The Old Nurse's Story
Categories: GHOST STORIES FROM LITERARY SOURCES
Scary Books: The Haunters & The Haunted
: GEORGE MACDONALD
I set out one evening for the cottage of my old nurse, to bid her
good-bye for many months, probably years. I was to leave the next day
for Edinburgh, on my way to London, whence I had to repair by coach to
my new abode--almost to me like the land beyond the grave, so little did
I know about it, and so wide was the separation between it and my home.
The evening was sultry when I began my walk, and before I arrived at its
end, the clouds rising from all quarters of the horizon, and especially
gathering around the peaks of the mountain, betokened the near approach
of a thunderstorm. This was a great delight to me. Gladly would I take
leave of my home with the memory of a last night of tumultuous
magnificence; followed, probably, by a day of weeping rain, well suited
to the mood of my own heart in bidding farewell to the best of parents
and the dearest of homes. Besides, in common with most Scotchmen who are
young and hardy enough to be unable to realise the existence of coughs
and rheumatic fevers, it was a positive pleasure to me to be out in
rain, hail, or snow.
"I am come to bid you good-bye, Margaret, and to hear the story which
you promised to tell me before I left home: I go to-morrow."
"Do you go so soon, my darling? Well, it will be an awful night to tell
it in; but, as I promised, I suppose I must."
At the moment, two or three great drops of rain, the first of the
storm, fell down the wide chimney, exploding in the clear turf-fire.
"Yes, indeed you must," I replied.
After a short pause, she commenced. Of course she spoke in Gaelic; and I
translate from my recollection of the Gaelic; but rather from the
impression left upon my mind, than from any recollection of words. She
drew her chair near the fire, which we had reason to fear would soon be
put out by the falling rain, and began.
"How old the story is, I do not know. It has come down through many
generations. My grandmother told it to me as I tell it to you; and her
mother and my mother sat beside, never interrupting, but nodding their
heads at every turn. Almost it ought to begin like the fairy tales,
_Once upon a time_,--it took place so long ago; but it is too dreadful
and too true to tell like a fairy tale.--There were two brothers, sons
of the chief of our clan, but as different in appearance and disposition
as two men could be. The elder was fair-haired and strong, much given to
hunting and fishing; fighting too, upon occasion, I daresay, when they
made a foray upon the Saxon, to get back a mouthful of their own. But he
was gentleness itself to everyone about him, and the very soul of honour
in all his doings. The younger was very dark in complexion, and tall and
slender compared to his brother. He was very fond of book-learning,
which, they say, was an uncommon taste in those times. He did not care
for any sports or bodily exercises but one; and that, too, was unusual
in these parts. It was horsemanship. He was a fierce rider, and as much
at home in the saddle as in his study-chair. You may think that, so long
ago, there was not much fit room for riding hereabouts; but, fit or not
fit, he rode. From his reading and riding, the neighbours looked
doubtfully upon him, and whispered about the black art. He usually
bestrode a great powerful black horse, without a white hair on him; and
people said it was either the devil himself, or a demon-horse from the
devil's own stud. What favoured this notion was that in or out of the
stable, the brute would let no other than his master go near him.
Indeed, no one would venture, after he had killed two men, and
grievously maimed a third, tearing him with his teeth and hoofs like a
wild beast. But to his master he was obedient as a hound, and would even
tremble in his presence sometimes.
"The youth's temper corresponded to his habits. He was both gloomy and
passionate. Prone to anger, he had never been known to forgive. Debarred
from anything on which he had set his heart, he would have gone mad with
longing if he had not gone mad with rage. His soul was like the night
around us now, dark, and sultry, and silent, but lighted up by the red
levin of wrath, and torn by the bellowings of thunder-passion. He must
have his will: hell might have his soul. Imagine, then, the rage and
malice in his heart, when he suddenly became aware that an orphan girl,
distantly related to them, who had lived with them for nearly two years,
and whom he had loved for almost all that period, was loved by his elder
brother, and loved him in return. He flung his right hand above his
head, and swore a terrible oath that if he might not, his brother should
not, rushed out of the house, and galloped off among the hills.
"The orphan was a beautiful girl, tall, pale, and slender, with
plentiful dark hair, which, when released from the snood, rippled down
below her knees. Her appearance formed a strong contrast with that of
her favoured lover, while there was some resemblance between her and the
younger brother. This fact seemed, to his fierce selfishness, ground for
a prior claim.
"It may appear strange that a man like him should not have had instant
recourse to his superior and hidden knowledge, by means of which he
might have got rid of his rival with far more of certainty and less of
risk; but I presume that, for the moment, his passion overwhelmed his
consciousness of skill. Yet I do not suppose that he foresaw the mode in
which his hatred was about to operate. At the moment when he learned
their mutual attachment, probably through a domestic, the lady was on
her way to meet her lover as he returned from the day's sport. The
appointed place was on the edge of a deep, rocky ravine, down in whose
dark bosom brawled and foamed a little mountain torrent. You know the
place, Duncan, my dear, I daresay."
(Here she gave me a minute description of the spot, with directions how
to find it.)
"Whether any one saw what I am about to relate, or whether it was put
together afterwards, I cannot tell. The story is like an old tree--so
old that it has lost the marks of its growth. But this is how my
grandmother told it to me. An evil chance led him in the right
direction. The lovers, startled by the sound of the approaching horse,
parted in opposite directions along a narrow mountain-path on the edge
of the ravine. Into this path he struck at a point near where the lovers
had met, but to opposite sides of which they had now receded; so that he
was between them on the path. Turning his horse up the course of the
stream, he soon came in sight of his brother on the ledge before him.
With a suppressed scream of rage, he rode headlong at him, and, ere he
had time to make the least defence, hurled him over the precipice. The
helplessness of the strong man was uttered in one single despairing cry
as he shot into the abyss. Then all was still. The sound of his fall
could not reach the edge of the gulf. Divining in a moment that the
lady, whose name was Elsie, must have fled in the opposite direction, he
reined his steed on his haunches. He could touch the precipice with his
bridle-hand half outstretched; his sword-hand half outstretched would
have dropped a stone to the bottom of the ravine. There was no room to
wheel. One desperate practibility alone remained. Turning his horse's
head towards the edge, he compelled him, by means of the powerful bit,
to rear till he stood almost erect; and so, his body swaying over the
gulf, with quivering and straining muscles, to turn on his hind legs.
Having completed the half-circle, he let him drop, and urged him
furiously in the opposite direction. It must have been by the devil's
own care that he was able to continue his gallop along that ledge of
"He soon caught sight of the maiden. She was leaning, half fainting,
against the precipice. She had beard her lover's last cry, and, although
it had conveyed no suggestion of his voice to her ear, she trembled from
head to foot, and her limbs would bear her no farther. He checked his
speed, rode gently up to her, lifted her unresisting, laid her across
the shoulders of his horse, and, riding carefully till he reached a more
open path, dashed again wildly along the mountain side. The lady's long
hair was shaken loose, and dropped, trailing on the ground. The horse
trampled upon it, and stumbled, half dragging her from the saddle-bow.
He caught her, lifted her up, and looked at her face. She was dead. I
suppose he went mad. He laid her again across the saddle before him, and
rode on, reckless whither. Horse, and man, and maiden were found the
next day, lying at the foot of a cliff, dashed to pieces. It was
observed that a hind shoe of the horse was loose and broken. Whether
this had been the cause of his fall, could not be told; but ever when he
races, as race he will, till the day of doom, along that mountain side,
his gallop is mingled with the clank of the loose and broken shoe. For,
like the sin, the punishment is awful; he shall carry about for ages the
phantom-body of the girl, knowing that her soul is away, sitting with
the soul of his brother, down in the deep ravine, or scaling with him
the topmost crags of the towering mountain peaks. There are some who,
from time to time, see the doomed man careering along the face of the
mountain, with the lady hanging across the steed; and they say it always
betokens a storm, such as this which is now raving about us."
I had not noticed till now, so absorbed had I been in her tale, that the
storm had risen to a very ecstasy of fury.
"They say, likewise, that the lady's hair is still growing; for, every
time they see her, it is longer than before; and that now such is its
length and the headlong speed of the horse, that it floats and streams
out behind, like one of those curved clouds, like a comet's tail, far up
in the sky; only the cloud is white, and the hair dark as night. And
they say it will go on growing until the Last Day, when the horse will
falter, and her hair will gather in; and the horse will fall, and the
hair will twist, and twine, and wreathe itself like a mist of threads
about him, and blind him to everything but her. Then the body will rise
up within it, face to face with him, animated by a fiend, who, twining
_her_ arms around him, will drag him down to the bottomless pit."
I may mention something which now occurred, and which had a strange
effect on my old nurse. It illustrates the assertion that we see around
us only what is within us; marvellous things enough will show themselves
to the marvellous mood. During a short lull in the storm, just as she
had finished her story, we heard the sound of iron-shod hoofs
approaching the cottage. There was no bridle-way into the glen. A knock
came to the door, and, on opening it, we saw an old man seated on a
horse, with a long, slenderly-filled sack lying across the saddle before
him. He said he had lost the path in the storm, and, seeing the light,
had scrambled down to inquire his way. I perceived at once, from the
scared and mysterious look of the old woman's eyes, that she was
persuaded that this appearance had more than a little to do with the
awful rider, the terrific storm, and myself who had heard the sound of
the phantom hoofs. As he ascended the hill, she looked after him, with
wide and pale but unshrinking eyes; then turning in, shut and locked the
door behind her, as by a natural instinct. After two or three of her
significant nods, accompanied by the compression of her lips, she
"He need not think to take me in, wizard as he is, with his disguises. I
can see him through them all. Duncan, my dear, when you suspect
anything, do not be too incredulous. This human demon is, of course, a
wizard still, and knows how to make himself, as well as anything he
touches, take a quite different appearance from the real one; only every
appearance must bear some resemblance, however distant, to the natural
form. That man you saw at the door, was the phantom of which I have been
telling you. What he is after now, of course, I cannot tell; but you
must keep a bold heart, and a firm and wary foot, as you go home
I showed some surprise, I do not doubt, and, perhaps, some fear as well;
but I only said: "How do you know him, Margaret?"
"I can hardly tell you," she replied; "but I do know him. I think he
hates me. Often, of a wild night, when there is moonlight enough by
fits, I see him tearing round this little valley, just on the top
edge--all round; the lady's hair and the horse's mane and tail driving
far behind, and mingling, vaporous, with the stormy clouds. About he
goes, in wild careering gallop; now lost as the moon goes in, then
visible far round when she looks out again--an airy, pale-grey spectre,
which few eyes but mine could see; for, as far as I am aware, no one of
the family but myself has ever possessed the double gift of seeing and
hearing both. In this case I hear no sound, except now and then a clank
from the broken shoe. But I did not mean to tell you that I had ever
seen him. I am not a bit afraid of him. He cannot do more than he may.
His power is limited; else ill enough would he work, the miscreant."
"But," said I, "what has all this, terrible as it is, to do with the
fright you took at my telling you that I had heard the sound of the
broken shoe? Surely you are not afraid of only a storm?"
"No, my boy; I fear no storm. But the fact is, that that sound is seldom
heard, and never, as far as I know, by any of the blood of that wicked
man, without betokening some ill to one of the family, and most probably
to the one who hears it--but I am not quite sure about that. Only some
evil it does portend, although a long time may elapse before it shows
itself; and I have a hope it may mean some one else than you."
"Do not wish that," I replied. "I know no one better able to bear it
than I am; and I hope, whatever it may be, that I only shall have to
meet it. It must surely be something serious to be so foretold--it can
hardly be connected with my disappointment in being compelled to be a
pedagogue instead of a soldier."
"Do not trouble yourself about that, Duncan," replied she. "A soldier
you must be. The same day you told me of the clank of the broken
horseshoe, I saw you return wounded from battle, and fall fainting from
your horse in the street of a great city--only fainting, thank God. But
I have particular reasons for being uneasy at _your_ hearing that boding
sound. Can you tell me the day and hour of your birth?"
"No," I replied. "It seems very odd when I think of it, but I really do
not know even the day."
"Nor any one else, which is stranger still," she answered.
"How does that happen, nurse?"
"We were in terrible anxiety about your mother at the time. So ill was
she, after you were just born, in a strange, unaccountable way, that you
lay almost neglected for more than an hour. In the very act of giving
birth to you, she seemed to the rest around her to be out of her mind,
so wildly did she talk; but I knew better. I knew that she was fighting
some evil power; and what power it was, I knew full well; for twice,
during her pains, I heard the click of the horseshoe. But no one could
help her. After her delivery, she lay as if in a trance, neither dead,
nor at rest, but as if frozen to ice, and conscious of it all the while.
Once more I heard the terrible sound of iron; and, at the moment your
mother started from her trance, screaming, 'My child! my child!' We
suddenly became aware that no one had attended to the child, and rushed
to the place where he lay wrapped in a blanket. Uncovering him, we found
him black in the face, and spotted with dark spots upon the throat. I
thought he was dead; but, with great and almost hopeless pains, we
succeeded in making him breathe, and he gradually recovered. But his
mother continued dreadfully exhausted. It seemed as if she had spent her
life for her child's defence and birth. That was you, Duncan, my dear.
"I was in constant attendance upon her. About a week after your birth,
as near as I can guess, just in the gloaming, I heard yet again the
awful clank--only once. Nothing followed till about midnight. Your
mother slept, and you lay asleep beside her. I sat by the bedside. A
horror fell upon me suddenly, though I neither saw nor heard anything.
Your mother started from her sleep with a cry, which sounded as if it
came from far away, out of a dream, and did not belong to this world. My
blood curdled with fear. She sat up in bed, with wide staring eyes, and
half-open rigid lips, and, feeble as she was, thrust her arms straight
out before her with great force, her hands open and lifted up, with the
palms outwards. The whole action was of one violently repelling another.
She began to talk wildly as she had done before you were born, but,
though I seemed to hear and understand it all at the time, I could not
recall a word of it afterwards. It was as if I had listened to it when
half asleep. I attempted to soothe her, putting my arms round her, but
she seemed quite unconscious of my presence, and my arms seemed
powerless upon the fixed muscles of hers. Not that I tried to constrain
her, for I knew that a battle was going on of some kind or other, and my
interference might do awful mischief. I only tried to comfort and
encourage her. All the time, I was in a state of indescribable cold and
suffering, whether more bodily or mental I could not tell. But at length
I heard yet again the clank of the shoe. A sudden peace seemed to fall
upon my mind--or was it a warm, odorous wind that filled the room? Your
mother dropped her arms, and turned feebly towards her baby. She saw
that he slept a blessed sleep. She smiled like a glorified spirit, and
fell back exhausted on the pillow. I went to the other side of the room
to get a cordial. When I returned to the bedside, I saw at once that she
was dead. Her face smiled still, with an expression of the uttermost
Nurse ceased, trembling as overcome by the recollection; and I was too
much moved and awed to speak. At length, resuming the conversation, she
said: "You see it is no wonder, Duncan, my dear, if, after all this, I
should find, when I wanted to fix the date of your birth, that I could
not determine the day or the hour when it took place. All was confusion
in my poor brain. But it was strange that no one else could, any more
than I. One thing only I can tell you about it. As I carried you across
the room to lay you down--for I assisted at your birth--I happened to
look up to the window. Then I saw what I did not forget, although I did
not think of it again till many days after--a bright star was shining on
the very tip of the thin crescent moon."
"Oh, then," said I, "it is possible to determine the day and the very
hour when my birth took place."
"See the good of book-learning!" replied she. "When you work it out,
just let me know, my dear, that I may remember it."
"That I will."
A silence of some moments followed. Margaret resumed:
"I am afraid you will laugh at my foolish fancies, Duncan; but in
thinking over all these things, as you may suppose I often do, lying
awake in my lonely bed, the notion sometimes comes to me: What if my
Duncan be the youth whom his wicked brother hurled into the ravine, come
again in a new body, to live out his life, cut short by his brother's
hatred? If so, his persecution of you, and of your mother for your sake,
is easy to understand. And if so, you will never be able to rest till
you find your fere, wherever she may have been born on the face of the
earth. For born she must be, long ere now, for you to find. I misdoubt
me much, however, if you will find her without great conflict and
suffering between, for the Powers of Darkness will be against you;
though I have good hope that you will overcome at last. You must forgive
the fancies of a foolish old woman, my dear."
I will not try to describe the strange feelings, almost sensations, that
arose in me while listening to these extraordinary utterances, lest it
should be supposed I was ready to believe all that Margaret narrated or
concluded. I could not help doubting her sanity; but no more could I
help feeling peculiarly moved by her narrative.
Few more words were spoken on either side, but, after receiving renewed
exhortations to carefulness on the way home, I said good-bye to dear old
nurse, considerably comforted, I must confess, that I was not doomed to
be a tutor all my days; for I never questioned the truth of that vision
and its consequent prophecy.
I went out into the midst of the storm, into the alternating throbs of
blackness and radiance; now the possessor of no more room than what my
body filled, and now isolated in world-wide space. And the thunder
seemed to follow me, bellowing after me as I went.
Absorbed in the story I had heard, I took my way, as I thought,
homewards. The whole country was well known to me. I should have said,
before that night, that I could have gone home blindfold. Whether the
lightning bewildered me and made me take a false turn, I cannot tell,
for the hardest thing to understand, in intellectual as well as moral
mistakes, is how we came to go wrong. But after wandering for some time,
plunged in meditation, and with no warning whatever of the presence of
inimical powers, a brilliant lightning-flash showed me that at least I
was not near home. The light was prolonged for a second or two by a
slight electric pulsation; and by that I distinguished a wide space of
blackness on the ground in front of me. Once more wrapt in the folds of
a thick darkness, I dared not move. Suddenly it occurred to me what the
blackness was, and whither I had wandered. It was a huge quarry, of
great depth, long disused, and half filled with water. I knew the place
perfectly. A few more steps would have carried me over the brink. I
stood still, waiting for the next flash, that I might be quite sure of
the way I was about to take before I ventured to move. While I stood, I
fancied I heard a single hollow plunge in the black water far below.
When the lightning came, I turned, and took my path in another
direction. After walking for some time across the heath, I fell. The
fall became a roll, and down a steep declivity I went, over and over,
arriving at the bottom uninjured.
Another flash soon showed me where I was--in the hollow valley, within a
couple of hundred yards from nurse's cottage. I made my way towards it.
There was no light in it, except the feeblest glow from the embers of
her peat fire. "She is in bed," I said to myself, "and I will not
disturb her." Yet something drew me towards the little window. I looked
in. At first I could see nothing. At length, as I kept gazing, I saw
something, indistinct in the darkness, like an outstretched human form.
By this time the storm had lulled. The moon had been up for some time,
but had been quite concealed by tempestuous clouds. Now, however, these
had begun to break up; and, while I stood looking into the cottage, they
scattered away from the face of the moon, and a faint, vapoury gleam of
her light, entering the cottage through a window opposite that at which
I stood, fell directly on the face of my old nurse, as she lay on her
back outstretched upon chairs, pale as death, and with her eyes closed.
The light fell nowhere but on her face. A stranger to her habits would
have thought that she was dead; but she had so much of the appearance
she had had on a former occasion, that I concluded at once she was in
one of her trances. But having often heard that persons in such a
condition ought not to be disturbed, and feeling quite sure she knew
best how to manage herself, I turned, though reluctantly, and left the
lone cottage behind me in the night, with the death-like woman lying
motionless in the midst of it.
I found my way home without any further difficulty, and went to bed,
where I soon fell asleep, thoroughly wearied, more by the mental
excitement I had been experiencing, than by the amount of bodily
exercise I had gone through.
My sleep was tormented with awful dreams; yet, strange to say, I awoke
in the morning refreshed and fearless. The sun was shining through the
chinks in my shutters, which had been closed because of the storm, and
was making streaks and bands of golden brilliancy upon the wall. I had
dressed and completed my preparations long before I heard the steps of
the servant who came to call me.
What a wonderful thing waking is! The time of the ghostly moonshine
passes by, and the great positive sunlight comes. A man who dreams, and
knows that he is dreaming, thinks he knows what waking is; but knows it
so little that he mistakes, one after another, many a vague and dim
change in his dream for an awaking. When the true waking comes at last,
he is filled and overflowed with the power of its reality. So, likewise,
one who, in the darkness, lies waiting for the light about to be struck,
and trying to conceive, with all the force of his imagination, what the
light will be like, is yet, when the reality flames up before him,
seized as by a new and unexpected thing, different from and beyond all
his imagining. He feels as if the darkness were cast to an infinite
distance behind him. So shall it be with us when we wake from this dream
of life into the truer life beyond, and find all our present notions of
being thrown back as into a dim vapoury region of dreamland, where yet
we thought we knew, and whence we looked forward into the present. This
must be what Novalis means when he says: "Our life is not a dream; but
it may become a dream, and perhaps ought to become one."
And so I look back upon the strange history of my past, sometimes asking
myself: "Can it be that all this has really happened to the same _me_,
who am now thinking about it in doubt and wonderment?"