Wednesday, 25 February 2015

In the Séance Room ~ Lettice Galbraith

Last month I posted about Lettice Galbraith's ghost stories. Today I'm offering up 'In the Séance Room', one of the best ones, for your enjoyment. 

by Lettice Galbraith
Taken from New Ghost Stories, published in 1893

Dr Valentine Burke sat alone by the fire. He had finished his rounds, and no patient had disturbed his post-prandial reflections. The house was very quiet, for the servants had gone to bed, and only the occasional rattle of a passing cab and the light patter of the rain on the window-panes broke the silence of the night. The cheerful glow of the fire and the soft light from the yellow-shaded lamp contrasted pleasantly with the dreary fog which filled the street outside. There were spirit-decanters on the table, flanked by a siphon and a box of choice cigars. Valentine Burke liked his creature comforts. The world and the flesh held full measure of attraction for him, but he did not care about working for his menus plaisirs.

The ordinary routine of his profession bored him. That he might eventually succeed as a ladies’ doctor was tolerably certain. For a young man with little influence and less money, he was doing remarkably well; but Burke was ambitious, and he had a line of his own. He dabbled in psychics, and had written an article on the future of hypnotism which had attracted considerable attention. He was a strong magnetiser, and offered no objection to semi-private exhibitions of his powers. In many drawing-rooms he was already regarded as the apostle of the coming revolution which is to substitute disintegration of matter and cerebral precipitation for the present system of the parcels mail and telegraphic communication. In that section of society which interests itself in occultism Burke saw his way to making a big success.

Meanwhile, as man cannot live on adulation alone, the doctor had a living to get, and he had no intention whatever of getting it by the labour of his hands. He was an astute young man, who knew how to invest his capital to the best advantage. His good looks were his capital, and he was about to invest them in a wealthy marriage. The fates had certainly been propitious when they brought Miss Elma Lang into the charmed circle of the Society for the Revival of Eastern Mysticism. Miss Land was an orphan. She had full control of her fortune of thirty thousand pounds. She was sufficiently pretty, and extremely susceptible. Burke saw his chance, and went for it, to such good purpose that before a month had passed his engagement to the heiress was announced, and the wedding-day within measurable distance. There were several other candidates for Miss Lang’s hand, but it soon became evident that the doctor was first favourite. The gentlemen who devoted themselves to occultism for the most part despised physical attractions; their garments were fearfully and wonderfully made. They were careless as to the arrangement of their hair. Beside them, Valentine Burke, handsome, well set up, and admirably turned out, showed to the very greatest advantage. Elma Lang adored him. She was never tired of admiring him. She was lavish of pretty tokens of her regard. Her photographs, in costly frames, were scattered about his room, and on his hand glittered the single-stone diamond ring which had been her betrothal gift.

He smiled pleasantly as he watched the firelight glinting from the many-coloured facets. ‘I have been lucky,’ he said aloud; ‘I pulled that through very neatly. Just in time, too, for my credit would not stand another year. I ought to be all right now if - ’ He broke off abruptly, and the smile died away. ‘If it were not for that other unfortunate affair! What a fool - what a damned fool I was not to let the girl alone, and what a fool she was to trust me! Why could she not have taken better care of herself? Why could not the old man have looked after her? He made row enough over shutting the stable-door when the horse was gone. It was cleverly managed though. I think even ce cher papa exonerates me from any participation in her disappearance; and fate seems to be playing into my hand too. That body turning up just now is a stroke of luck. I wonder who the poor devil really is?’

He felt for his pocket-book, and took out a newspaper cutting. It was headed in large type, ‘MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF A YOUNG LADY’ -
'The body found yesterday by the police in Muddlesham Harbour is believed to be that of Miss Katharine Greaves, whose mysterious disappearance in January last created so great a sensation. It will be remembered that Miss Greaves, who was a daughter of a well-known physician of Templeford, Worcestershire, had gone to Muddlesham on a visit to her married sister, from whose house she suddenly disappeared. Despite the most strenuous efforts on the part of her distracted family, backed by the assistance of able detectives, her fate has up to the present remained enshrouded in mystery. On the recovery of the body yesterday the Muddlesham police at once communicated with the relations of Miss Greaves, by whom the clothing was identified. It is now supposed that the unhappy girl threw herself into the harbour during a fit of temporary insanity, resulting, it is believed, from an unfortunate love affair.’
Valentine Burke read the paragraph through carefully, and replaced it in the pocket-book with a cynical smile.

‘How exquisitely credulous are the police, and the relatives, and the noble British public. Poor Kitty is practically dead - to the world. What a pity - ’ He hesitated, and stared into the blazing coals. ‘It would save so much trouble,’ he went on after a pause, ‘and I hate trouble.’

His fingers were playing absently with a letter from which he had taken a slip of printed paper - an untidy letter, blotted and smeared, and hastily written on poor, thin paper. He looked at it once or twice and tossed it into the fire. The note-sheet shrivelled and curled over, dropping on to the hearth, where it lay smouldering. A hot cinder had fallen out of the grate, and the doctor, stretching out his foot, kicked the letter close to the live coal. Little red sparks crept like glow-worms along the scorched edges, flickered and died out. The paper would not ignite; it was damp - damp with a woman’s tears. ‘I was a fool,’ he murmured, with conviction. ‘It was not good enough, and it might have ruined me.’ He turned to the spirit-stand and replenished his glass, measuring the brandy carefully. ‘I don’t know that I am out of the wood yet,’ he went on, as he filled up the tumbler with soda-water. ‘The money is running short, and women are so damned inconsiderate. If Kitty were to take it into her head to turn up here it would be the - ’ The sentence remained unfinished, cut short by a sound from below. Someone had rung the night-bell.

Burke set down the glass and bent forward, listening intently. The ring, timid, almost deprecating, was utterly unlike the usual imperative summons for medical aid. Following immediately on his outspoken thoughts, it created an uncomfortable impression of coming danger. He felt certain that it was not a patient; and if it were not a patient, who was it? There was a balcony to the window. He stepped quietly out and leaned over the railing. By the irregular flicker of the street-lamp he could make out the dark figure of a woman on the steps beneath, and through the patter of the falling rain he fancied he caught the sound of a suppressed sob. With a quick glance, to assure himself that no-one was in sight, the doctor ran downstairs and opened the door. A swirl of rain blew into the lighted hall. The woman was leaning against one of the pillars, apparently unconscious. Burke touched her shoulder. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked sharply. At the sound of his voice she uttered a little cry and made a sudden step forward, stumbling over the threshold, and falling heavily against him.

‘Val, Val,’ she cried, despairingly. ‘I thought I should never find you. Take me home, take me home. I am so tired - and, oh, so frightened!’

The last word died away in a wailing sob, then her hands relaxed their clinging hold and dropped nervelessly at her side.

In an emergency Dr Burke acted promptly. He shut the outer door, and gathering up the fainting girl in his arms, carried her into the consulting-room, and laid her on the sofa. There was no touch of tenderness in his handling of the unconscious form. He had never cared much about her, when at her best, dainty in figure and fair of face; he had made love to her, pour passer le temps, in the dullness of a small country town. She had met him more than half-way, and almost before his caprice was gratified he was weary of her. Her very devotion nauseated him. He looked at her now with a shudder of repulsion. The gaslight flared coldly on the white face, drawn by pain and misery. All its pretty youthfulness had vanished. The short hair, uncurled by the damp night air, straggled over the thin forehead. There were lines about the closed eyes and the drooping corners of the mouth. The skin was strained tightly over the cheekbones and looked yellow, like discoloured wax. His eyes noted every defect of face and figure, as he stood wondering what he should do with her.

He knew, no-one better, how quickly the breath of scandal can injure a professional man. Once let the real story of his relations with Katharine Greaves get wind and his career would be practically ruined. He began to realise the gravity of the situation. Two futures lay before him. The one, bright with the sunshine of love and prosperity; the other darkened by poverty and disgrace. He pictured himself the husband of Elma Lang, with all the advantages accruing to the possessor of a charming wife and a large fortune, and he cursed fate which had sent this wreck of womanhood to stand between him and happiness. By this time she had partially recovered, and her eyes opened with the painful upward roll common to nervous patients when regaining consciousness. With her dishevelled hair and rain-soaked garments, she had all the appearance of a dead body. The sight, horrible as it was, fascinated Burke. He turned up the gas, twisting the chandelier so as to throw a full light on the girl’s face.

‘She looks as though she were drowned,’ he thought. ‘When she is really dead she will look like that.’ The idea took possession of his mind. ‘If she were dead, if only she were dead!’

Who can trust the discretion of a wronged and forsaken woman, but - the dead tell no tales. If only she were dead! The words repeated themselves again and again, beating into his brain like the heavy strokes of a hammer. Why should she not die? Her life was over, a spoiled, ruined thing. There was nothing before her but shame and misery. She would be better dead. Why (he laughed suddenly a hard, mirthless laugh), she was dead already. Her body had been found by the police, identified by her own relations. She was supposed to be drowned, so why not make the supposition a reality? A curious light flashed into the doctor’s handsome face. A woman seeing him at that moment would have hesitated before trusting her life in his hands. He looked at his unwelcome visitor with an evil smile.

She had come round now and was crouched in the corner of the sofa sobbing and shivering.

‘Don’t be angry with me, Val, please don’t be angry. I waited till I had only just enough money for my ticket, and I dare not stay there any longer. It is so lonely, and you never come to see me now. It is ten weeks since you were down, and you won’t answer my letters. I was so frightened all alone. I began to think you were getting tired of me. Of course I know it is all nonsense. You love me as much as you ever did. It is only that you are so busy and hate writing letters.’ She paused, waiting for some reassuring words, but he did not answer, only watched her with cold, steady eyes.

‘Did you see the papers,’ she went on, with chattering teeth. ‘They think I am dead. Ever since I read it I have had such dreadful thoughts. I keep seeing myself drowned; I believe I am going to die, Val - and I don’t want to die. I am so - so frightened. I thought you would take me in your arms and comfort me like you used to do, and I should feel safe. Oh, why don’t you speak to me? Why do you look at me like that? Val, dear, don’t do it, don’t do it, I cannot bear it.’

Her great terrified eyes were fixed on his, fascinated by his steady, unflinching gaze. She was trembling violently. Her words came with difficulty, in short gasps.

‘You have never said you were glad to see me. It is true, then, that you don’t love any more? You are tired of me, and you will not marry me now. What shall I do? What shall I do? No-one cares for me, no-one wants me, and there is nothing left for me but to die.’

Still no answer. There was a long silence while their eyes met in that fixed stare - his cold, steady, dominating, hers flinching and striving vainly to withstand the power of the stronger will. In a few moments the unequal struggle had ended. The girl sat stiff and erect, her hand grasping the arm of the sofa. The light of consciousness had died out of the blue eyes, leaving them fixed and glassy. Burke crossed the floor and stood in front of her.

‘Where is your luggage?’ he asked, authoritatively.

She answered in a dull, mechanical way, ‘At the station.’

‘Have you kept anything marked with your own name - any of my letters?'

‘No, nothing - there.’

‘You have kept some of my letters. Where are they?’

‘Here.’ Her hand sought vaguely for her pocket.

‘Give them to me - all of them.’

Mechanically she obeyed him, holding out three envelopes, after separating them carefully from her purse and handkerchief.

‘Give me the other things.’ He opened the purse. Besides a few shillings, it contained only a visiting card, on which an address had been written in pencil. The doctor tore the card across and tossed it into the fireplace. Then his eyes fastened on those of the girl before him. Very slowly he bent forward and whispered a few words in her ear, repeating them again and again. The abject terror visible in her face would have touched any heart but that of the man in whose path she stood. No living soul, save the ‘sensitive’ on whom he was experimenting, heard those words, but they were registered by a higher power than that of the criminal court, damning evidence to be produced one day against the man who had prostituted his spiritual gift to mean and selfish ends.

In the grey light of the chilly November morning a park-keeper, near the Regent’s Canal, was startled by a sudden, piercing shriek. Hurrying in the direction of the sound, he saw, through leafless branches, a figure struggling in the black water. The park-keeper was a plucky fellow, whose courage had gained more than one recognition from the Humane Society, and he began to run towards the spot where the dark form had been, but before he had covered ten yards of ground rapid footsteps gained on his and a man shot past him. ‘Someone in the canal,’ he shouted as he ran. ‘I think it is a woman. You had better get help.’

‘He was a good plucky one,’ the park-keeper averred, when a few days later he retailed the story to a select circle of friends at the bar of the Regent’s Arms, where the inquest had been held. ‘Not that I’d have been behindhand, but my wind ain’t what it was, and he might have been shot out of a catapult. He was off with his coat and into the water before you could say Jack Robinson. Twice I thought he had her safe enough, and twice she pulled him under; the third time, blest if I thought they were coming up at all. Then the doctor chap, he comes to the surface dead-beat, but the girl in his arms.’

‘ “I’m afraid she’s gone,” he says, when I took her from him, “but we won’t lose time,” and he set to and carried out all the instructions for recovering the apparently drowned while I went for some brandy. It wasn’t a bit of use. The young woman were as dead as a doornail. “If she’d only have kept quiet, I might have saved her,” he says, quite sorrowful-like, “but she struggled so”, and sure enough his hands were regularly torn and bruised where she’d gripped him.’

Dr Burke and the park-keeper were the chief witnesses at the inquest. There were no means of identifying the dead woman. The jury returned a verdict of felo-de-se, and the coroner complimented the doctor on his courageous attempt to rescue the poor outcast.

The newspapers, too, gave him a nice little paragraph, headed, ‘Determined Suicide in Regent’s Park. Gallant conduct of a well-known physician’; and Elma Lang’s dark eyes filled with fond and happy tears as she read her lover’s praises.

‘You are so brave, Val, so good,’ she cried, ‘and I am so proud of you; but you ran a horrible risk.’

‘Yes,’ he answered, gravely, ‘I thought once it was all up with me. That poor girl nearly succeeded in drowning the pair of us. Still, there wasn’t much in it, you know; any other fellow would have done the same.’

‘No, they would not. It is no use trying to pretend you are not a hero, Val, because you are. How awful it must have been when she clung to you so desperately. It might have cost you your life.’

‘It cost me my ring,’ he replied, ruefully. ‘It is lying at the bottom of the canal at this moment, unless some adventurous fish has swallowed it - your first gift.’

‘What does it matter,’ she answered, impulsively, ‘I can give you another tomorrow. What does anything matter since you are safe?’

Burke took her in his arms, and kissed the pretty upturned face. She was his now, bought with the price of another woman’s life. Bah! he wanted to forget the clutch of those stiffening fingers and the glazed awful stare of the dead eyes through he water.

‘Let us drop the subject,’ he said, gently. ‘It is not a pleasant one, and, as you say, nothing matters since I am safe’ - he added under his breath, ‘quite safe now’.

The carriage stood at the door. In the drawing-room Mrs Burke was waiting for her husband. She had often waited for the doctor during the four years which had elapsed since their marriage. Those four years had seen to a great extent the fulfilment of Burke’s ambition. He had money. He was popular, sought-after, an acknowledged leader of the new school of Philosophy, an authority on psychic phenomena, and the idol of the ‘smart’ women who played with the fashionable theories and talked glibly on subjects the very A B C of which was far beyond their feeble comprehension. Socially, Dr Burke was an immense success. If, as a husband, he fell short of Elma’s expectations, she never admitted the fact. She made an admirable wife, interesting herself in his studies, and assisting him materially in his literary work. Outwardly, they were a devoted couple. The world knew nothing of the indefinable barrier which held husband and wife apart; of a certain vague distrust which had crept into the woman’s heart, bred of an instinctive feeling that her husband was not what he seemed to be. Something, she knew not what, lay between them. Her quick perceptions told her that he was always acting a part. She held in her hand a little sheaf of papers, notes that she had prepared for him on the series of séances, which for a month past had been the talk of the town. A medium of extraordinary power had flashed like a meteor into the firmament of London society. Phenomena of the most startling kind had baffled alike the explanations of both scientist and occultist. Spiritualism was triumphant. A test committee had been formed, of which Dr Burke was unanimously elected president, but so far the attempts to expose the alleged frauds had not been attended with any success.

It was to Mme Delphine’s house that the Burkes were going tonight. The séance commenced at ten, and the hands of the clock already pointed to a quarter to that hour, when the doctor hurried into the room.

‘Ready?’ he said. ‘Come along then. Where are the notes?’

He glanced hastily through them as he went downstairs.

‘Falconer and I have been there all afternoon,’ he explained as they drove off. ‘I had only just time to get something to eat at the club before I dressed. We have taken the most elaborate precautions. If something cannot be proved tonight - ’ he paused.

‘Well?’ she said, anxiously.

‘We shall be the laughing-stock of London,’ he concluded, emphatically.

‘What do you really think of it?’

‘Humbug, of course; but the difficulty is to prove it.’

‘Mrs Thirlwall declares that the fifth appearance last night was undoubtedly her husband. I saw her today; she was quite overcome.’

‘Mrs Thirlwall is a hysterical fool.’

‘But your theory admitted the possibility of materialising the intense mental - ’

Burke leaned back in the carriage, laughing softly.

‘My dear child, I had to say something.’

‘Valentine,’ she cried, sorrowfully, ‘is there no truth in anything you say or write? Do you believe in nothing?’

‘Certainly. I believe in matter and myself, also that the many fools exist for the benefit of a minority with brains. When I see any reason to alter my belief, I shall not hesitate to do so. If, for instance, I am convinced that I see with my material eyes a person whom I know to be dead, I will become a convert to spiritualism. Bt I shall never see it.’

The drawing-room was filled when they arrived at Mme Delphine’s. Seats had been kept for the doctor and his wife. There was a short whispered consultation between Burke and his colleagues, the usual warning from the medium that the audience must conform to the rules of the séance, and the business of the evening began in the customary style. Musical instruments sounded in different parts of the room, light fingers touched the faces of the sitters. Questions written on slips of paper and placed in a sealed cabinet received answers from the spirit world, which the inquirers admitted to be correct. The medium’s assistant handed one of these blank slips to Burke, requesting him to fill it up.

It struck the doctor that if he were to ask some question the answer to which he did not himself know, but could afterwards verify, he would guard against the possibility of playing into the hands of an adroit thought-reader. He accordingly wrote on the paper, ‘What was I doing this time four years ago? Give the initials of my companion, if any.’

He had not the vaguest idea as to where exactly he had been on the date in question, but a reference to the rough diary he always kept would verify or disprove the answer.

The folded slip was sealed and placed in the cabinet. In due time the medium declared the replies were ready. The cabinet was opened, and the slips, numbered in the order in which they had been given in, were returned to their owners. Burke noticed that there were no fresh folds in his paper, and the seal was of course unbroken. He opened it, and as his eye fell on the writing he gave a slight start, and glanced sharply at the medium. Beneath his query was written in ink that was scarcely yet dry:
On Wednesday, November, 17, 1885, you were at No. 63, Abbey Road. Only I was with you. You hypnotised me. - K. G.
The handwriting was that of Katharine Greaves.

The doctor was staggered. In the multiplied interests and distractions of his daily life he had completely forgotten the date of that tragic visit. He tried to recall the exact day of the month and week. He remembered now that it was on a Wednesday, and this was Monday. Calculating the odd days for the leap year, 1888, that would bring it to Monday - Monday the 17th. Four years ago tonight Kitty had been alive. She was dead now, and yet here before him was a page written in her hand. He sat staring at the characters, lost in thought. The familiar writing brought back with irresistible force the memory of that painful interview. It suggested another and very serious danger. Burke did not believe for a moment that the answer to his question had been dictated by the disembodied spirit of his victim. He was racking his brains to discover how his secret might possibly have leaked out, who this woman could be who knew, and traded on her knowledge, of that dark passage in his life which he had believed to be hidden from all the world. Was it merely a bow drawn at a venture, which had chanced to strike the one weak place in his armour, or was it deliberately planned with a view to extorting money?

So deeply was he wrapped in his reflections , that the manifestations went on around him unheeded. The dark curtain which screened off a portion of the room divided, and a white-robed child stepped out. It was instantly recognised by one of the sitters - a nervous, highly-strung woman, whose passionate entreaties that her dead darling would return to earth fairly harrowed the feelings of the listeners. Other manifestations followed. The audience were becoming greatly excited. Burke sat indifferent to it all, his eyes fixed on the writing before him, till his wife touched him gently.

‘What is the matter, Val?’ she whispered, trying to read the paper over his shoulder. ‘Is your answer correct?’

He turned on her sharply, crushing the message in his hand. ‘No,’ he said audibly. ‘It is a gross imposture. There was no such person.’

‘Hush.’ She laid a restraining hand on his arm. ‘Do not speak so loudly. That is a point in our favour, anyway. Mr Falconer has proposed a fresh test. He has asked if a material object, something that had been lost at any time, you know, can be restored by the spirits. Madame returned a favourable answer. Mr Falconer could not think of anything at the moment, but I had a brilliant inspiration. I told him to ask for your diamond ring - the ring you lost when you tried to save that poor girl’s life.’

Burke rose to his feet, then recollecting himself, sat down again and tried to pull himself together. There was nothing in it. If this Madame Delphine really was acquainted with the facts of his relations with Katharine Greaves she could not know its ghastly termination. He tried to reassure himself, but vainly. His nerve was deserting him, and his eyes roved vacantly round the semi-darkened room, as if in search of something. A sudden silence had fallen on the audience. A cold chill, like a draught of icy air, swept through the séance chamber. Mrs Burke shivered from head to foot, and drew closer to her husband. Suddenly the stillness was broken by a shriek of horror. It issued from the lips of the medium, who, like a second Witch of Endor, saw more than she expected, and crouched terror-stricken in the chair to which she was secured by cords adjusted by the test committee. The presence which had appeared before the black curtain was no white-clad denizen of ‘summer-land’, but a woman in dark, clinging garments - a woman with wide-opened, glassy eyes, fixed in an unalterable stony stare. It was a ghastly sight. All the concentrated agony of a violent death was stamped on that awful face.

Of the twenty people who looked upon it, not one had power to move or speak.

Slowly the terrible thing glided forward, hardly touching the ground, one hand outstretched, and on the open palm a small, glittering object - a diamond ring!

It moved very slowly, and the second or so during which it traversed the space between the curtain and the seats of the audience seemed hours to the man who knew for whom it came.

Valentine Burke sat rigid. He was oblivious to the presence of spectators, hardly conscious of his own existence. Everything was swallowed up in a suspense too agonising for words, the fearful expectancy of what was about to happen. Nearer and nearer ‘it’ came. Now it was close to him. He could feel the deathly dampness of its breath; those awful eyes were looking into his. The distorted lips parted - formed a single word. Was it the voice of a guilty conscience, or did that word really ring through and through the room - Murderer!’

For a full minute the agony lasted, then something fell with a sharp click on the carpet-less floor. The sound recalled the petrified audience to a consciousness of mundane things. They became aware that ‘it’ was gone.

They moved furtively, glanced at each other - at last someone spoke. It was Mrs Burke. She had vainly tried to attract her husband’s attention, and now turned to Falconer, who sat next to her.

‘Help me get him away,’ she said.

The doctor alone had not stirred; his eyes were fixed as though he were still confronted by that unearthly presence.

Someone had turned up the gas. Two of the committee were releasing the medium, who was half-dead with fright. Falconer unfastened the door, and sent a servant whom he met in the hall for a hansom.

When he returned to the séance room the doctor was still in the same position. It was some moments before he could be roused, but when once they succeeded in their efforts Burke's senses seemed to return. He rose directly, and prepared to accompany his wife. As they quitted their seats, Falconer’s eyes fell on the diamond ring which lay unnoticed on the ground. He was going to pick it up, but someone caught his hand and stopped him.

‘Leave it alone,’ said Mrs Burke, in a horrified whisper. ‘For God’s sake, don’t touch it.’

Husband and wife drove home in silence. Silently the doctor dismissed the cab and opened the hall-door. The gas was burning brightly in the study. The servant had left on the side-table a tray with sandwiches, wine, and spirits. Burke poured out some brandy and tossed it off neat. His face was still rather white, otherwise he had quite recovered his usual composure.

Mrs Burke loosened her cloak and dropped wearily into a chair by the fire. A hopeless despondency was visible in every line of her attitude. Once or twice the doctor looked at her, and opened his lips to speak. Then he thought better of it, and kept silent. Half an hour passed in this way. At last Burke lighted a candle and left the room. When he returned he carried in his hand a small bottle. He had completely regained his self-possession as he came over to his wife and scrutinised her troubled face.

‘Have some wine,’ he said, ‘and then you had better go to bed. You look thoroughly done up.’

‘What is that?’ She pointed to the bottle in his hand.

‘A sleeping-draught. Merely a little morphia and bromide. I should advise you to take one, too. Frankly, tonight’s performance was enough to try the strongest nerves. Mine require steadying by a good night’s rest, and I don not intend risking an attack of insomnia.’

She rose suddenly from her chair and clasped her hands on his arm.

‘Val,’ she cried, piteously, ‘don’t try to deceive me. Dear, I can bear anything if you will only trust me and tell me the truth. What is this thing which stands between us? What was the meaning of that awful sight?’

For a moment he hesitated; then he pulled himself together and answered lightly - ‘My dear girl, you are unnerved, and I do not wonder at it. Let us forget it.’

‘I cannot, I cannot,’ she interrupted wildly. ‘I must know what it meant. I have always felt there was something. Valentine, I beseech you, by everything you hold sacred, tell me the truth now before it is too late. I could forgive you almost - almost anything, if you will tell me bravely; but do not leave me to find it out for myself.’

‘There is nothing to tell.’

‘You will not trust me?’

‘I tell you there is nothing.’

‘That is your final answer?’


Without a word she left the room and went upstairs. Burke soon followed her. His nerves had been sufficiently shaken to make solitude undesirable. He smoked a cigar in his dressing-room, and took the sleeping-draught before going to bed. The effects of the opiate lasted for several hours. It was broad daylight when the doctor awoke. He felt weak and used up, and his head was splitting. He lay for a short time in that drowsy condition which is the borderland between sleeping and waking. Then he became conscious that his wife was not in the room. He looked at his watch, and saw that it was half-past nine. He waited a few minutes, expecting her to return, but she did not come. Presently he got up and drew back the window-curtains. As the full light streamed in, he was struck by a certain change in the appearance of the room. At first he was uncertain in what the change consisted, but gradually he realised that it lay in the absence of the usual feminine impedimenta. The dressing-table was shorn of its silver toilet accessories. One or two drawers were open and emptied of their contents. The writing-table was cleared, and his wife’s dressing case had disappeared from its usual place. Burke’s first impulse was to ring for a servant and make inquiries, but as he stretched out his hand to the bell his eyes fell on a letter, conspicuously placed on the centre of a small table. It was addressed in Elma’s handwriting. From that moment Burke knew that something had happened, and he was prepared for the worst. The letter was not long. It was written firmly, though pale-blue stains here and there indicated where the wet ink had been splashed by falling tears.
When you read this [she wrote] I shall have left you for ever. The only reparation in your power is to refrain from any attempt to follow me; indeed, you will hardly desire to do so when I tell you that I know all. I said last night I could not endure the torture of uncertainty. My fears were so terrible that I felt I must know the truth or die. I implored you to trust me. You put me off with a lie. Was I to blame if I used against you a power which you yourself had taught me? In the last four hours I have heard from your own lips the whole story of Katharine Greaves. Every detail of that horrible tragedy you confessed unconsciously in your sleep, and I who loved you - Heaven knows how dearly! - have to endure the agony of knowing my husband a murderer, and that my wretched fortune supplied the motive for the crime. Thank God that I have no child to bear the curse of your sin, to inherit its father’s nature! I hardly know what I am writing. The very ground seems to be cut away from under my feet. On every side I can see nothing but dense darkness, and the only thing that is left to us is death.
                                                    Your wretched wife,
From the moment he opened the letter, Burke’s decision was made. He possessed the exact admixture of physical courage and moral cowardice which induces a man worsted in the battle of life to end the conflict by removing himself from the arena. He had taken the best of the world’s gifts, and there was nothing left worth having. His belief in a future life was too vague to cause him any uneasiness, and physically, fear was a word he did not understand. He quietly lighted his wife’s litter with a match, and threw it into the fireless grate. He smoked a cigar while he watched it burn, and carefully hid the charred ashes among the cinders. Then he fetched from his dressing-room a small polished box, unlocked it, and took out the revolver. It was loaded in all six chambers.

Burke leisurely finished his cigarette, and tossed the end away. He never hesitated a moment. He had no regret for the life he was leaving. As Elma had said, there was only one thing left for him to do, and - he did it.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Five Victorian Ghost Novels

Five Victorian Ghost Novels, a reprint of the 1971 Dover volume of the same name, contains five short novels published between 1846 and 1897: The Uninhabited House by Mrs J. H. Riddell, The Amber Witch by Wilhelm Meinhold, Monsieur Maurice by Amelia B. Edwards, A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee, and The Ghost of Guir House by Charles Willing Beale.

Mrs J. H. Riddell's The Uninhabited House was first published in Routledge's Christmas Annual for 1875. Mr Elmsdale, a money-lender, is found dead in his library, and the subsequent inquest finds that he committed suicide while not of sound mind. Following his demise, the letting of his house, River Hall, is managed by Messrs Craven and Son, but the property is seldom let for long. One tenant after another abandons the place in haste, and all state the same reason for their departure: the house is haunted.

Colonel Morris and his family agree to rent River Hall for two years, but three months later they, like all tenants before them, abandon the place, resulting in a legal battle between the Colonel and Miss Blake, the deceased owner's sister-in-law, who is a woman of strong character and decidedly frayed gloves. The court case, which is highly entertaining, renders the house unlettable. 

Believing that someone is up to no good and wishes the house to remain empty, Miss Blake says she will give fifty pounds to anyone who can fathom the mystery of River Hall, and the narrator, Henry Patterson, a clerk at Mr Craven's firm, offers to live there and do just that. It is at this point that the tale becomes more serious, as Patterson goes about investigating the cause of the curious goings on at River Hall... the apparition on the stairs, doors that open and close by themselves, and the regular visits of a suspicious, slightly lame figure who watches the house after dark.

In his introduction to the book, E. F. Bleiler says that Riddell was 'in many ways the Victorian ghost novelist par excellence,' and I can certainly see why she was such a popular and successful writer of her day. It's a very sad thing that she's almost forgotten these days.

The Amber Witch by Wilhelm Meinhold, was first published in English in 1844. The more successful translation, by Lady Duff Gordon, was published in 1846 and is the one used in this book. It is a fictional work claiming to be a factual seventeenth century account of a witch trial that took place during the Thirty Years War, which Meinhold claims to have discovered amongst various papers in a church at Coserow, on the Island of Usedom. The narrator is Pastor Abraham Schweidler, whose daughter Maria is accused of being a witch.

The Amber Witch was a Victorian favourite, especially popular with the Pre-Raphaelites. At the time that it was first published in Germany, it was taken by many to be a factual account, and I can see why. But it is so authentic sounding that it does rather ramble on a bit; thirty-seven pages go by before there's talk of witchcraft. It's actually rather ingenious, but it's also very slow. It would be fascinating from a historical point of view if it were factual, and horrific (don't forget that the book is fiction, but witch trials were very real indeed), but as a work of fiction it's a bit too much like hard work. Oh, and it isn't a ghost story.

Monsieur Maurice by Amelia B. Edwards first appeared in 1873 in Monsieur Maurice, A New Novelette and Other Tales. The narrator, Gretchen, tells us that the events she is relating took place in Brühl, in Germany, fifty years earlier, when she was ten years of age. She and her father become hosts for a state-prisoner, a Frenchman called Monsieur Maurice, of whom little Gretchen becomes immensely fond. It's impossible to say much more without giving the plot away, but the main focus of the tale is the relationship between Gretchen and Monsieur Maurice, and the former's attachment and devotion to the latter.

A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee first appeared in novella form in 1886 as A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story. The text used here is that from Hauntings, Fantastic Stories, published in 1890, in which the tale is entitled Oke of Okehurst; Or, The Phantom Lover. The tale is narrated by an artist who, having been commissioned to paint the portraits of William Oke and his wife Alice, is staying with the Oke's at Okehurst throughout the summer. From the outset, there is something not quite right about Alice Oke, who appears to gain some perverse enjoyment from teasing her husband, towards whom she is otherwise indifferent. She is obsessed with her seventeenth century ancestor, also called Alice Oke, who, along with her husband, is said to have murdered a poet called Christopher Lovelock at Cotes Common. Lovelock was the lover of the seventeenth century Alice Oke, and the current Mrs Oke appears to be in love with his ghost, which is said to haunt the yellow drawing-room of Okehurst. But is she? It's all rather ambiguous... rather Jamesian (as in Henry). If you are a fan of The Turn of the Screw, as I am, you will like this one.

Charles Willing Beale's The Ghost of Guir House was first published in 1897. In it, Paul Henley receives a redirected letter intended for some other Mr P. Henley of New York City, written by Miss Dorothy Guir of Guir House, Virginia. The letter contains an invitation to the intended Mr Henley, who Miss Guir has never actually seen, to visit her home, and our Mr Henley decides to impersonate his namesake and visit Guir House in his place. Once there, Paul falls in love with Dorothy, who lives with an elderly man called Ah Ben, but there is something mysterious about the inhabitants of Guir House. There is also something mysterious about the staircase Paul discovers inside his bedroom closet, and the locked door that lies beyond it.

In part, Beale's novel is an eerie romantic tale of Henley's relationship with Dorothy and his exploration of Guir House. To a greater extent, it is a series of long lectures on Theosophy and the nature of reality. Though the philosophical dialogues between Henley and Ah Ben are relevant to the eerie romantic storyline, they form such a large part of the novel that they go way beyond merely offering an explanation of what is happening. Ultimately, the novel is less about the supernatural and more about occult philosophy, so I'd not call it a ghost story. I'd call it a fictionalised treatise on the nature of existence.

This collection is a very mixed bag; no one tale is like another. It's a good way to dip your toe in if you've not read anything by these writers before. The best, in my opinion, is Vernon Lee's A Phantom Lover. Mrs Riddell's The Uninhabited House comes in as a close second. The Amber Witch, the longest of the five novels, is the least enjoyable, despite being the most ingenious. It's an interesting collection, and well worth a read.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Handful of Ghosts ~ George H. Bushnell

George Herbert Bushnell (1896~1973) was librarian at St Andrews University from 1924 to 1961, and he lived in St Andrews throughout that time. He wrote a number of non-fiction books, mainly concerning the history of the book. The ghost stories contained in his only published fiction collection, A Handful of Ghosts, all of which are set in and around St Andrews, were written for the entertainment of the Celtic Society, to be told 'by candlelight on winter night' during the blackouts of the Second World War.

A Handful of Ghosts was originally published by the University Press of St Andrews in 1945. A paperback edition, which is the one shown here, was published by St Andrews Preservation Trust in 1993. It's a slim little volume of just sixty-one pages and includes only five tales.

The narrator of 'The Closing of the Cloisters' is researching the history of the book-trade in St Andrews when he comes across some information, from the 18th century, relating to the closure of the Cloisters behind the Chapel College. In 1750, a student who had taken to pilfering books was hauled before the Senatus for his crimes and found guilty. One member of the Senatus, referred to as Professor X, was all for forcing the student to spend the night tied by a rope to a hook fixed in the Cloisters. The other members of the Senatus rejected the idea, but challenged Professor X to spend the night there himself. The professor, who wasn't a nice man, had no fear of the dark, but as the lights went out and silence fell he heard creak... creak...

'The Closing of the Cloisters' appears to have been inspired by events which took place in 1707, when David Murray, the University messenger, took his own life by hanging. As punishment for his sin, the University Court decreed that the poor man should be dissected, and his skeleton articulated. The skeleton was put on display in the spot where its owner had committed suicide, but by 1889 it had been hidden away. Bushnell was one of two men who located the skeleton and reopened its box for the first time in many years in 1941.*

'The Tenement' concerns the history of a building known as 'the murder house'. A 'gaunt and skeleton-like' property that stood on an ugly corner where two roads met, the local children crossed to the other side of the road to avoid passing by it, and they certainly wouldn't play within a hundred yards of the place. 

In 'The screaming Horsemen', a book comes into the possesson of the University library, and in it are a number of seventeenth century letters and papers relating to the Earl of Lauderdale. One document purports to be a copy of a charter granting lands in Angus to an ancestor of Lauderdale, and on the back of it is a note in what looks to be the hand of Sir Walter Scott, referring to events in 1793, when he saw four horsemen at the bottom of the loch... screaming.

'The Shadow Man' is based on real events that took place in 1779, when, at the height of the American War of Independence, a flotilla of  American Navy vessels under the command of Scottish-born John Paul Jones arrived in the Firth of Forth and found it entirely undefended. In Bushnell's story, Reverend Mr Robert Shirra and his congregation, including Henry the Precentor, who has been dead these past ten years, go in procession down to the sands to ask for divine assistance in seeing off their foe.

In 'I Shall Take Proper Precautions!', it is Christmas Eve in the first year of the Second World War. Fiona Proctor, an assistant at the University Library, is shelving returned books when she discovers that one of the volumes does not belong to the library. As the owner's name and address is inscribed on the fly-leaf, she decides to take the book away with her. Unable to sleep that night, she ends up reading the strange book, with its account of Harry Dairsie, otherwise known as the Wizard of Kemback, due to his meddlings with magic. She discovers, however, that the last few pages are missing. The following day, she attempts to return the book to its owner and experiences 'a gap in space and time'.

I like Bushnell's conversational style and his sense of humour, especially in the last of the stories. But the best story, to my mind, is the first, 'The Closing of the Cloisters', which is the only one of the five tales that is actually creepy. It's a shame that this small volume was Bushnell's only venture into the realms of fiction.

The first edition of A Handful of Ghosts is almost impossible to find, and I haven't a clue how much one would go for. The 1993 paperback edition is amazingly difficult to get hold of too. I stumbled across my copy by accident. The only copy I can find for sale at the moment is fifty pounds (that's about $80).