Monday, 27 July 2015

'Number Ninety' ~ B. M. Croker

Following on from my last post, I thought it might be a nice idea to type up one of B. M. Croker's ghost stories, so you can get an idea of the style and content of her tales. Enjoy!

By B. M. Croker
First published in Chapman's Magazine of Fiction, December 1895

‘To let furnished, for a term of years, at a very low rental, a large old-fashioned family residence, comprising eleven bed-rooms, four reception-rooms, dressing-rooms, two stair-cases, complete servants’ offices, ample accommodation for a Gentleman’s establishment, including six-stall stable, coach-house, etc.’

The above advertisement referred to number ninety. For a period extending over some years this notice appeared spasmodically in various daily papers. Occasionally you saw it running for a week or a fortnight at a stretch, as if it were resolved to force itself into consideration by sheer persistency. Sometimes for months I looked for it in vain. Other ignorant folk might possibly fancy that the effort of the house agent had been crowned at last with success — that it was let, and no longer in the market.

I knew better. I knew that it would never, never find a tenant as long as oak and ash endured. I knew that it was passed on as a hopeless case, from house-agent to house-agent. I knew that it would never be occupied, save by rats — and, more than this, I knew the reason why!

I will not say in what square, street, or road number ninety may be found, nor will I divulge to any human being its precise and exact locality, but this I’m prepared to state, that it is positively in existence, is in London, and is still empty.

Twenty years ago, this very Christmas, my friend John Hollyoak (civil engineer) and I were guests at a bachelor’s party; partaking, in company with eight other celibates, of a very recherché little dinner, in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly. Conversation became very brisk, as the champagne circulated, and many topics were started, discussed, and dismissed.

They (I say they advisedly, as I myself am a man of few words) talked on an extraordinary variety of subjects.

I distinctly recollect a long argument on mushrooms — mushrooms, murders, racing, cholera; from cholera we came to sudden death, from sudden death to churchyards, and from churchyards, it was naturally but a step to ghosts.

On this last topic the arguments became fast and furious, for the company was divided into two camps. The larger, ‘the opposition,’ who scoffed, sneered, and snapped their fingers, and laughed with irritating contempt at the very name of ghosts, was headed by John Hollyoak; the smaller party, who were dogged, angry, and prepared to back their opinions to any extent, had for their leader our host, a bald-headed man of business, whom I certainly would have credited (as I mentally remarked) with more sense.

The believers in the supernatural obtained a hearing, so far as to relate one or two blood-curdling, first or second-hand experiences, which, when concluded, instead of being received with an awe-struck and respectful silence, were pooh-poohed, with shouts of laughter, and taunting suggestions that were by no means complimentary to the intelligence, or sobriety, of the victims of superstition. Argument and counter-argument waxed louder and hotter, and there was every prospect of a very stormy conclusion to the evening’s entertainment.

John Hollyoak, who was the most vehement, the most incredulous, the most jocular, and the most derisive of the anti-ghost faction, brought matters to a climax by declaring that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to pass a night in a haunted house — and the worse its character, the better he would be pleased!

His challenge was instantly taken up by our somewhat ruffled host, who warmly assured him that his wishes could be easily satisfied, and that he would be accommodated with a night’s lodging in a haunted house within twenty-four hours — in fact, in a house of such a desperate reputation, that even the adjoining mansions stood vacant.

He then proceeded to give a brief outline of the history of number ninety. It had once been the residence of a well-known country family, but what evil events had happened therein tradition did not relate.

On the death of the last owner — a diabolical looking aged person, much resembling the typical wizard — it had passed into the hands of a kinsman, resident abroad, who had no wish to return to England, and who desired his agents to let it, if they could — a most significant proviso!

Year by year went by, and still this ‘Highly desirable family mansion’ could find no tenant, although the rent was reduced, and reduced, and again reduced, to almost zero!

The most ghastly whispers were afloat — the most terrible experiences were actually proclaimed on the housetops!

No tenant would remain, even gratis; and for the last ten years, this, ‘handsome, desirable town family residence’ had been the abode of rats by day, and something else by night — so said the neighbours.

Of course it was the very thing for John, and he snatched up the gauntlet on the spot. He scoffed at its evil repute, and solemnly promised to rehabilitate its character within a week.

It was in vain that he was solemnly warned — that one of his fellow guests gravely assured him ‘that he would not pass a night in number ninety for ninety thousand pounds — it would be the price of his reason.’

‘You value your reason at a very high figure,’ replied John, with an indulgent smile. ‘I will venture mine for nothing.'

‘Those laugh who win,’ put in our host sharply. ‘You have not been through the wood yet though your name is Hollyoak! I invite all present to dine with me in three days from this; and then, if our friend here has proved that he has got the better of the spirits, we will all laugh together. Is that a bargain?’

This invitation was promptly accepted by the whole company; and then they fell to making practical arrangements for John's lodgings for the next night.

I had no actual hand — or, more properly speaking, tongue — in this discussion, which carried us on till a late hour; but nevertheless, the next night at ten o’clock — for no ghost with any self respect would think of appearing before that time — I found myself standing, as John's second, on the steps of the notorious abode; but I was not going to remain; the hansom that brought us was to take me back to my respectable chambers.

This ill-fated house was large, solemn-looking, and gloomy. A heavy portico frowned down on neighbouring bare-faced hall-doors. The caretaker (an army pensioner, bravest of the brave in daylight) was prudently awaiting us outside with a key, which said key he turned in the lock, and admitted us into a great echoing hall, black as Erebus, saying as he did so: ‘My missus has haired the bed, and made up a good fire in the first front, sir. Your things is all laid hout, and (dubiously to John) I hope you’ll have a comfortable night, sir.’

‘No, sir! Thank you, sir! Excuse me, I'll not come in! Good-night!’ and with the words still on his lips, he clattered down the steps with most indecent haste, and — vanished.

‘And of course you will not come in either?’ said John. ‘It is not in the bond, and I prefer to face them alone!’ and he laughed contemptuously, a laugh that had a curious echo, it struck me at the time. A laugh strangely repeated, with an unpleasant mocking emphasis. ‘Call for me, alive or dead, at eight o’clock to-morrow morning!’ he added, pushing me forcibly out into the porch, and closing the door with a heavy, reverberating clang, that sounded half-way down the street.

I did call for him the next morning as desired, with the army pensioner, who stared at his common-place, self-possessed appearance, with an expression of respectful astonishment.

‘So it was all humbug, of course,’ I said, as he took my arm, and we set off for our club.

‘You shall have the whole story whenever we have had something to eat,’ he replied somewhat impatiently. ‘It will keep till after breakfast — I’m famishing!’

I remarked that he looked unusually grave as we chatted over our broiled fish and omelette, and that occasionally his attention seemed wandering, to say the least of it. The moment he had brought out his cigar-case and lit up he turned to me and said:

‘I see you are just quivering to know my experience, and I won’t keep you on tenter-hooks any longer. In four words — I have seen them!’

I am (as before hinted) a silent man. I merely looked at him with widely-parted mouth and staring interrogative eyes.

I believe I had best endeavour to give the narrative without comment, and in John Hollyoak’s own way. This is, as well as I can recollect, his experience word for word: —

‘I proceeded upstairs, after I had shut you out, lighting my way by a match, and found the front room easily, as the door was ajar, and it was lit up by a roaring and most cheerful-looking fire, and two wax candles. It was a comfortable apartment, furnished with old-fashioned chairs and tables, and the traditional four-poster. There were numerous doors, which proved to be cupboards; and when I had executed a rigorous search in each of these closets and locked them, and investigated the bed above and beneath, sounded the walls, and bolted the door, I sat down before the fire, lit a cigar, opened a book, and felt that I was going to be master of the situation, and most thoroughly and comfortably ‘at home.’ My novel proved absorbing. I read on greedily, chapter after chapter, and so interested was I, and amused — for it was a lively book — that I positively lost sight of my whereabouts, and fancied myself reading in my own chamber! There was not a sound — not even a mouse in wainscot. The coals dropping from the grate occasionally broke the silence, till a neighbouring church-clock slowly boomed twelve! “The Hour!” I said to myself, with a laugh, as I gave the fire a rousing poke, and commenced a fresh chapter; but ere I had read three pages I had occasion to pause and listen. What was that distinct sound now coming nearer and nearer? “Rats, of course,” said Common-sense — “it was just the house for vermin.” Then a longish silence. Again a stir, sounds approaching, as if apparently caused by many feet passing down the corridor — high heeled shoes, the sweeping switch of silken trains! Of course it was all imagination, I assured myself — or rats! Rats were capable of making such curious improbably noises!

‘Then another silence. No sound but cinders and the ticking of my watch, which I had laid upon the table.

‘I resumed my book, rather ashamed, and a little indignant with myself for having neglected it, and calmly dismissed my late interruption as ‘rats — nothing but rats.’

‘I had been reading and smoking for some time in a placid and highly incredulous frame of mind, when I was somewhat rudely startled by a loud single knock at my room door. I took no notice of it, but merely laid down my novel and sat tight. Another knock more imperious this time. After a moment’s mental deliberation I arose, armed myself with a poker, prepared to brain any number of rats, and threw the door open with a violent swing that strained its very hinges, and beheld, to my amazement, a tall powdered footman in a laced scarlet livery, who, making a formal inclination of his head, astonished me still further by saying:

‘ “Dinner is ready!”

‘ “I’m not coming!” I replied, without a moment’s hesitation, and thereupon I slammed the door in his face, locked it, and resumed my seat, also my book; but reading was a farce; my ears were aching for the next sound.

‘It came soon — rapid steps running up the stairs, and again a single knock. I went over to the door, and once more discovered the tall footman, who repeated, with a studied courtesy:

‘ “Dinner is ready, and the company are waiting.”

‘ “I told you I was not coming. Be off, and be hanged to you!” I cried again, shutting the door violently.

‘This time I did not make even a pretence at reading, I merely sat and waited for the next move.

‘I had not long to sit. In ten minutes I heard a third loud summons. I rose, went to the door, and tore it open. There, as I expected, was the servant again, with his parrot speech:

‘ “Dinner is ready, the company are waiting, and the master says you must come!”

‘ “All right, then, I’ll come,” I replied, wearied by reason of his importunity, and feeling suddenly fired with a desire to see the end of the adventure.

‘He accordingly led the way downstairs, and I followed him, noting as I went the gilt buttons on his coat, and his splendidly turned calves, also that the hall and passages were now brilliantly illuminated, and that several liveried servants were passing to and fro, and that from — presumably — the dining room, there issued a buzz of tongues, loud volleys of laughter, many hilarious voices, and a clatter of knives and forks. I was not left much time for speculation, as in another second I found myself inside the door, and my escort announced me in a stentorian voice as “Mr. Hollyoak.”

‘I could hardly credit my senses, as I looked round and saw about two dozen people, dressed in a fashion of the last century, seated at the table, which was loaded with gold and silver plate, and lighted up by a blaze of wax candles in massive candelabra.

‘A swarthy elderly gentleman, who presided at the head of the board, rose deliberately as I entered. He was dressed in a crimson coat, braided with silver. He wore a peruke, had the most piercing black eyes I ever encountered, made me the finest bow I ever received in all my life, and with a polite wave of a taper hand, indicated my seat — a vacant chair between two powdered and patched beauties, with overflowing white shoulders and necks sparkling with diamonds.

‘At first I was fully convinced that the whole affair was a superbly-matured practical joke. Everything looked so real, so truly flesh and blood, so complete in every detail; but I gazed around in vain for one familiar face.

‘I saw young, old, and elderly; handsome and the reverse. On all faces there was a similar expression — reckless, hardened defiance, and something else that made me shudder, but that I could not classify or define.

‘Were they a secret community? Burglars or coiners? But no; in one rapid glance I noticed that they belonged exclusively to the upper stratum of society — bygone society. The jabber of talking had momentarily ceased, and the host, imperiously hammering the table with a knife-handle, said in a singularly harsh grating voice:

‘ “Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to give you a toast! ‘Our guest!’ ” looking straight at me with his glittering coal-black eyes.

‘Every glass was immediately raised. Twenty faces were turned towards mine, when, happily, a sudden impulse seized me. I sprang to my feet and said:

‘ “Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to thank you for your kind hospitality, but before I accept it, allow me to say grace!”

‘I did not wait for permission, but hurriedly repeated a Latin benediction. Ere the last syllable was uttered, in an instant there was a violent crash, an uproar, a sound of running, of screams, groans and curses, and then utter darkness.

‘I found myself standing alone by a big mahogany table which I could just dimly discern by the aid of a street-lamp that threw its meagre rays into the great empty dining-room from the other side of the area.

‘I must confess that I felt my nerves a little shaken by the instantaneous change from light to darkness — from a crowd of gay and noisy companions, to utter solitude and silence. I stood for a moment trying to recover my mental balance. I rubbed my eyes hard to assure myself that I was wide awake, and then I placed this very cigar-case in the middle of the table, as a sign and token that I had been downstairs — which cigar-case I found exactly where I left it this morning — and then went and groped my way into the hall and regained my room.

‘I met with no obstacle en route. I saw no one, but as I closed and double-locked my door I distinctly heard a low laugh outside the keyhole — a sort of suppressed, malicious titter, that made me furious.

‘I opened the door at once. There was nothing to be seen. I waited and listened — dead silence. I then undressed and went to bed, resolved that a whole army of footmen would fail to allure me once more to that festive board. I was determined not to lose my night’s rest — ghosts or no ghosts.

‘Just as I was dozing off I remember hearing the neighbouring clock chime two. It was the last sound I was aware of; the house was now as silent as a vault. My fire burnt away cheerfully. I was no longer in the least degree inclined for reading, and I fell fast asleep and slept soundly till I heard the cabs and milk-carts beginning their morning career.

‘I then rose, dressed at my leisure, and found you, my good, faithful friend, awaiting me, rather anxiously, on the hall-door steps.

‘I have not done with that house yet. I’m determined to find out who these people are, and where they come from. I shall sleep there again to-night, and so shall “Crib,” my bulldog; and you will see that I shall have news for you to-morrow morning — if I am still alive to tell the tale,’ he added with a laugh.

In vain I would have dissuaded him. I protested, argued, and implored. I declared that rashness was not courage; that he had seen enough; that I, who had seen nothing, and only listened to his experiences, was convinced that number ninety was a house to be avoided.

I might just as well have talked to my umbrella! So, once more, I reluctantly accompanied him to his previous night’s lodging. Once more I saw him swallowed up inside the gloomy, forbidding-looking, re-echoing hall.

I then went home in an unusually anxious, semi-excited, nervous state of mind; and I, who generally outrival the Seven Sleepers, lay wide awake, tumbling and tossing hour after hour, a prey to the most foolish ideas — ideas I would have laughed to scorn in daylight.

More than once I was certain that I heard John Hollyoak distractedly calling me; and I sat up in bed and listened intently. Of course it was fancy, for the instant I did so, there was no sound.

At the first gleam of winter dawn, I rose, dressed, and swallowed a cup of good strong coffee to clear my brain from the misty notions it had harboured during the night. And then I invested myself in my warmest topcoat and comforter, and set off for number ninety. Early as it was — it was but half-past seven — I found the army pensioner was before me, pacing the pavement with a countenance that would have made a first-rate frontispiece for ‘Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy’ — a countenance the reverse of cheerful.

I was not disposed to wait for eight o’clock. I was too uneasy, and too impatient for further particulars of the dinner-party. So I rang with all my might, and knocked with all my main.

No sound within — no answer! But John was always a heavy sleeper. I was resolved to arouse him all the same, and knocked and rang, and rang and knocked, incessantly for fully ten minutes.

I then stooped down and applied my eye to the keyhole; I looked steadily into the aperture, till I became accustomed to the darkness, and then it seemed to me that another eye — a very strange, fiery eye — was glaring into mine from the other side of the door!

I removed my eye and applied my mouth instead, and shouted with all the power of my lungs (I did not care a straw if passers-by took me for an escaped lunatic):

‘John! John! Hollyoak!’

How his name echoed and re-echoed up through that great empty house! ‘He must hear that,’ I said to myself as I pressed my ear closely against the lock, and listened with throbbing suspense.

The echo of ‘Hollyoak’ had hardly died away when I swear that I distinctly heard a low, sniggering, mocking laugh — that was my only answer — that; and a vast unresponsive silence.

I was now quite desperate. I shook the door frantically, with all my strength. I broke the bell; in short, my behaviour was such that it excited the curiosity of a policeman, who crossed the road to know ‘What was up?’

‘I want to get in!’ I panted, breathless with my exertions.

‘You’d better stay where you are!’ said Bobby; ‘the outside of this house is the best of it! There are terrible stories —’

‘But there is a gentleman inside it!’ I interrupted impatiently. ‘He slept there last night, and I can’t wake him. He has the key!’

‘Oh, you can’t wake him!’ returned the policeman gravely. ‘Then we must get a locksmith!’

But already the thoughtful pensioner had procured one; and already a considerable and curious crowd surrounded the steps.

After five minutes of (to me) maddening delay, the great heavy door was opened and swung slowly back, and I instantly rushed in, followed less precipitately by the policeman and the pensioner.

I had not far to seek John Hollyoak! He and his dog were lying at the foot of the stairs, both stone dead!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

"Number Ninety" & Other Ghost Stories ~ B. M. Croker

Bithia Mary Croker (1849~1920) was one of the most well-known novelists of her day. She produced more than forty novels and seven short story collections. In 1871, she married John Stokes Croker, of the 21st Royal Scots and Munster Fusiliers, and, as was customary at the time, accompanied her husband to India, where she remained for fourteen years, and where six of the fifteen tales in this collection are set. Nowadays, as with so many talented Victorian and Edwardian writers, she is all but forgotten by most of the reading public.

"Number Ninety" and Other Ghost Stories was published by Sarob Press as a limited edition of 250 copies in 2000. It is the third volume in their Mistresses of the Macabre series. The tales it contains are: "Number Ninety", The Former Passengers, "If You See Her Face", The Red Bungalow, The Khitmatgar, Her Last Wishes, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor, "To Let", The North Verandah, The First Comer, Trooper Thompson's Information, Who Knew the Truth?, La Carcassonne, Mrs. Ponsonby's Dream, The Door Ajar.

The first tale, 'Number Ninety', is taken from the Christmas Number of Chapman's Maga-zine of Fiction for 1895. At a rowdy bachelor's party, the discussion turns to ghosts and John Hollyoak, the most outspoken and derisive of the non-believers, declares that he wishes to spend the night in a haunted house. So, the host of the party, who is a believer and a tad ruffled at being ridiculed for it, arranges for him to do just that.

'The Former Passengers' originally appeared in To Let, published by Chatto & Windus in 1893. Mr Lawrence is on his way to Singapore to give his sister away at her wedding and, having missed the steamer he intended to catch, persuades Captain Blane to take him in his cargo boat, the Wandering Star. His accommodation is fine and he thinks he's rather lucky to be travelling on the Star, until they steamer hits bad weather.

"If You See Her Face" first appeared in To Let. Daniel Gregson, political agent to a Rajah, and his assistant, Percy Goring, are travelling to the Delhi durbar when their train is prevented from going on by a break in the line. Gregson decides they should head for the Raja's isolated hunting palace in Kori on foot. They are warned by an old woman not to enter the Khana palace, as it's a place where 'If you see her face - you die!'

'The Red Bungalow' first appeared in Odds and Ends, published by Hutchinson in 1919. In it, Netta Fellowes, newly relocated with her husband to Kulu, India, decides to move into the Red Bungalow, which has been unoccupied for years. Her cousin tries to persuade her against the move, as the place has a bad reputation, but Netta will not listen and takes the bungalow regardless... with terrible consequences.

'The Khitmatgar' first appeared in To Let. The Jacksons' finances are at a very low ebb and they have travelled to Panipore in search of employment. The only lodgings they can find are at the long-uninhabited bungalow in the Paiwene road, but the bungalow is haunted by a murdered servant.

'Her Last Wishes' was published in In the Kingdom of Kerry (Chatto & Windus, 1896). Rev. Eustace Herbert is sent off travelling around India, after having a physical breakdown, and is invited to stay at the home of an old school friend, Mr St. Maur, who has a coffee estate in the Madras Presidency. He is settled in the guest bedroom, but finds that he is not its only resident.

'The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor' was first published in To Let. Mrs Goodchild and Mrs Lloyd are travelling from Karwassa to Chanda to see their husbands for Christmas. After a bit of bullock trouble, the two women are forced to stay the night in a travellers' bungalow at Dakor that hasn't been used for seven years, where experiences after nightfall lead to the solving of an old crime.

"To Let" first appeared in To Let. Having left it very late in the season to travel into the hills from Lucknor, to escape the terrible summer heat, Aggie Shandon asks for a friend's help in locating accommodation for herself, her two children and her sister-in-law, Susan. There is only one property available - Briarwood - and it is amazingly cheap. The two women are incredibly pleased with their summer home, until they hit monsoon season and the reason for the low rent makes itself apparent.

'The North Verandah' was first published in Odds and Ends. It's a rather gory tale set in Kentucky. A chance meeting in a Swiss hotel brings together the English Dormer sisters, Marion and Lucy, and their distant relations the American Washington-Dormers. Following their European trip, Marion and Lucy travel to Kentucky to visit their American cousins' home, Rochelle, but the house has a bad history and Marion experiences rather more than an afternoon's quiet reading when she decides to sit alone on the north verandah.

'The First Comer' was published in In the Kingdom of Kerry. Miss Janet MacTavish and her sister Matilda are a couple of well-to-do Edinburgh spinsters. Matilda is ill with bronchitis and wakes in the wee small hours wanting a cup of tea. Her sister makes her way down towards the kitchen in the dark, preparing to light the fire and boil the water for the tea, but someone is already in the kitchen, raking the coals in the pitch black of the night.

'Trooper Thompson's Information' was published in Jason, and Other Stories (Chatto & Windus, 1899). The narrator, Thompson, is a trooper in the Australian mounted police. A fellow trooper, Ned Martin, goes missing and Thompson is charged with finding him. The days pass and he is no nearer finding out what has happened to his comrade, until he receives a night visit from Martin's ghost.

'Who Knew the Truth?' was published in The Old Cantonment and Other Stories (Methuen, 1905). The narrator, Vernon, travels to South Carolina with his brother-in-law and two other men. After a day of shooting in sweltering heat, the party is guided to a nearby house for the night, during which the narrator is woken by a soft, repeated knocking... the sound of an 'empty rocking chair, in vigorous motion!'

'La Carcassonne' was published in The Old Cantonment and Other Stories. Mrs Letty Wagstaff and her companion Miss Fanny Tarr are spending the season on the French Riviera. Miss Tarr purchases an opal ring, and it has a considerable effect upon her character, turning an ordinarily timid, quiet, teetotal spinster into a chatty, reckless, champagne-swilling gambler and reader of notorious novels.

'Mrs. Ponsonby's Dream' was published in Jason, and Other Stories. In it, Mrs Sally Ponsonby has a prophetic dream concerning a planned visit to her brother's house and the criminal intentions of his new butler.

'The Door Ajar' was published in The Old Cantonment and Other Stories. In it, the narrator and her brother, Hubert, are staying in the south of France. Along with fellow inmates of their hotel, they visit Chateau de la Vaye, near the Spanish border. While looking at the paintings within the old house, the youngest member of the group remembers events from a previous life.

"Number Ninety" and Other Ghost Stories isn't all that easy to get hold of now. A fine copy in a similarly fine jacket will cost about £90 (around $135), if you can find one. It's not easy to get hold of Croker's stories anywhere else either, but 'Number Ninety' appeared in Richard Dalby's Ghosts for Christmas, 'To Let' was published in The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, and 'The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor' can be found in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, published by Oxford University Press, which is available as a Kindle ebook or a paperback.