Chapter 159510003

See chapter in newspaper

Chapter NumberNone
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article159510003
Full Date1867-04-27
Page Number7
Corrections0
Word Count5507
IllustratedN
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleAdelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904)
Trove TitleA Christmas Story
article text

Mrs mA Jftrtrfics.

A CHRISTMAS STORY.

It was Chrismas-eve, and a jovial, mercy J

party was assembled in a large bnt cozy room, in a comfortable country house.

The candles burnt brightly, the fire sent forth a cheerful blaze, the curtains were closely drawn, to exclude the noise of the rude blast, which howled and raged outside, and every face in the circle beamed with happiness.

It was a sort of scene, the beauty of which i only an Englishman could understand—the I sterling feeling and purity of which only an Englishman could appreciate.

The most conspicuous of the group arranged J around the fire were an old lady and gentle man, the mistress and master of the house. They were beautiful examples, particularly the old lady, of serene and placid old age.

At the time my story opens, the old gentle- ! man was addressing a young man in a naval

uniform—

"Why I object to travel on a Christmas

eve is tins. Some years ago—that is, when j I first started in life—I was a sort of higgler,

and used to travel about the country, buying j

up pigs, poultry, andsuchlike. Among others,

I used to deal with an old couple, who lived | in a solitary house, some five or six miles from ^ny other habitation.

"It was a large, old, rattle-trap sort of a j place, and bad, in former times, been an in-n

or public-house; but the road that passed it j

had beau turned, and a short cut made to the

next town, and so it had fallen into disuse j

and decay.

"Around the house were stables, and also I attached to it were a few acres of land, which the old couple cultivated, and a garden for I vegetables; while in front there was a heath, upon which they turned out a flock of geese. The house was some distance from the present

road, and the way to it was not kept in ! order, so that it was extremely rough, and

at certain seasons almost dangerous. How I they ever came to take up their abode in j

such an out-of-the-way place I never could

understand, for not only was the house j very large, but there was no market within j

12 miles. .

"There were, however, as there always are, strange stories afloat, both about the people and the house, previous to their coming theie,

and it was said that the old maw and his wife were somewhat implicated in many a dark deed which took place there and elsewhere. All this, however, was mere report, and as far as I was concerned, I never saw anything to confirm it, or in any way to excite my suspicions.

"I had had many a deal with the old couple for their geese, and occasionally had bought a pig or two of them; hut they were snch a cantankerous old pair, and drove so hard a bargain, that I did not care to go out of my way to trade with them, when I could lay out my money elsewhere. My visits occurred at irregular intervals during several years; but I generally had to go to them at Christmas for some of their geese, which were the finest I could procure.

"One year, the day before Christmas-eve,

I started at daybreak to the old house, to I purchase some geese, and having made a bar gain with the old man for as many as I wanted, I put them into my cart, and started back, leaving him and his wife mumbling and grin ning at each other over the money I had just paid them.

"The day had been rough and stormy, and before I reached the house there had been a heavy fall of snow. I did not think much of this; bnt as I proceeded on my homeward journey over the heath, i£ came thicker and thicker, and at last it was with difficulty I could keep the track, for not only was the road not distinguishable, but the snow fell so thick that I could not see my horse's

head.

" After I had been travelling on for more than an hour, I saw something dark looming in the distance. I pushed on, and at last saw that I was approaching a house. At first I could not make it out, but you may jndge of my surprise when I did so, to find that, instead of being nearly at the end of my journey, I bad made a circuit, aud got

back to the old house from whence I had started.

"I was hesitating what I should do, when, to bring matters to a climax, just at this mo ment the cart gave a sudden larch, and the next instant I lay stunned and bleeding at the bottom of a disused gravel pit.

"After I bad somewhat recovered from the shock, and found that none of my bones

were broken, I rose up and made for the j

house.

"The old man and woman were greatly I surprised when they saw me back again, and j did not appear well-pleased; but when I told ] them of my accident, the old man proffered " his assistance, and after some considerable

amount of trouble, my horse and the geese were extricated from the pit without much damage, though my nag had received a blow in falling which rendered him for the time dead lame. By the time we had got back to

the house, the storm was raging with such i fury that we could hardly keep our feet, and 1 I was not sorry to find myself in front of the large fire which the old woman had male up while we had been absent. <

"There was no help for it hut to remain the night, and so I proceeded to make myself as comfortable as I could. Their larder was, as I expected, but sparingly furnished, and I therefore determined to kill one of my geese, and set the old woman to cook it. The pro spectof a good supper at another's expense seemed to act like magic on the old woman, who bustled about, put on a large pot, and very soon my senses began to be assailed by a most pleasant odour.

"When supper was concluded, the old man, on my offering to pay for it, produced a bottle of whisky. \Ve linished this between us, and after smoking two or three pipes, I felt sleepy, and went to bed. The room in which I was put was better furnished than I expected; but it was large, and the floor and windows so dilapidated, that the wind found its way in in a most unpleasant fashion. Still, when I got between the blankets, I found myself more comfortable than I could have expected, and very shortly fell asleep.

"1 had not been in bed, I should suppose, more than an hour, when I was aroused by a violent knocking at the door. I lay for some time, and listened, and then the knocking was renewed. I was just thinking of rising, and seeing what or who it was, when I heard footsteps on the stairs, and then the door opened, and some one was admitted.

"In a short time T could hear, from the '? crackling of the wood, that the fire was being made up; and presently the old man re-as cended the stairs and brought back liis wife.

"For some time after this I lay perfectly still, wondering what it could all mean, when suddenly I saw, through a crack in the parti tion, a light moving about in the room next

mine.

"I rose softly, and on looking through the chink, I could see the old woman preparing a bed. Her face was towards me, and there was something in the expression of her coun

tenance which startled me. I never saw any thing more perfectly fiendish.

"{I was about to retire again to my bed, when, as I moved, one of the hoards creaked. She started, left the bedside, and approached the chink, through which I had been looking; hut I drew on one side, so that she could not see me, though I could see the gleam of her eyes through the crack.

"I stood still, for I was afraid to move. At last, to my relief, she turned away, and went on with her work, and without more ado I got hack into my bed.

"I lay down again, and for some time all was quiet.

"Presently the sound of voices struck my ear, and I listened. I could recognise that of the old man, mingling with two others. One soft, like a woman's, the other, clear and strong, as of a man.

"Then, at times, came a ringing, merry laugh, and bits of conversation, which I could not put together. All this excited my curiosity, till at last I half made up my mind to rise and see what was going on.

"Just as I was in the act of dressing, I heard footsteps on the stairs, and my inquisi tivenessgettingthe better of me, I approached the door, and peeped through a crevice.

"The old woman came first, followed by one of the most beautiful girls I ever set my eyes upon, and in the rear of this fair young creature, came a third person—a mail of about

55 or 60.

"I never saw a more interesting face. The features were all strikingly handsome ; hut the expression of the face was very mournful and sad, almost painful to look at.

"They all stopped opposite to my door. There were a few whispered words between the father and daughter, for such they evi dently were, a kiss, and then they separated, the girl following the old woman up the next flight of stairs, and the man turning into his

room next mine.

"I cannot tell you how I felt as I gazed after the old hag and the young girL She seemed almost as if she was a lamb going to be slaughtered; and when, as she ascended the stair, her sweet silveiy voice grew less distinct, till a door closed, and it no longer reached me, I felt that I was in some measure to blame in not giving her warning. * Warn ing! yes,' I thought; 'but of what?'

"A gleam of light from the old gentleman's candle recalled him to my mind. Should I speak to him? Should I tell him to fasten Ins door, and be upon his guard ? I was about to do so, and had approached the crack for that purpose, when I thought I would look through. Just as I reached it, he appeared to have finished a survey of the room, and approaching the bed-side, fell on his knees and bowed his head in prayer.

"I dared not interrupt him, and when he had done I thought better of it, and return ing to my bed, I once more fell asleep. I had a lot of muddling dreams, out of one of which I awoke suddenly. There was a noise, I fancied, in the next room, and I rose up and listened. The stranger's light was still burning. What could he be about?

"After a second or two it moved, and passed into the passage. I sprang out of bed and went to the door. There, in the middle of the passage, stood the old man, a candle in one hand, and a long Spanish knife gleaming in

the other.

"Never was anything more diabolical than the expression of his face, and if ever there was murder written in a man's eyes it was in

his.

"I stood like one transfixed—my whole frame trembled with excitement—yet I was rooted to the floor; I could not move or stir a limb.

"The old man seemed almost in the same fix as I was, for he stood for some minutes motionless, gazing at his knife. He then nut down the candle, and wiped it upon the tail of his coat, and when he had done so I saw that it was stained with blood.

"At this moment something moved tpon

the stairs, and then the pale, white, bat beautiful face of the girl was thrust forward

over the bannister.

"I never saw a more lovely example of

terror.

" She made no noise, but stood as one fasci nated. The knife was still in his hand, and as he stooped to take up the candle theireyes met. With a muttered curse he seized the candle and sprang towards the stairs.

"The girl's head was suddenly withdrawn, and a prolonged shriek ran through the house. It seemed as though that scream, so long and heartrending, had thawed my blood. My fetters, as it were, fell from me, and opening the door, I rushed headlong up the stairs to grapple with the old man.

"Another scream, mere heartrending and more prolonged, thrilled my heart, the light was suddenly extinguished and a door closed.

"When I got upon the second landing, it was silent as the grave—not a sound broke the stillness of the night.

"At length, after groping about for some minutes, on approaching one of the doors, I fancied I could hear some one breathing be hind it. Thinking it was the young lady, who had probably eluded the old man, and shut herself in, I spoke to her, telling her I was a friend, and that she might trust me. However, I obtained no answer, she, I imagined, thinking it only a trick to induce her to open the door.

"What had become of the old man I could not make out; his disappearance seemed almost magical. So, after trying all the doors, and waiting and searching about for more than half-an-hour, as £ could neither see, nor could I hear anything hut what appeared to me to he some one snoring, I went back to my room.

"1 thought, at any rate, the girl was thus far safe, for I was almost certain I heard her close and bolt the door, and if the old man attempted anything 1 was now awake, and ready to go to her succour. But what of her father? I felt my way to his door; hut it was locked, and to my repeated calls he made no answer. I next thought I would go down to the kitchen and get a light. All there was silent and dark; not a sign of the old couple could I see, and not a sound reached

my ear.

"I remembered where I had seen the old

woman keep the tinder-box ; hut it was not in its place, and though I searched diligently I could not find the means of getting a Kght. Finding, therefore, I could do nothing till daylight, I determined to get hack to my room and there await its advent. ,

"After I had returned I heard the clock

strike five, and I knew that I had at least two hours to wait before there would be suffi

cient light for me to do anything, so I lay down in my bed, determined, if possible, not to go to sleep.

"However, that proved useless, for, though I tried hard to keep my eyes open, at last sleep overcame me, and I did not awake till it was broad daylight.

"I arose and dressed myself, and when I got down stairs I found the old woman up, the fire lighted, and everything as usual.

"'What was all that noise about last night?' I asked.

" 'Hey !' she replied ; 'what did you say?' "I repeated the question.

'"Noise! I didn't hear any noise.'

" 'Who were the lady and gentleman you

let in after I went to bed ?'

"'Lady and gentleman!' she mumbled, looking at me askant; 'what are you talking about ? The whisky was too strong for you —you must have been drunk!'

" 'No; nothing of the sort. Where's yonr

husband?' ?

"'Gone out to look after the horse.'

"1 questioned her a great deal more, but I could get uothiug out of her, though she was evidently greatly perturbed, and kept on muttering and maundering to herself.

"Shortly afterwards, the old man came in, and I went through the same series of questions with him. He stoutly denied the admittance of any guests after I had retired; but when I described their appear ance, I noticed that he trembled and was very pale.

"Finding I could get nothing satisfactory from these people, 1 ate my breakfast, and when I had finished I sat down to think. Could it be possible that all the incidents which occurred last night were not real, but were a dream? I went through them all again and again, and I made up my mind that it was impossible. Still there was not a sign of anything that would indicate that any one else was, or had been, in the house beside myself.

"The whole thing was so mysterious that I was fairly puzzled. At one time I made up my mind that I would start oft and get assistance to search the house; but the snow was so deep, and it continued to fall so tliiekly, that I felt certain to attempt to

cross the heath would be madness, so I was I fain to rest where I was. 1

"I never spent such a dull, uncomfortable day in all my life. I did not know what to think—whether I had been, as it were, bewitched, and had seen all these things in a vision, or whether there was some thing really wrong about these people.

" How the day passed I do not know ; but I know that at last night came, and I retired

to bed.

"I did not undress myself, but putting out the candle, I lay down in my clothes.

"In about half an hour I rose, and,

opening the door softly, descended into the

kitchen.

" As there was formerly in many houses, there was a large pane of glass in the door, through which I could see, and before this I stationed myself.

"The fire was still burning, and by its light I could see my host and hostess crouching over it, and both of them were smoking.

" * I wonder if he's asleep!' the old man

said after a time.

"' Asleep! who?' asked the old woman, who seemed only to have caught the last word.

" 'Why, the higgler.'

" 'He ! yes. I put a little of my snuff" in his nightcap, and by this time he's as sound

as a church.'

" ' Your suuff,' the old man exclaimed; 'I hope you didn't give him too much. I should not like him to drop off the hooks!'

"' Why not?' asked she; ' what makes you concern yourself about him?'

"'What makes me concern myself about ?him?' reiterated the old man; 'why, in the

first place, because if he was gone, we should have some trouble to get rid of our things; and in the second place, because, if he was missed, there would be such a hue and cry, and such a search after him, as would "be rather unpleasant to us.'

" 'Well,' I thought, 'this is veiy myste rious. Snuff! nightcap! What does the old

crone mean?'

'"I wish he hadn't come,'grunted the old

woman.

" 'So do I,' responded her husband, 'for 1 fancy he smells a rat.'

''' Well, if he doesn't, it's very strange; and if I had my way, search or no search, he shouldn't go back to tell tales.'

"I don't know if any one can fancy my feeling as I stood and heard this, but I can tell yon it was not a pleasant thing to hear. However, t did not quail at my position, for I now saw that there was a mystery, that there was something wrong, and I determined to find it out. How this was to be done I did not rightly see, but I could perceive that great caution was required; and as a man who is forewarned is also forearmed, I determined to wait with patience, leaving the issue to Him who guides the stars in their course, and who was able to keep me in safety if it was His good pleasure.

"Just as these thoughts passed through my brain, the old woman rose from her seat, and fancying it was no longer safe for me to stop, I made my way back to my room, slipped off my things, and lay down in my

bed.

"Without a thought of what I had heard, I put on the nightcap that lay on my pillow, and then listened for the old people to come up stairs. I had already done so, when I felt a most uncomfortable tickling in my nose, followed by a desire to sleep, which I could not controL I immediately remem bered what the old woman had said about the snuff and the nightcap; hat the mischief was done, and almost before I had time to offer up a prayer for protection, I was asleep.

"My. dreams that night were again con fused, and again I was awakened by a loud knocking. I felt an inclination to get up and boldly face these midnight Tisitors, but I

seemed chained to the bed.

" 'What can all this be?' I thought. 'Has the old woman given me an over dose of her confounded snuff, and have I lost the power

of motion?

"It was evidentthat I was suffering from some powerful narcotic, for even while this thought was passing through my mind, I fell asleep again.

'•And now comes another, and perhaps the strangest part of my story. No soouer had 1 fallen asleep than I had another dream. I fancied that I was in a distant

part of the house, and thai all of a sudden 1

heard the sound of a feehle moan.

" I stopped and listened, and, after a time, I heard the same low, feeble sound.

" Then, as if by magic, I was transported to a room in a corner «®f which was a low

couch, and upon it lay a young girl sleeping. I gazed at her, and, to lay astonishment, I

saw that her features were the same as those

of the beautiful young creature I had seen the previous evening but, ish! how altered!

"She was pale and emaciated, hut still very lovely.

" Then everything seemed to vanish from my sight, and I awoke to find it was day light.

" I lay some time thinking, hut there was a considerable amount of confusion in my

brain, and I could not follow out a train of thought; hut at last, hv an effort, I threw oil'my drowsiness, and the import of my dreams began to he apparust. I had always been sceptical as to the significance of dreams and visions; but, putting the two dreams together—for I now saw igiainly. that the incidents I had thought occurred last night were not realities, but a- mysterious revelation of events which had been previously enacted, I made up my mind that I was about to be instrumental in the discovery of a great crime.

" How I was to set absut it I could not

tell, hut I trusted for guidance to a higher

power.

"I went down to my breakfast, but I eould not eat—tlie pale lnrt beautiful face of the giii, as she Lay sleeping, haunted me. After breakfast, 1 watched nay opportunity to slip away unobserved, asid commence a survey of the house.

" I tried to enter the room next to mine, hot it was locked, and, on looking through the hole in the partition, I fonnd ihat it was perfectly dark. I next proceeded cautiously up the next flight of stairs, and had just turned a corner, when I came plnznp upon my hostess. For a moment she stood and glared at me like a tigress.

" 'What do yon want here?' she exeiaimed. ' What do you mean by sneaking aboat the

house in this fashion ?'

"'Well,' I replied, 'I don't want any thing in particular; it was a mere lit of curiosity.'

'"Curiosity is a dangerous thing. I should advise you not to indulge in it here,' she said, significantly.

" 'Dangerous! yes,' I said, laughing. '&>

Mrs. Bluebeard found.'

" Finding that I could not with safety con tinue my search, without rousing suspicion as to my motives, I retired to the kitchen, and

sat down to cogitate.

"The conclusion I arrived at was, that to remain in the house another night, after all I

had heard and "seen, was not safe, for I i thought what the old man had said, as to the hue and cry about me if I should be missed, perhaps might not hold good, now that his wife's fears were aroused. But then, I thought, to make a precipitate re treat would also arouse their suspicions; and if the girl was, as I expected, really confined in the house, what might not they be prompted to do ? Besides, was it not cowardly to make off, and leave her to their mercy?

"But if I wanted to go, I began to per

ceive it would not be so easily accomplished, : for I found that every step of mine was watched, and when I went out to look for my horse, the old man came with me, having in his pocket something very much like a long horse-pistol. This was a sort of armed neutrality, which did not agree with my feelings, and I determined to bring on a crisis.

"I commenced action by knocking the o'd man down and disarming him.

" ' What's that for ?' he asked, when I had tied him up to a manger.

"'Well,' I replied,, 'in the first place I don't like people to follow me about with pistols in their pockets; and, secondly, I have a fancy to go over your house. So now, my advice to you is to remain quite still till I come back, and if I find all things right, I'll release you.'

"At this moment his wife made her ap pearance at the door of the house, and leaving the old man to recover from his sur prise, before she was aware of it, I had her securely tied in a chair.

" At first she was silent; but if looks could have killed me, I should have been annihi lated at once. Then, suddenly, in an utter abandonment of frantic but impotent rage, she raved at and cursed me.

" Leaving her to vent her passion as she could, I proceeded at once to search the house. I paid little respect to locks and bolts, and at last my perseverance was re warded. In one of the garrets, crouching in a corner, was a human form.

"I cannot tell yon my feelings, but not withstanding that the features were sunken and pale, I at once recognised them as those of the young girl I had seen in my vision. I raised her, and spoke kindly to her, but she seemed either stupified, or else too weak to reply to my questions.

"'What to do I could not tell; but I thought a stimulant was the most likely thing to aid in her restoration, and went down and ransacked the place till I found a bottle containing some brandy.

" The old woman looked at me as though she would have eaten me; every now and then writhing in her chair, and uttering imprecations of the most hideous kind.

"However, I thought nothing of her curses, I thought only of the girl upstairs, an how to restore her to her senses.

"A little brandy and water, with a small quantity of bread, worked wonders, and as the afternoon was line, and the snow had by this time hardened, I got out my horse, for the purpose of riding over to the nearest village, and fetching assistance; for it ap peared there was something more the matter with the girl than mere weakness.

" To resolve on a thing was with me to do it, and I started at once.

"As I rode along, I began to remember the stories I had heard with regard to the house; and when I had nearly reached the village an idea suddenly occurred to me. Suppose these people had accomplices. Sup pose they should arrive while I was absent, and release them, what would be the fate of that poor girl?

" These, and many other strange fancies, clustered continually around my brain, till I got quite nervous.

"At last I reached the village, went to the doctor, and told my tale.

"'Good heavens!' he said; 'why, that clears up the mystery! Bnt wait a minute —Til have my buggy got ready, and go back

at once.'

"When his horse was put to, and I, the doctor, and his man had taken our seats, he

commenced—

'"1 dare say you remember old Mr. Wan stall, who lived at the Grange Farm. Well, about five or six weeks since he sold off, for the purpose of joining his son in Australia. When all was arranged, he started off one afternoon with his daughter to cross the heath, so as to reach Berkstone before nightfall, as he had some few debts in the town which he

wanted to settle previous to starting the next day to London. Shortly after he started it came on a thick fog, and, feeling anxious about him, I went over to Berkstone the next day to see if he was all right, and to take another and a final farewell of him. But when I reached the place where he put up, he was not there; nothing had been seen or heard of him or his daughter. I subsequently ascertained that he did not go to Londou, and that the ship sailed without him.'

" 'No, nor ever will, I fear,' said I; 'these wretches have, no doubt, murdered him for his money."

"41 am much of your opinion,' he replied.

"For the remainder of the journey nothing was said; for the doctor was sad as well as anxious on account of the girl, and I could not get the notion out of my head, that by some means the old woman would get free, and wreak her passion upon the poor helpless young creature.

"At last the house came in sight, and I watched anxiously for any signs of a con firmation of my fears. I looked forward with that indistinct but intense volition, which we are apt to exercise under such circumstances, as if a strong and earnest wish might suffice to carry us onward and show us what we desired to know.

"The doctor, perceiving my anxiety, applied the whip, and we moved forward at a brisker pace, and at last we stopped at the door. I could see no one; I heard no sound ; the door was closed as I had left it; I leaped out hastily, and opening the door, I entered and made for the kitchen. I started back with terror, for there lay the old woman, stark and dead.

'"She's been dead some time," said the doctor, feeling her pulse. 'She died of apoplexy, brought on by fear and excite ment. Come let us go up and see the girL'

"As sooh as I had taken the doctor up

stairs, I left T<im to see after the old man; hut on going into the stable he was nowhere to he seen. We shut up the house, and took the girl back to the village; where, under the kind treatment of the good eld doctor, she speedily recovered.

"In conclusion I may say, theoldmanwas captured a few days afterwards, some miles

"with, a quantity of money on liim ;

aineEg which were the very notes that were known to have been in the possession of Mr.

Wasstall, when he started ou that fatal journey across the heath.

•"It appeared that, tempted by the sight of money, which he inadvertently let them see, they murdered him in his sleep, and buried him in the garden. After this, I need not say that the old fellow suffered for his crime, being hanged, three nceiitlis afterwards, in front of the county gaoL®'

"And what became of the girl?" asked the

lieutenant.

"Well," said the old gentleman, "there the sits," pointing to his wife. "After she got well, she took a fancy it me, and married race e.nd now you know why I object to travel

en i. Christmas-eve."

T.E.S.