were
clear that this was not the case. He was quite in his usual health.
In the second place, naturally, ponds and streams have been dragged,
and fields in the neighbourhood which he is known to have visited
last, have been searched--without result. I have myself talked to the
parish clerk and--more important--have been to the house where he paid
his visit.

There can be no question of any foul play on these people's part. The
one man in the house is ill in bed and very weak: the wife and the
children of course could do nothing themselves, nor is there the
shadow of a probability that they or any of them should have agreed to
decoy poor Uncle H. out in order that he might be attacked on the way
back. They had told what they knew to several other inquirers already,
but the woman repeated it to me. The Rector was looking just as usual:
he wasn't very long with the sick man--He ain't, she said, like
some what has a gift in prayer; but there, if we was all that way,
'owever would the chapel people get their living? He left some money
when he went away, and one of the children saw him cross the stile
into the next field. He was dressed as he always was: wore his
bands--I gather he is nearly the last man remaining who does so--at
any rate in this district.

You see I am putting down everything. The fact is that I have nothing
else to do, having brought no business papers with me; and, moreover,
it serves to clear my own mind, and may suggest points which have been
overlooked. So I shall continue to write all that passes, even to
conversations if need be--you may read or not as you please, but pray
keep the letters. I have another reason for writing so fully, but it
is not a very tangible one.

You may ask if I have myself made any search in the fields near the
cottage. Something--a good deal--has been done by others, as I
mentioned; but I hope to go over the ground to-morrow. Bow Street has
now been informed, and will send down by to-night's coach, but I do
not think they will make much of the job. There is no snow, which
might have helped us. The fields are all grass. Of course I was on the
qui vive for any indication to-day both going and returning; but
there was a thick mist on the way back, and I was not in trim for
wandering about unknown pastures, especially on an evening when bushes
looked like men, and a cow lowing in the distance might have been the
last trump. I assure you, if Uncle Henry had stepped out from among
the trees in a little copse which borders the path at one place,
carrying his head under his arm, I should have been very little more
uncomfortable than I was. To tell you the truth, I was rather
expecting something of the kind. But I must drop my pen for the
moment: Mr. Lucas, the curate, is announced.

Later. Mr. Lucas has been, and gone, and there is not much beyond
the decencies of ordinary sentiment to be got from him. I can see that
he has given up any idea that the Rector can be alive, and that, so
far as he can be, he is truly sorry. I can also discern that even in a
more emotional person than Mr. Lucas, Uncle Henry was not likely to
inspire strong attachment.

Besides Mr. Lucas, I have had another visitor in the shape of my
Boniface--mine host of the King's Head--who came to see whether I
had everything I wished, and who really requires the pen of a Boz to
do him justice. He was very solemn and weighty at first. Well, sir,
he said, I suppose we must bow our 'ead beneath the blow, as my poor
wife had used to say. So far as I can gather there's been neither
hide nor yet hair of our late respected incumbent scented out as yet;
not that he was what the Scripture terms a hairy man in any sense of
the word.

I said--as well as I could--that I supposed not, but could not help
adding that I had heard he was sometimes a little difficult to deal
with. Mr. Bowman looked at me sharply for a moment, and then passed in
a flash from solemn sympathy to impassioned declamation. When I
think, he said, of the language that man see fit to employ to me in
this here parlour over no more a matter than a cask of beer--such a
thing as I told him might happen any day of the week to a man with a
family--though as it turned out he was quite under a mistake, and that
I knew at the time, only I was that shocked to hear him I couldn't lay
my tongue to the right expression.

He stopped abruptly and eyed me with some embarrassment. I only said,
Dear me, I'm sorry to hear you had any little differences; I suppose
my uncle will be a good deal missed in the parish? Mr. Bowman drew a
long breath. Ah, yes! he said; your uncle! You'll understand me
when I say that for the moment it had slipped my remembrance that he
was a relative; and natural enough, I must say, as it should, for as
to you bearing any resemblance to--to him, the notion of any such a
thing is clean ridiculous. All the same, 'ad I 'ave bore it in my
mind, you'll be among the first to feel, I'm sure, as I should have
abstained my lips, or rather I should not have abstained my lips
with no such reflections.

I assured him that I quite understood, and was going to have asked him
some further questions, but he was called away to see after some
business. By the way, you need not take it into your head that he has
anything to fear from the inquiry into poor Uncle Henry's
disappearance--though, no doubt, in the watches of the night it will
occur to him that I think he has, and I may expect explanations
to-morrow.

I must close this letter: it has to go by the late coach.


LETTER III

Dec. 25, '37.

MY DEAR ROBERT,--This is a curious letter to be writing on Christmas
Day, and yet after all there is nothing much in it. Or there may
be--you shall be the judge. At least, nothing decisive. The Bow
Street men practically say that they have no clue. The length of time
and the weather conditions have made all tracks so faint as to be
quite useless: nothing that belonged to the dead man--I'm afraid no
other word will do--has been picked up.

As I expected, Mr. Bowman was uneasy in his mind this morning; quite
early I heard him holding forth in a very distinct voice--purposely
so, I thought--to the Bow Street officers in the bar, as to the loss
that the town had sustained in their Rector, and as to the necessity
of leaving no stone unturned (he was very great on this phrase) in
order to come at the truth. I suspect him of being an orator of repute
at convivial meetings.

When I was at breakfast he came to wait on me, and took an opportunity
when handing a muffin to say in a low tone, I 'ope, sir, you reconize
as my feelings towards your relative is not actuated by any taint of
what you may call melignity--you can leave the room, Eliza, I will see
the gentleman 'as all he requires with my own hands--I ask your
pardon, sir, but you must be well aware a man is not always master of
himself: and when that man has been 'urt in his mind by the
application of expressions which I will go so far as to say 'ad not
ought to have been made use of (his voice was rising all this time and
his face growing redder); no, sir; and 'ere, if you will permit of it,
I should like to explain to you in a very few words the exact state of
the bone of contention. This cask--I might more truly call it a
firkin--of beer--

I felt it was time to interpose, and said that I did not see that it
would help us very much to go into that matter in detail. Mr. Bowman
acquiesced, and resumed more calmly:

Well, sir, I bow to your ruling, and as you say, be that here or be
it there, it don't contribute a great deal, perhaps, to the present
question. All I wish you to understand is that I am prepared as you
are yourself to lend every hand to the business we have afore us,
and--as I took the opportunity to say as much to the Orficers not
three-quarters of an hour ago--to leave no stone unturned as may throw
even a spark of light on this painful matter.

In fact, Mr. Bowman did accompany us on our exploration, but though I
am sure his genuine wish was to be helpful, I am afraid he did not
contribute to the serious side of it. He appeared to be under the
impression that we were likely to meet either Uncle Henry or the
person responsible for his disappearance, walking about the
fields--and did a great deal of shading his eyes with his hand and
calling our attention, by pointing with his stick, to distant cattle
and labourers. He held several long conversations with old women whom
we met, and was very strict and severe in his manner--but on each
occasion returned to our party saying, Well, I find she don't seem to
'ave no connexion with this sad affair. I think you may take it from
me, sir, as there's little or no light to be looked for from that
quarter; not without she's keeping somethink back intentional.

We gained no appreciable result, as I told you at starting; the Bow
Street men have left the town, whether for London or not, I am not
sure.

This evening I had company in the shape of a bagman, a smartish
fellow. He knew what was going forward, but though he has been on the
roads for some days about here, he had nothing to tell of suspicious
characters--tramps, wandering sailors or gipsies. He was very full of
a capital Punch and Judy Show he had seen this same day at W----, and
asked if it had been here yet, and advised me by no means to miss it
if it does come. The best Punch and the best Toby dog, he said, he had
ever come across. Toby dogs, you know, are the last new thing in the
shows. I have only seen one myself, but before long all the men will
have them.

Now why, you will want to know, do I trouble to write all this to you?
I am obliged to do it, because it has something to do with another
absurd trifle (as you will inevitably say), which in my present state
of rather unquiet fancy--nothing more, perhaps--I have to put down. It
is a dream, sir, which I am going to record, and I must say it is one
of the oddest I have had. Is there anything in it beyond what the
bagman's talk and Uncle Henry's disappearance could have suggested?
You, I repeat, shall judge: I am not in a sufficiently cool and
judicial frame to do so.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains:
and I found myself seated in a place--I don't know whether in doors or
out. There were people--only a few--on either side of me, but I did
not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke,
but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked
fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show,
perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black
figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was
only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light. I was
strung up to a high degree of expectation and listened every moment
to hear the panpipes and the Roo-too-too-it. Instead of that there
came suddenly an enormous--I can use no other word--an enormous single
toll of a bell, I don't know from how far off--somewhere behind. The
little curtain flew up and the drama began.

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy;
but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him
exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his
methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see
his horrible face--it was yellowish white, I may remark--peering round
the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli's foul sketch. To
others he was polite and carneying--particularly to the unfortunate
alien who can only say Shallabalah--though what Punch said I never
could catch. But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death.
The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way
delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way,
and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby--it sounds
more ridiculous as I go on--the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch
wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not
real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at
last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I
could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was
accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it
Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at
his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and
sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me
cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the
meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the
usual house front, but something more ambitious--a grove of trees and
the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural--in fact, I should say
a real--moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object
which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar
about the head--what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand
on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle
distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I
may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all
pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still
Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live
creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but
in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he
first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight
of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near.
Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up
his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of
his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was
with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or
less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad
in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with
a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the
trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures
disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds
letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a
moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and
threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after
him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching
sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down--his back
was turned to the audience--with a swift motion twitched the covering
from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on
the instant grew dark.

There was one long, loud, shuddering scream, and I awoke to find
myself looking straight into the face of--what in all the world do you
think?--but a large owl, which was seated on my window-sill
immediately opposite my bed-foot, holding up its wings like two
shrouded arms. I caught the fierce glance of its yellow eyes, and then
it was gone. I heard the single enormous bell again--very likely, as
you are saying to yourself, the church clock; but I do not think
so--and then I was broad awake.

All this, I may say, happened within the last half-hour. There was no
probability of my getting to sleep again, so I got up, put on clothes
enough to keep me warm, and am writing this rigmarole in the first
hours of Christmas Day. Have I left out anything? Yes, there was no
Toby dog, and the names over the front of the Punch and Judy booth
were Kidman and Gallop, which were certainly not what the bagman told
me to look out for.

By this time, I feel a little more as if I could sleep, so this shall
be sealed and wafered.


LETTER IV

Dec. 26, '37.

MY DEAR ROBERT,--All is over. The body has been found. I do not make
excuses for not having sent off my news by last night's mail, for the
simple reason that I was incapable of putting pen to paper. The events
that attended the discovery bewildered me so completely that I needed
what I could get of a night's rest to enable me to face the situation
at all. Now I can give you my journal of the day, certainly the
strangest Christmas Day that ever I spent or am likely to spend.

The first incident was not very serious. Mr. Bowman had, I think, been
keeping Christmas Eve, and was a little inclined to be captious: at
least, he was not on foot very early, and to judge from what I could
hear, neither men or maids could do anything to please him. The latter
were certainly reduced to tears; nor am I sure that Mr. Bowman
succeeded in preserving a manly composure. At any rate, when I came
downstairs, it was in a broken voice that he wished me the compliments
of the season, and a little later on, when he paid his visit of
ceremony at breakfast, he was far from cheerful: even Byronic, I might
almost say, in his outlook on life.

I don't know, he said, if you think with me, sir; but every
Christmas as comes round the world seems a hollerer thing to me. Why,
take an example now from what lays under my own eye. There's my
servant Eliza--been with me now for going on fifteen years. I thought
I could have placed my confidence in Elizar, and yet this very
morning--Christmas morning too, of all the blessed days in the
year--with the bells a ringing and--and--all like that--I say, this
very morning, had it not have been for Providence watching over us
all, that girl would have put--indeed I may go so far to say, 'ad put
the cheese on your breakfast table---- He saw I was about to speak,
and waved his hand at me. It's all very well for you to say, 'Yes,
Mr. Bowman, but you took away the cheese and locked it up in the
cupboard,' which I did, and have the key here, or if not the actual
key one very much about the same size. That's true enough, sir, but
what do you think is the effect of that action on me? Why it's no
exaggeration for me to say that the ground is cut from under my feet.
And yet when I said as much to Eliza, not nasty, mind you, but just
firm like, what was my return? 'Oh,' she says: 'Well,' she says,
'there wasn't no bones broke, I suppose.' Well, sir, it 'urt me,
that's all I can say: it 'urt me, and I don't like to think of it
now.

There was an ominous pause here, in which I ventured to say something
like, Yes, very trying, and then asked at what hour the church
service was to be. Eleven o'clock, Mr. Bowman said with a heavy
sigh. Ah, you won't have no such discourse from poor Mr. Lucas as
what you would have done from our late Rector. Him and me may have
had our little differences, and did do, more's the pity.

I could see that a powerful effort was needed to keep him off the
vexed question of the cask of beer, but he made it. But I will say
this, that a better preacher, nor yet one to stand faster by his
rights, or what he considered to be his rights--however, that's not
the question now--I for one, never set under. Some might say, 'Was he
a eloquent man?' and to that my answer would be: 'Well, there you've a
better right per'aps to speak of your own uncle than what I have.'
Others might ask, 'Did he keep a hold of his congregation?' and there
again I should reply, 'That depends.' But as I say--Yes, Eliza, my
girl, I'm coming--eleven o'clock, sir, and you inquire for the King's
Head pew. I believe Eliza had been very near the door, and shall
consider it in my vail.

The next episode was church: I felt Mr. Lucas had a difficult task in
doing justice to Christmas sentiments, and also to the feeling of
disquiet and regret which, whatever Mr. Bowman might say, was clearly
prevalent. I do not think he rose to the occasion. I was
uncomfortable. The organ wolved--you know what I mean: the wind
died--twice in the Christmas Hymn, and the tenor bell, I suppose owing
to some negligence on the part of the ringers, kept sounding faintly
about once in a minute during the sermon. The clerk sent up a man to
see to it, but he seemed unable to do much. I was glad when it was
over. There was an odd incident, too, before the service. I went in
rather early, and came upon two men carrying the parish bier back to
its place under the tower. From what I overheard them saying, it
appeared that it had been put out by mistake, by some one who was not
there. I also saw the clerk busy folding up a moth-eaten velvet
pall--not a sight for Christmas Day.

I dined soon after this, and then, feeling disinclined to go out, took
my seat by the fire in the parlour, with the last number of
Pickwick, which I had been saving up for some days. I thought I
could be sure of keeping awake over this, but I turned out as bad as
our friend Smith. I suppose it was half-past two when I was roused by
a piercing whistle and laughing and talking voices outside in the
market-place. It was a Punch and Judy--I had no doubt the one that my
bagman had seen at W----. I was half delighted, half not--the latter
because my unpleasant dream came back to me so vividly; but, anyhow, I
determined to see it through, and I sent Eliza out with a crown-piece
to the performers and a request that they would face my window if they
could manage it.

The show was a very smart new one; the names of the proprietors, I
need hardly tell you, were Italian, Foresta and Calpigi. The Toby dog
was there, as I had been led to expect. All B---- turned out, but did
not obstruct my view, for I was at the large first-floor window and
not ten yards away.

The play began on the stroke of a quarter to three by the church
clock. Certainly it was very good; and I was soon relieved to find
that the disgust my dream had given me for Punch's onslaughts on his
ill-starred visitors was only transient. I laughed at the demise of
the Turncock, the Foreigner, the Beadle, and even the baby. The only
drawback was the Toby dog's developing a tendency to howl in the wrong
place. Something had occurred, I suppose, to upset him, and something
considerable: for, I forget exactly at what point, he gave a most
lamentable cry, leapt off the foot board, and shot away across the
market-place and down a side street. There was a stage-wait, but only
a brief one. I suppose the men decided that it was no good going after
him, and that he was likely to turn up again at night.

We went on. Punch dealt faithfully with Judy, and in fact with all
comers; and then came the moment when the gallows was erected, and the
great scene with Mr. Ketch was to be enacted. It was now that
something happened of which I can certainly not yet see the import
fully. You have witnessed an execution, and know what the criminal's
head looks like with the cap on. If you are like me, you never wish to
think of it again, and I do not willingly remind you of it. It was
just such a head as that, that I, from my somewhat higher post, saw in
the inside of the show-box; but at first the audience did not see it.
I expected it to emerge into their view, but instead of that there
slowly rose for a few seconds an uncovered face, with an expression of
terror upon it, of which I have never imagined the like. It seemed as
if the man, whoever he was, was being forcibly lifted, with his arms
somehow pinioned or held back, towards the little gibbet on the
stage. I could just see the nightcapped head behind him. Then there
was a cry and a crash. The whole show-box fell over backwards; kicking
legs were seen among the ruins, and then two figures--as some said; I
can only answer for one--were visible running at top speed across the
square and disappearing in a lane which leads to the fields.

Of course everybody gave chase. I followed; but the pace was killing,
and very few were in, literally, at the death. It happened in a chalk
pit: the man went over the edge quite blindly and broke his neck. They
searched everywhere for the other, until it occurred to me to ask
whether he had ever left the market-place. At first everyone was sure
that he had; but when we came to look, he was there, under the
show-box, dead too.

But in the chalk pit it was that poor Uncle Henry's body was found,
with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a
peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted
attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I forgot to say the men's real names were Kidman and Gallop. I feel
sure I have heard them, but no one here seems to know anything about
them.

I am coming to you as soon as I can after the funeral. I must tell you
when we meet what I think of it all.






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