Read CHAPTER II - THE STRANGER’S GOSPEL of Cecilia de Noel, free online book, by Lanoe Falconer, on ReadCentral.com.

From the short unsatisfying slumber which sometimes follows a night of insomnia I was awakened by the laughter and shouts of children. When I looked out I saw brooding above the hollow a still gray day, in whose light the woodlands of the park were all in sombre brown, and the trout stream between its sedgy banks glided dark and lustreless.

On the lawn, still wet with dew, and crossed by the shadows of the bare elms, Atherley’s little sons, Harold and Denis, were playing with a very unlovely but much-beloved mongrel called Tip. They had bought him with their own pocket-money from a tinker who was ill-using him, and then claimed for him the hospitality of their parents; so, though Atherley often spoke of the dog as a disgrace to the household, he remained a member thereof, and received, from a family incapable of being uncivil, far less unkind, to an animal, as much attention as if he had been high-bred and beautiful which indeed he plainly supposed himself to be.

When, about an hour later, after their daily custom, this almost inseparable trio fell into the breakfast-room as if the door had suddenly given way before them, the boys were able to revenge themselves for the rebuke this entrance provoked by the tidings they brought with them.

“I say, old Mallet is going,” cried Harold cheerfully, as he wriggled himself on to his chair. “Denis, mind I want some of that egg-stuff.”

“Take your arms off the table, Harold,” said Lady Atherley. “Pray, how do you know Mrs. Mallet is going?”

“She said so herself. She said,” he went on, screwing up his nose and speaking in a falsetto to express the intensity of his scorn “she said she was afraid of the ghost.”

“I told you I did not allow that word to be mentioned.”

“I did not; it was old Mallet.”

“But, pray, what were you doing in old Mallet’s domain?” asked Atherley.

“Cooking cabbage for Tip.”

“Hum! What with ghosts by night and boys by day, our cook seems to have a pleasant time of it; I shall be glad when Miss Jones’s holidays are over. Castleman, is it true that Mrs. Mallet talks of leaving us because of the ghost?”

“I am sure I don’t know, Sir George,” answered the old butler. “She was going on about it very foolish this morning.”

“And how is the kitchen-maid?”

“Has not come down yet, Sir George; says her nerve is shook,” said Castleman, retiring with a plate to the sideboard; then added, with the freedom of an old servant, “Bile, I should say.”

“Probably. We had better send for Doctor What’s-his-name.”

“The usual doctor is away,” said Lady Atherley. “There is a London doctor in his place. He is clever, Lady Sylvia said, but he gives himself airs.”

“Never mind what he gives himself if he gives his patients the right thing.”

“And after all we can manage very well without Ann, but what are we to do about Mrs. Mallet? I always told you how it would be.”

“But, my dear, it is not my fault. You look as reproachfully at me as if it were my ghost which was causing all this disturbance instead of the ghost of a remote ancestor predecessor, in fact.”

“No, but you will always talk just as if it was of no consequence.”

“I don’t talk of the cook’s going as being of no consequence. Far from it. But you must not let her go, that is all.”

“How can I prevent her going? I think you had better talk to her yourself.”

“I should like to meet her very much; would not you, Lindy? I should like to hear her story; it must be a blood-curdling one, to judge from its effect upon Ann. The only person I have yet met who pretended to have seen the ghost was Aunt Eleanour.”

“And what was it like, daddy?” asked Denis, much interested.

“She did not say, Den. She would never tell me anything about it.”

“Would she tell me?”

“I am afraid not. I don’t think she would tell any one, except perhaps Mr. Lyndsay. He has a way of worming things out of people.”

“Mr. Lyndsay, how do you worm things out of people?”

“I don’t know, Denis; you must ask your father.”

“First, by never asking any questions,” said Atherley promptly; “and then by a curious way he has of looking as if he was listening attentively to what was said to him, instead of thinking, as most people do, what he shall say himself when he gets a chance of putting a word in.”

“But how could Aunt Eleanour see the ghost when there is not any such thing?” cried Harold.

“How indeed!” said his father, rising; “that is just the puzzle. It will take you years to find it out. Lindy, look into the morning-room in about half an hour, and you will hear a tale whose lightest word will harrow up thy soul, etc., etc.”

As Lady Atherley kindly seconded this invitation I accepted it, though not with the consequences predicted. Anything less suggestive of the supernatural, or in every way less like the typical ghost-seer, was surely never produced than the round and rubicund little person I found in conversation with the Atherleys. Mrs. Mallet was a brunette who might once have considered herself a beauty, to judge by the self-conscious and self-satisfied simper which the ghastliest recollections were unable to banish. As I entered I caught only the last words of Atherleys speech

“ treating you well, Mrs. Mallet?”

“Oh no, Sir George,” answered Mrs. Mallet, standing very straight and stiff, with two plump red hands folded demurely before her; “which I have not a word to say against any one, but have met, ever since I come here, with the greatest of kindness and respect. But the noises, sir, the noises of a night is more than I can abear.”

“Oh, they are only rats, Mrs. Mallet.”

“No rats in this world ever made sech a noise, Sir George; which the very first night as I slep here, there come the most mysterioustest sounds as ever I hear, which I says to Hann, ‘Whatever are you a-doing?’ which she woke up all of a suddent, as young people will, and said she never hear nor yet see nothing.”

“What was the noise like, Mrs. Mallet?”

“Well, Sir George, I can only compare it to the dragging of heavy furniture, which I really thought at first it was her ladyship a-coming upstairs to waken me, took bad with burglars or a fire.”

“But, Mrs. Mallet, I am sure you are too brave a woman to mind a little noise.”

“It is not only noises, Sir George. Last night

Mrs. Mallet drew a long breath and closed her eyes.

“Yes, Mrs. Mallet, pray go on; I am very curious to hear what did happen last night.”

“It makes the cold chills run over me to think of it. We was all gone to bed leastways the maids and me, and Hann and me was but just got to my room when says she to me, ‘Oh la! whatever do you think?’ says she; ’I promised Ellen when she went out this afternoon as I would shut the windows in the pink bedroom at four o’clock, and never come to think of it till this minute,’ she says. ‘Oh dear,’ I says, ’and them new chintzes will be entirely ruined with the damp. Why, what a good-for-nothing girl you are!’ I says, ’and what you thinks on half your time is more than I can tell.’ ‘Whatever shall I do?’ she says, ‘for go along there at this time of night all by myself I dare not,’ says she. ‘Well,’ I says, ’rather than you should go alone, I’ll go along with you,’ I says, ‘for stay here by myself I would not,’ I says, ‘not if any one was to pay me hundreds.’ So we went down our stairs and along our passage to the door which you go into the gallery, Hann a-clutching hold of me and starting, which when we come into the gallery I was all of a tremble, and she shook so I said, ’La! Hann, for goodness’ sake do carry that candle straight, or you will grease the carpet shameful;’ and come to the pink room I says, ‘Open the door.’ ‘La!’ says she, ‘what if we was to see the ghost?’ ’Hold your silly nonsense this minute,’ I says, ‘and open the door,’ which she do, but stand right back for to let me go first, when, true as ever I am standing here, my lady, I see something white go by like a flash, and struck me cold in the face, and blew the candle out, and then come the fearfullest noise, which thunderclaps is nothing to it. Hann began a-screaming, and we ran as fast as ever we could till we come to the pantry, where Mr. Castleman and the footman was. I thought I should ha’ died: died I thought I should. My face was as white as that antimacassar.”

“How could you see your face, Mrs. Mallet?” somewhat peevishly objected Lady Atherley.

But Mrs. Mallet with great dignity retorted

“Which I looked down my nose, and it were like a corpse’s.”

“Very alarming,” said Atherley, “but easily explained. Directly you opened the door there was, of course, a draught from the open window. That draught blew the candle out and knocked something over, probably a screen.”

“La’ bless you, Sir George, it was more like paving-stones than screens a-falling.”

And indeed Mrs. Mallet was so far right, that when, to settle the weighty question once for all, we adjourned in a body to the pink bedroom, we discovered that nothing less than the ceiling, or at least a portion of it, had fallen, and was lying in a heap of broken plaster upon the floor. However, the moral, as Atherley hastened to observe, was the same.

“You see, Mrs. Mallet, this was what made the noise.”

Mrs. Mallet made no reply, but it was evident she neither saw nor intended to see anything of the kind; and Atherley wisely substituted bribery for reasoning. But even with this he made little way till accidentally he mentioned the name of Mrs. de Noel, when, as if it had been a name to conjure by, Mrs. Mallet showed signs of softening.

“Yes, think of Mrs. de Noel, Mrs. Mallet; what will she say if you leave her cousin to starve?”

“I should not wish such a thing to happen for a moment,” said Mrs. Mallet, as if this had been no figure of speech but the actual alternative, “not to any relation of Mrs. de Noel.”

And shortly after the debate ended with a cheerful “Well, Mrs. Mallet, you will give us another trial,” from Atherley.

“There,” he exclaimed, as we all three returned to the morning-room “there is as splendid an example of the manufacture of a bogie as you are ever likely to meet with. All the spiritual phenomena are produced much in the same way. Work yourself up into a great state of terror and excitement, in the first place; in the next, procure one companion, if not more, as credulous and excitable as yourself; go at a late hour and with a dim light to a place where you have been told you will see something supernatural; steadfastly and determinedly look out for it, and you will have your reward. These are precisely the lines on which a spiritual séance is conducted, only instead of plaster, which is not always so obliging as to fall in the nick of time, you have a paid medium who supplies the material for your fancy to work upon. Mrs. Mallet, you see, has discovered all this for herself that woman is a born genius. Just think what she might have been and seen if she had lived in a sphere where neither cooking nor any other rational occupation interfered with her pursuit of the supernatural. Mrs. Molyneux would be nowhere beside her.”

“I suppose she really does intend to stay,” said Lady Atherley.

“Of course she does. I always told you my powers of persuasion were irresistible.”

“But how annoying about the ceiling,” said Lady Atherley. “Over the new carpet, too! What can make the plaster fall in this way?”

“It is the quality of the climate,” said Atherley. “It is horribly destructive. If you would read the batch of letters now on my writing-table from tenant-farmers you would see what I mean: barns, roofs, gates, everything is falling to pieces and must immediately be repaired at the landlord’s expense, of course.”

“We must send for a plasterer,” said Lady Atherley, “and then the doctor. Perhaps you would have time to go round his way, George.”

“No, I have no time to go anywhere but to Northside farm. Hunt has been waiting nearly half an hour for me, as it is. Lindy, would you like to come with me?”

“No, thank you, George; I too am a landowner, and I mean to look over my audit accounts to-day.”

“Don’t compare yourself to a poor overworked underpaid landowner like me. You are one of the landlords they spout about in London parks on Sundays. You have nothing to do but sign receipts for your rents, paid in full and up to date.”

“Mr. Lyndsay is an excellent landlord,” said Lady Atherley; “and they tell me the new church and the schools he has built are charming.”

“Very mischievous things both,” said Atherley. “Ta-ta.”

That afternoon, Atherley being still absent, and Lady Atherley having gone forth to pay a round of calls, the little boys undertook my entertainment. They were in rather a sober mood for them, having just forfeited four weeks’ pocket-money towards expenses incurred by Tip in the dairy, where they had foolishly allowed him to enter; so they accepted very good-humouredly my objections to wading in the river or climbing trees, and took me instead for a walk to Beggar’s Stile. We climbed up the steep carriage-drive to the lodge, passed through the big iron gates, turned sharply to the left, and went down the road which the park palings border and the elms behind them shade, past the little copse beyond the park, till we came to a tumble-down gate with a stile beside it in the hedgerow; and this was Beggar’s Stile. It was just on the brow of the little hill which sloped gradually downward to the village beneath, and commanded a wide view of the broad shallow valley and of the rising ground beyond.

I was glad to sit down on the step of the stile.

“Are you tired already, Mr. Lyndsay?” inquired Harold incredulously.

“Yes, a little.”

“I s’pose you are tired because you always have to pull your leg after you,” said Denis, turning upon me two large topaz-coloured eyes. “Does it hurt you, Mr. Lyndsay?”

“Mother told you not to talk about Mr. Lyndsay’s leg,” observed Harold sharply.

“No, she didn’t; she said I was not to talk about the funny way he walked. She said

“Well, never mind, little man,” I interrupted. “Is that Weald down there?”

“Yes,” cried Denis, maintaining his balance on the topmost bar but one of the gate with enviable ease. “All these cottages and houses belong to Weald, and it is all daddy’s on this side of the river down to where you see the white railings a long way down near the poplars, and that is the road we go to tea with Aunt Eleanour; and do you see a little blue speck on the hill over there? You could see if you had a telescope. Daddy showed me once; but you must shut your eye. That is Quarley Beacon, where Aunt Cissy lives.”

“No, she does not, stupid,” cried Harold, now suspended, head downwards, by one foot, from the topmost rail of the gate. “No one lives there. She lives in Quarley Manor, just behind.”

Denis replied indirectly to the discourteous tone of this speech by trying with the point of his own foot to dislodge that by which Harold maintained his remarkable position, and a scuffle ensued, wherein, though a non-combatant, I seemed likely to get the worst, when their attention was fortunately diverted by the sight of Tip sneaking off, and evidently with the vilest motives, towards the covert.

My memory was haunted that day by certain words spoken seven months ago by Atherley, and by me at the time very ungraciously received:

“Remember, if you do come a cropper, it will go hard with you, old man; you can’t shoot or hunt or fish off the blues, like other men.”

No, nor could I work them off, as some might have done. I possessed no distinct talents, no marked vocation. If there was nothing behind and beyond all this, what an empty freak of destiny my life would have been full, not even of sound and fury, but of dull common-place suffering: a tale told by an idiot with a spice of malice in him.

Then the view before me made itself felt, as a gentle persistent sound might have done: a flat, almost featureless scene a little village church with cottages and gardens clustering about it, straggling away from it, by copses and meadows in which winter had left only the tenderest shades of the saddest colours. The winding river brightened the dull picture with broken glints of silver, and the tawny hues of the foreground faded through soft gradations of violet and azure into a far distance of pearly grey. It is not the scenery men cross continents and oceans to admire, and yet it has a message of its own. I felt it that day when I was heart-weary, and was glad that in one corner of this restless world the little hills preach peace.

Meantime Tip had been recaptured, and when he, or rather the ground close beside him, had been beaten severely with sticks, and he himself upbraided in terms which left the censors hoarse, we went down again into the hollow. Then Lady Atherley returned and gave me tea; and afterwards, in the library, I worked at accounts till it was nearly too dark to write. No doubt on the high ground the sky was aflame with brilliant colour, of which only a dim reflection tinged the dreary view of sward and leafless trees, to which, for some mysterious reason, a gig crawling down the carriage-drive gave the last touch of desolation.

Just as I laid my pen aside the door opened, and Castleman introduced a stranger.

“If you will wait here, sir, I will find her ladyship.”

The new-comer was young and slight, with an erect carriage and a firm step. He had the finely-cut features and dull colouring which I associate with the high-pressure life of a busy town, so that I guessed who he was before his first words told me.

“No, thank you, I will not sit down; I expect to be called to my patient immediately.”

The thought of this said patient made me smile, and in explanation I told him from what she was supposed to be suffering.

“Well; it is less common than other forms of feverishness, but will probably yield to the same remedies,” was his only comment.

“You do not believe in ghosts?”

“Pardon me, I do, just as I believe in all symptoms. When my patient tells me he hears bells ringing in his ear, or feels the ground swaying under his feet, I believe him implicitly, though I know nothing of the kind is actually taking place. The ghost, so far, belongs to the same class as the other experiences, that it is a symptom it may be of a very trifling, it may be of a very serious, disorder.”

The voice, the keen flash of the eye, impressed me. I recognised one of those alert intelligences, beside whose vivid flame the mental life of most men seems to smoulder. I wished to hear him speak again.

“Is this your view of all supernatural manifestations?”

“Of all so-called supernatural manifestations; I don’t understand the word or the distinction. No event which has actually taken place can be supernatural. Since it belongs to the actual it must be governed by, it must be the outcome of, laws which everywhere govern the actual everywhere and at all times. In fact, it must be natural, whatever we may think of it.”

“Then if a miracle could be proven, it would be no miracle to you?”

“Certainly not.”

“And it could convince you of nothing?”

“Neither me nor any one else who has outgrown his childhood, I should think. I have never been able to understand the outcry of the orthodox over their lost miracles. It makes their position neither better nor worse. The miracles could never prove their creeds. How am I to recognise a divine messenger? He makes the furniture float about the room; he changes that coal into gold; he projects himself or his image here when he is a thousand miles away. Why, an emissary from the devil might do as much! It only proves always supposing he really does these things instead of merely appearing to do so it proves that he is better acquainted with natural laws than I am. What if he could kill me by an effort of the will? What if he could bring me to life again? It is always the same; he might still be morally my inferior; he might be a false prophet after all.”

He took out his watch and looked at it, by this simple action illustrating and reminding me of the difference between us he talking to pass away the time, I thinking aloud the gnawing question at my heart.

“And you have no hope for anything beyond this?”

Something in my voice must have struck his ear, trained like every other organ of observation to quick and fine perception, for he looked at me more attentively, and it was in a gentler tone that he said

“Surely, you do not mean for a life beyond this? One’s best hope must be that the whole miserable business ends with death.”

“Have you found life so wretched?”

“I am not speaking from my own particular point of view. I am singularly, exceptionally, fortunate, I am healthy; I have tastes which I can gratify, work which I keenly enjoy. Whether the tastes are worth gratifying or the work worth doing I cannot say. At least they act as an anodyne to self-consciousness; they help me to forget the farce in which I play my part. Like Solomon, and all who have had the best of life, I call it vanity. What do you suppose it is to those by far the largest number, remember who have had the worst of it? To them it is not vanity, it is misery.”

“But they suffer under the invariable laws you speak of laws working towards deliverance and happiness in the future.”

“The future? Yes, I know that form of consolation which seems to satisfy so many. To me it seems a hollow one. I have never yet been able to understand how any amount of ecstasy enjoyed by B a million years hence can make up for the torture A is suffering to-day. I suppose, dealing so much with individuals as I do, I am inclined to individualise like a woman. I think of units rather than of the mass. At this moment I have before me a patient now left suffering pain as acute as any the rack ever inflicted. How does it affect his case that centuries later such pain may be unknown?”

“Of course, the individual’s one and only hope is a future existence. Then it may be all made up to him.”

“I see no reason to hope so. Either there is no God, and we shall still be at the mercy of the blind destiny we suffer under here; or there is a God, the God who looks on at this world and makes no sign! The sooner we escape from Him by annihilation the better.”

“Christians would tell you He had given a sign.”

“Yes; so they do in words and deny it in deeds. Nothing is sadder in the whole tragedy, or comedy, than these pitiable efforts to hide the truth, to gloss it over with fables which nobody in his heart of hearts believes at least in these days. Why not face the worst like men? If we can’t help being unhappy we can help being dishonest and cowardly. Existence is a misfortune. Let us frankly confess that it is, and make the best of it.”

He was not looking at his watch now; he was pacing the room. At last, he was in earnest, and had forgotten all accidents of time and place before the same enigma which perplexed myself.

“The best of it!” I re-echoed. “Surely, under these circumstances, the best thing would be to commit suicide?”

“No,” he cried, stopping and turning sharply upon me. “The worst, because the most cowardly; so long as you have strength, brains, money anything with which you can do good.”

He looked past me through the window into the outer air, no longer faintly tinged, but dyed deep red by the light of the unseen but resplendent sunset, and added slowly, dejectedly, as if speaking to himself as much as to me

“Yes, there is one thing worth living for to help to make it all a little more bearable for the others.”

And then all at once, his face, so virile yet so delicate, so young and yet so sad, reminded me of one I had seen in an old picture the face of an angel watching beside the dead Christ; and I cried

“But are you certain He has made no sign; not hundreds of years ago, but in your own lifetime? not to saint or apostle, but to you, yourself? Has nothing which has happened to you, nothing you have ever seen or read or heard, tempted you to hope in something better?”

“Yes,” he said deliberately; “I have had my weak moments. My conviction has wavered, not before religious teaching of any kind, however, nor before Nature, in which some people seem to find such promise; but I have met one or two women, and one man all of them unknown, unremarkable people whom the world never heard of, nor is likely to hear of, living uneventful obscure lives in out-of-the-way corners. For instance, there is a lady in this very neighbourhood, a relation of Sir George Atherley, I believe, Mrs. de No

“Her ladyship would like to see you in the drawing-room, sir,” said Castleman, suddenly coming in.

The doctor bowed to me and immediately left the room.