01 Feb The Dead Man of Varley Grange
Hallo, Jack! Where are you off to? Going down to the governor’s place for Christmas?’
Jack Darent, who was in my old regiment, stood drawing on his doeskin gloves upon the 23rd of December the year before last. He was equipped in a long ulster and top hat, and a hansom, already loaded with a gun-case and portmanteau, stood awaiting him. He had a tall, strong figure, a fair, fresh-looking face, and the merriest blue eyes in the world. He held a cigarette between his lips, and late as was the season of the year there was a flower in his buttonhole. When did I ever see handsome Jack Darent and he did not look well dressed and well fed and jaunty? As I ran up the steps of the Club he turned round and laughed merrily.
‘My dear fellow, do I look the sort of man to be victimized at a family Christmas meeting? Do you know the kind of business they have at home? Three maiden aunts and a bachelor uncle, my eldest brother and his insipid wife, and all my sister’s six noisy children at dinner. Church twice a day, and snapdragon between the services! No, thank you! I have a great affection for my old parents, but you don’t catch me going in for that sort of national festival!’
‘You irreverent ruffian!’ I replied, laughing. ‘Ah, if you were a married man…’
‘Ah, if I were a married man!’ replied Captain Darent with something that was almost a sigh, and then lowering his voice, he said hurriedly, ‘How is Miss Lester, Fred?’
‘My sister is quite well, thank you,’ I answered with becoming gravity; and it was not without a spice of malice that I added, ‘She has been going to a great many balls and enjoying herself very much.’
Captain Darent looked profoundly miserable.
‘I don’t see how a poor fellow in a marching regiment, a younger son too, with nothing in the future to look to, is ever to marry nowadays,’ he said almost savagely; ‘when girls, too, are used to so much luxury and extravagance that they can’t live without it. Matrimony is at a deadlock in this century, Fred, chiefly owing to the price of butcher’s meat and bonnets. In fifty years’ time it will become extinct and the country be depopulated. But I must be off, old man, or I shall miss my train.’
‘You have never told me where you are going to, Jack.’
‘Oh, I am going to stay with old Henderson, in Westernshire; he has taken a furnished house, with some first-rate pheasant shooting, for a year. There are seven of us going—all bachelors, and all kindred spirits. We shall shoot all day and smoke half the night. Think what you have lost, old fellow, by becoming a Benedick!’
‘In Westernshire, is it?’ I inquired. ‘Whereabouts is this place, and what is the name of it? For I am a Westernshire man by birth myself, and I know every place in the county.’
‘Oh, it’s a tumbledown sort of old house, I believe,’ answered Jack carelessly. ‘Gables and twisted chimneys outside, and uncomfortable spindle-legged furniture inside—you know the sort of thing; but the shooting is capital, Henderson says, and we must put up with our quarters. He has taken his French cook down, and plenty of liquor, so I’ve no doubt we shan’t starve.’
‘Well, but what is the name of it?’ I persisted, with a growing interest in the subject.
‘Let me see,’ referring to a letter he pulled out of his pocket. ‘Oh, here it is — Varley Grange.’
‘Varley Grange!’ I repeated, aghast. ‘Why, it has not been inhabited for years.’
‘I believe not,’ answered Jack unconcernedly. ‘The shooting has been let separately; but Henderson took a fancy to the house too and thought it would do for him, furniture and all, just as it is. My dear Fred, what are you looking so solemnly at me for?’
‘Jack, let me entreat of you not to go to this place,’ I said, laying my hands on his arm.
‘Not go! Why, Lester, you must be mad! Why on earth shouldn’t I go there?’
‘There are stories — uncomfortable things said of that house.’ I had not the moral courage to say, ‘It is haunted,’ and I felt myself how weak and childish was my attempt to deter him from his intended visit; only — I knew all about Varley Grange.
I think handsome Jack Darent thought privately that I was slightly out of my senses, for I am sure I looked unaccountably upset and dismayed by the mention of the name of the house that Mr Henderson had taken.
‘I dare say it’s cold and draughty and infested with rats and mice,’ he said laughingly; ‘and I have no doubt the creature-comforts will not be equal to Queen’s Gate; but I stand pledged to go now, and I must be off this very minute, so have no time, old fellow, to inquire into the meaning of your sensational warning. Goodbye, and… and remember me to the ladies.’
He ran down the steps and jumped into the hansom.
‘Write to me if you have time!’ I cried out after him; but I don’t think he heard me in the rattle of the departing cab. He nodded and smiled at me and was swiftly whirled out of sight.
As for me, I walked slowly back to my comfortable house in Queen’s Gate. There was my wife presiding at the little five o’clock tea-table, our two fat, pink and white little children tumbling about upon the hearthrug amongst dolls and bricks, and two utterly spoilt and over-fed pugs; and my sister Bella—who, between ourselves, was the prettiest as well as dearest girl in all London—sitting on the floor in her handsome brown, velvet gown, resigning herself gracefully to be trampled upon by the dogs, and to have her hair pulled by the babies.
‘Why, Fred, you look as if you had heard bad news,’ said my wife, looking up anxiously as I entered.
‘I don’t know that I have heard of anything very bad; I have just seen Jack Darent off for Christmas,’ I said, turning instinctively towards my sister. He was a poor man and a younger son, and of course a very bad match for the beautiful Miss Lester; but for all that I had an inkling that Bella was not quite indifferent to her brother’s friend.
‘Oh!’ says that hypocrite. ‘Shall I give you a cup of tea, Fred!’
It is wonderful how women can control their faces and pretend not to care a straw when they hear the name of their lover mentioned. I think Bella overdid it, she looked so supremely indifferent.
‘Where on earth do you suppose he is going to stay, Bella?’
‘Who? Oh, Captain Darent! How should I possibly know where he is going? Archie, pet, please don’t poke the doll’s head quite down Ponto’s throat; I know he will bite it off if you do.’
This last observation was addressed to my son and heir.
‘Well, I think you will be surprised when you hear: he is going to Westernshire, to stay at Varley Grange.’
‘What!’ No doubt about her interest in the subject now! Miss Lester turned as white as her collar and sprang to her feet impetuously, scattering dogs, babies and toys in all directions away from her skirts as she rose.
‘You cannot mean it, Fred! Varley Grange, why, it has not been inhabited for ten years; and the last time—Oh, do you remember those poor people who took it? What a terrible story it has!’
‘Well, it is taken now,’ I said, ‘by a man I know, called Henderson — a bachelor; he has asked down a party of men for a week’s shooting, and Jack Darent is one of them.’
‘For Heaven’s sake prevent him from going!’ cried Bella, clasping her hands.
‘My dear, he is gone!’
‘Oh, then write to him — telegraph — tell him to come back!’ she urged breathlessly.
‘I am afraid it is no use,’ I said gravely. ‘He would not come back; he would not believe me; he would think I was mad.’
‘Did you tell him anything?’ she asked faintly.
‘No, I had not time. I did say a word or two, but he began to laugh.’
‘Yes, that is how it always is!’ she said distractedly. ‘People laugh and pooh-pooh the whole thing, and then they go there and see for themselves, and it is too late!’
She was so thoroughly upset that she left the room. My wife turned to me in astonishment; not being a Westernshire woman, she was not well up in the traditions of that venerable county.
‘What on earth does it all mean, Fred?’ she asked me in amazement. ‘What is the matter with Bella, and why is she so distressed that Captain Darent is going to stay at that particular house?’
‘It is said to be haunted, and…’
‘You don’t mean to say you believe in such rubbish, Fred?’ interrupted my wife sternly, with a side-glance of apprehension at our first-born, who, needless to say, stood by, all eyes and ears, drinking in every word of the conversation of his elders.
‘I never know what I believe or what I don’t believe,’ I answered gravely. ‘All I can say is that there are very singular traditions about that house, and that a great many credible witnesses have seen a very strange thing there, and that a great many disasters have happened to the persons who have seen it.’
‘What has been seen, Fred? Pray tell me the story! Wait, I think I will send the children away.’
My wife rang the bell for the nurse, and as soon as the little ones had been taken from the room she turned to me again.
‘I don’t believe in ghosts or any such rubbish one bit, but I should like to hear your story.’
‘The story is vague enough,’ I answered. ‘In the old days Varley Grange belonged to the ancient family of Varley, now completely extinct. There was, some hundred years ago, a daughter, famed for her beauty and her fascination. She wanted to marry a poor, penniless squire, who loved her devotedly. Her brother, Dennis Varley, the new owner of Varley Grange, refused his consent and shut his sister up in the nunnery that used to stand outside his park gates—there are a few ruins of it left still. The poor nun broke her vows and ran away in the night with her lover. But her brother pursued her and brought her back with him. The lover escaped, but the lord of Varley murdered his sister under his own roof, swearing that no scion of his race should live to disgrace and dishonour his ancient name.
‘Ever since that day Dennis Varley’s spirit cannot rest in its grave—he wanders about the old house at night time, and those who have seen him are numberless. Now and then the pale, shadowy form of a nun flits across the old hall, or along the gloomy passages, and when both strange shapes are seen thus together misfortune and illness, and even death, is sure to pursue the luckless man who has seen them, with remorseless cruelty.’
‘I wonder you believe in such rubbish,’ says my wife at the conclusion of my tale.
I shrug my shoulders and answer nothing, for who are so obstinate as those who persist in disbelieving everything that they cannot understand?
It was little more than a week later that, walking by myself along Pall Mall one afternoon, I suddenly came upon Jack Darent walking towards me.
‘Hallo, Jack! Back again? Why, man, how odd you look!’
There was a change in the man that I was instantly aware of. His frank, careless face looked clouded and anxious, and the merry smile was missing from his handsome countenance.
‘Come into the Club, Fred,’ he said, taking me by the arm. ‘I have something to say to you.’
He drew me into a corner of the Club smoking-room.
‘You were quite right. I wish to Heaven I had never gone to that house.’
‘You mean—have you seen anything?’ I inquired eagerly.
‘I have seen everything,’ he answered with a shudder. ‘They say one dies within a year—’
‘My dear fellow, don’t be so upset about it,’ I interrupted; I was quite distressed to see how thoroughly the man had altered.
‘Let me tell you about it, Fred.’
He drew his chair close to mine and told me his story, pretty nearly in the following words:
‘You remember the day I went down you had kept me talking at the Club door; I had a race to catch the train; however, I just did it. I found the other fellows all waiting for me. There was Charlie Wells, the two Harfords, old Colonel Riddell, who is such a crack shot, two fellows in the Guards, both pretty fair, a man called Thompson, a barrister, Henderson and myself—eight of us in all. We had a remarkably lively journey down, as you may imagine, and reached Varley Grange in the highest possible spirits. We all slept like tops that night.
The next day we were out from eleven till dusk among the coverts, and a better day’s shooting I never enjoyed in the whole course of my life, the birds literally swarmed. We bagged a hundred and thirty brace. We were all pretty well tired when we got home, and did full justice to a very good dinner and first-class Perrier-Jouet. After dinner we adjourned to the hall to smoke. This hall is quite the feature of the house. It is large and bright, panelled half-way up with sombre old oak, and vaulted with heavy carved oaken rafters. At the farther end runs a gallery, into which opened the door of my bedroom, and shut off from the rest of the passages by a swing door at either end.
‘Well, all we fellows sat up there smoking and drinking brandy and soda, and jawing, you know—as men always do when they are together—about sport of all kinds, hunting and shooting and salmon-fishing; and I assure you not one of us had a thought in our heads beyond relating some wonderful incident of a long shot or big fence by which we could each cap the last speaker’s experiences. We were just, I recollect, listening to a long story of the old Colonel’s, about his experiences among bisons in Cachemire, when suddenly one of us—I can’t remember who it was—gave a sort of shout and started to his feet, pointing up to the gallery behind us. We all turned round, and there—I give you my word of honour, Lester—stood a man leaning over the rail of the gallery, staring down upon us.
‘We all saw him. Every one of us. Eight of us, remember. He stood there full ten seconds, looking down with horrible glittering eyes at us. He had a long tawny beard, and his hands, that were crossed together before him, were nothing but skin and bone. But it was his face that was so unspeakably dreadful. It was livid—the face of a dead man!’
‘How was he dressed?’
‘I could not see; he wore some kind of a black cloak over his shoulders, I think, but the lower part of his figure was hidden behind the railings. Well, we all stood perfectly speechless for, as I said, about ten seconds; and then the figure moved, backing slowly into the door of the room behind him, which stood open. It was the door of my bedroom! As soon as he had disappeared our senses seemed to return to us. There was a general rush for the staircase, and, as you may imagine, there was not a corner of the house that was left unsearched; my bedroom especially was ransacked in every part of it. But all in vain; there was not the slightest trace to be found of any living being. You may suppose that not one of us slept that night. We lighted every candle and lamp we could lay hands upon and sat up till daylight, but nothing more was seen.
The next morning, at breakfast, Henderson, who seemed very much annoyed by the whole thing, begged us not to speak of it any more. He said that he had been told, before he had taken the house, that it was supposed to be haunted; but, not being a believer in such childish follies, he had paid but little attention to the rumour. He did not, however, want it talked about, because of the servants, who would be so easily frightened. He was quite certain he said, that the figure we had seen last night must be somebody dressed up to practise a trick upon us, and he recommended us all to bring our guns down loaded after dinner, but meanwhile to forget the startling apparition as far as we could.
‘We, of course, readily agreed to do as he wished, although I do not think that one of us imagined for a moment that any amount of dressing-up would be able to simulate the awful countenance that we had all of us seen too plainly. It would have taken a Hare or an Arthur Cecil, with all the theatrical applicances known only to those two talented actors, to have ‘madeup’ the face, that was literally that of a corpse. Such a person could not be amongst us—actually in the house—without our knowledge.
‘We had another good day’s shooting, and by degrees the fresh air and exercise and the excitement of the sport obliterated the impression of what we had seen in some measure from the minds of most of us. That evening we all appeared in the hall after dinner with our loaded guns beside us; but, although we sat up till the small hours and looked frequently up at the gallery at the end of the hall, nothing at all disturbed us that night.
‘Two nights thus went by and nothing further was seen of the gentleman with the tawny beard. What with the good company, the good cheer and the pheasants, we had pretty well forgotten all about him. We were sitting as usual upon the third night, with our pipes and our cigars; a pleasant glow from the bright wood fire in the great chimney lighted up the old hall, and shed a genial warmth about us; when suddenly it seemed to me as if there came a breath of cold, chill air behind me, such as one feels when going down into some damp, cold vault or cellar.
‘A strong shiver shook me from head to foot. Before even I saw it I knew that it was there. ‘It leant over the railing of the gallery and looked down at us all just as it had done before. There was no change in the attitude, no alteration in the fixed, malignant glare in those stony, lifeless eyes; no movement in the white and bloodless features. Below, amongst the eight of us gathered there, there arose a panic of terror. Eight strong, healthy, well-educated nineteenth century Englishmen, and yet I am not ashamed to say that we were paralysed with fear. Then one, more quickly recovering his senses than the rest, caught at his gun, that leant against the wide chimney-corner, and fired.
‘The hall was filled with smoke, but as it cleared away every one of us could see the figure of our supernatural visitant slowly backing, as he had done on the previous occasion, into the chamber behind him, with something like a sardonic smile of scornful derision upon his horrible, death-like face.
‘The next morning it is a singular and remarkable fact that four out of the eight of us received by the morning post—so they stated—letters of importance which called them up to town by the very first train! One man’s mother was ill, another had to consult his lawyer, whilst pressing engagements, to which they could assign no definite name, called away the other two.
‘There were left in the house that day but four of us—Wells, Bob Harford, our host, and myself. A sort of dogged determination not to be worsted by a scare of this kind kept us still there. The morning light brought a return of common sense and natural courage to us. We could manage to laugh over last night’s terrors whilst discussing our bacon and kidneys and hot coffee over the late breakfast in the pleasant morning-room, with the sunshine streaming cheerily in through the diamond-paned windows.
‘ “It must be a delusion of our brains,” said one.
‘ “Our host’s champagne,” suggested another.
‘ “A well-organized hoax,” opined a third.
‘ “I will tell you what we will do,” said our host. “Now that those other fellows have all gone—and I suppose we don’t any of us believe much in those elaborate family reasons which have so unaccountably summoned them away—we four will sit up regularly night after night and watch for this thing, whatever it may be. I do not believe in ghosts. However, this morning I have taken the trouble to go out before breakfast to see the Rector of the parish, an old gentleman who is well up in all the traditions of the neighbourhood, and I have learnt from him the whole of the supposed story of our friend of the tawny beard, which, if you will, I will relate to you.
‘Henderson then proceeded to tell us the tradition concerning the Dennis Varley who murdered his sister, the nun—a story which I will not repeat to you, Lester, as I see you know it already. ‘The clergyman had furthermore told him that the figure of the murdered nun was also sometimes seen in the same gallery, but that this was a very rare occurrence. When both the murderer and his victim are seen together, terrible misfortunes are sure to assail the unfortunate living man who sees them; and if the nun’s face is revealed, death within the year is the doom of the ill-fated person who has seen it.
‘ “Of course,” concluded our host, “I consider all these stories to be absolutely childish. At the same time I cannot help thinking that some human agency—probably a gang of thieves or housebreakers—is at work, and that we shall probably be able to unearth an organized system of villainy by which the rogues, presuming on the credulity of the persons who have inhabited the place, have been able to plant themselves securely among some secret passages and hidden rooms in the house, and have carried on their depredations undiscovered and unsuspected. Now, will all of you help me to unravel this mystery?”
‘We all promised readily to do so. It is astonishing how brave we felt at eleven o’clock in the morning; what an amount of pluck and courage each man professed himself to be endued with; how lightly we jested about the “old boy with the beard”, and what jokes we cracked about the murdered nun!
‘ “She would show her face oftener if she was good-looking. No fear of her looking at Bob Harford, he was too ugly. It was Jack Darent who was the showman of the party; she’d be sure to make straight for him if she could, he was always run after by the women,” and so on, till we were all laughing loudly and heartily over our own witticisms. That was eleven o’clock in the morning.
‘At eleven o’clock at night we could have given a very different report of ourselves.
‘At eleven o’clock at night each man took up his appointed post in solemn and somewhat depressed silence.
‘The plan of our campaign had been carefully organized by our host. Each man was posted separately with about thirty yards between them, so that no optical delusion, such as an effect of firelight upon the oak panelling, nor any reflection from the circular mirror over the chimneypiece, should be able to deceive more than one of us. Our host fixed himself in the very centre of the hail, facing the gallery at the end; Wells took up his position half-way up the short, straight flight of steps; Harford was at the top of the stairs upon the gallery itself I was opposite to him at the further end. In this manner, whenever the figure—ghost or burglar—should appear, it must necessarily be between two of us, and be seen from both the right and the left side. We were prepared to believe that one amongst us might be deceived by his senses or by his imagination, but it was clear that two persons could not see the same object from a different point of view and be simultaneously deluded by any effect of light or any optical hallucination.
‘Each man was provided with a loaded revolver, a brandy and soda and a sufficient stock of pipes or cigars to last him through the night. We took up our positions at eleven o’clock exactly, and waited.
‘At first we were all four very silent and, as I have said before, slightly depressed; but as the hour wore away and nothing was seen or heard we began to talk to each other. Talking, however, was rather a difficulty. To begin with, we had to shout—at least we in the gallery had to shout to Henderson, down in the hall; and though Harford and Wells could converse quite comfortably, I, not being able to see the latter at all from my end of the gallery, had to pass my remarks to him second-hand through Harford, who amused himself in mis-stating every intelligent remark that I entrusted him with; added to which natural impediments to the “flow of the soul”, the elements thought fit to create such a hullabaloo without that conversation was rendered still further a work of difficulty.
‘I never remember such a night in all my life. The rain came down in torrents; the wind howled and shrieked wildly amongst the tall chimneys and the bare elm trees without. Every now and then there was a lull, and then, again and again, a long sobbing moan came swirling round and round the house, for all the world like the cry of a human being in agony. It was a night to make one shudder, and thank Heaven for a roof over one’s head.
‘We all sat on at our separate posts hour after hour, listening to the wind and talking at intervals; but as the time wore on insensibly we became less and less talkative, and a sort of depression crept over us.
‘At last we relapsed into a profound silence; then suddenly there came upon us all that chill blast of air, like a breath from a charnel-house, that we had experienced before, and almost simultaneously a hoarse cry broke from Henderson in the body of the hall below, and from Wells half-way up the stairs. Harford and I sprang to our feet, and we too saw it.
‘The dead man was slowly coming up the stairs. He passed silently up with a sort of still, gliding motion, within a few inches of poor Wells, who shrank back, white with terror, against the wall. Henderson rushed wildly up the staircase in pursuit, whilst Harford and I, up on the gallery, fell instinctively back at his approach.
‘He passed between us. We saw the glitter of his sightless eyes—the shrivelled skin upon his withered face—the mouth that fell away, like the mouth of a corpse, beneath his tawny beard. We felt the cold death-like blast that came with him, and the sickening horror of his terrible presence. Ah! can I ever forget it?’
With a strong shudder Jack Darent buried his face in his hands, and seemed too much overcome for some minutes to be able to proceed.
‘My dear fellow, are you sure?’ I said in an awe-struck whisper.
He lifted his head.
‘Forgive me, Lester; the whole business has shaken my nerves so thoroughly that I have not yet been able to get over it. But I have not yet told you the worst.’
‘Good Heavens—is there worse?’ I ejaculated.
‘No sooner,’ he continued, ‘had this awful creature passed us than Harford clutched at my arm and pointed to the farther end of the gallery.
‘“Look!” he cried hoarsely, “the nun!”
‘There, coming towards us from the opposite direction, was the veiled figure of a nun. ‘There were the long, flowing black and white garments—the gleam of the crucifix at her neck—the jangle of her rosary-beads from her waist; but her face was hidden. ‘A sort of desperation seized me. With a violent effort over myself I went towards this fresh apparition.
‘ “It must be a hoax,” I said to myself and there was a half-formed intention in my mind of wrenching aside the flowing draperies and of seeing for myself who and what it was. I strode towards the figure—I stood—within half a yard of it. The nun raised her head slowly — and, Lester — I saw her face!’
There was a moment’s silence.
‘What was it like, Jack?’ I asked him presently. He shook his head.
‘That I can never tell to any living creature.’
‘Was it so horrible?’
He nodded assent, shuddering.
‘And what happened next?’
‘I believe I fainted. At all events I remembered nothing further. They made me go to the vicarage next day. I was so knocked over by it all — I was quite ill. I could not have stayed in the house. I stopped there all yesterday, and I got up to town this morning. I wish to Heaven I had taken your advice, old man, and had never gone to the horrible house.’
‘I wish you had, Jack,’ I answered fervently.
‘Do you know that I shall die within the year?’ he asked me presently.
I tried to pooh-pooh it.
‘My dear fellow, don’t take the thing so seriously as all that. Whatever may be the meaning of these horrible apparitions, there can be nothing but an old wives’ fable in that saying. Why on earth should you die — you of all people, a great strong fellow with a constitution of iron? You don’t look much like dying!’
‘For all that I shall die. I cannot tell you why I am so certain — but I know that it will be so,’ he answered in a low voice. ‘And some terrible misfortune will happen to Harford—the other two never saw her — it is he and I who are doomed.’
A year has passed away. Last summer fashionable society rang for a week or more with the tale of poor Bob Harford’s misfortune. The girl whom he was engaged to and to whom he was devotedly attached—young, beautiful and wealthy—ran away on the eve of her wedding-day with a drinking, swindling villain who had been turned out of ever so many clubs and tabooed for ages by every respectable man in town, and who had nothing but a handsome face and a fascinating manner to recommend him, and who by dint of these had succeeded in gaining a complete ascendancy over the fickle heart of poor Bob’s lovely fiancée. As to Harford, he sold out and went off to the backwoods of Canada, and has never been heard of since.
And what of Jack Darent? Poor, handsome Jack, with his tall figure and his bright, happy face, and the merry blue eyes that had wiled Bella Lester’s heart away! Alas! far away in Southern Africa, poor Jack Darent lies in an unknown grave—slain by a Zulu assegai on the fatal plain of Isandula! And Bella goes about clad in sable garments, heavy-eyed and stricken with sore grief. A widow in heart, if not in name.