THE SUN was setting over Sloperton Grange, and reddened the window of the lonely chamber in the western tower, supposed to be haunted by Sir Edward Sedilia, the founder of the Grange. In the dreamy distance arose the gilded mausoleum of Lady Felicia Sedilia, who haunted that portion of Sedilia Manor known as “Stiff-uns Acre.” A little to the left of the Grange might have been seen a mouldering ruin, known as “Guy’s Keep,” haunted by the spirit of Sir Guy Sedilia, who was found, one morning, crushed by one of the fallen battlements. Yet, as the setting sun gilded these objects, a beautiful and almost holy calm seemed diffused about the Grange.
The Lady Selina sat by an oriel window overlooking the park. The sun sank gently in the bosom of the German Ocean, and yet the lady did not lift her beautiful head from the finely curved arm and diminutive hand which supported it. When darkness finally shrouded the landscape she started, for the sound of horse-hoofs clattered over the stones of the avenue. She had scarcely risen, before an aristocratic young man fell on his knees before her.
“Edgardo! You here?”
“And—you—you—have—seen nothing?” said the lady in an agitated voice and nervous manner, turning her face aside to conceal her emotion.
“Nothing—that is, nothing of any account,” said Edgardo. “I passed the ghost of your aunt in the park, noticed the spectre of your uncle in the ruined keep, and observed the familiar features of the spirit of your great-grandfather at his usual post. But nothing beyond these trifles, my Selina. Nothing more, love, absolutely nothing.”
The young man turned his dark, liquid orbs fondly upon the ingenuous face of his betrothed.
“My own Edgardo!—and you still love me? You still would marry me in spite of this dark mystery which surrounds me? In spite of the fatal history of my race? In spite of the ominous predictions of my aged nurse?”
“I would, Selina;” and the young man passed his arm around her yielding waist. The two lovers gazed at each other’s faces in unspeakable bliss. Suddenly Selina started.
“Leave me, Edgardo! leave me! A mysterious something—a fatal misgiving—a dark ambiguity—an equivocal mistrust oppresses me. I would be alone!”
The young man arose, and cast a loving glance on the lady. “Then we will be married on the seventeenth.”
“The seventeenth,” repeated Selina, with a mysterious shudder.
They embraced and parted. As the clatter of hoofs in the courtyard died away, the Lady Selina sank into the chair she had just quitted.
“The seventeenth,” she repeated slowly, with the same fateful shudder. “Ah!—what if he should know that I have another husband living? Dare I reveal to him that I have two legitimate and three natural children? Dare I repeat to him the history of my youth? Dare I confess that at the age of seven I poisoned my sister, by putting verdigris in her cream-tarts,—that I threw my cousin from a swing at the age of twelve? That the lady’s maid who incurred the displeasure of my girlhood now lies at the bottom of the horse-pond? No! no! he is too pure,—too good,—too innocent,—to hear such improper conversation!” and her whole body writhed as she rocked to and fro in a paroxysm of grief.
But she was soon calm. Rising to her feet, she opened a secret panel in the wall, and revealed a slow-match ready for lighting.
“This match,” said the Lady Selina, “is connected with a mine beneath the western tower, where my three children are confined; another branch of it lies under the parish church, where the record of my first marriage is kept. I have only to light this match and the whole of my past life is swept away!” She approached the match with a lighted candle.
But a hand was laid upon her arm, and with a shriek the Lady Selina fell on her knees before the spectre of Sir Guy.
“Forbear, Selina,” said the phantom in a hollow voice.
“Why should I forbear?” responded Selina haughtily, as she recovered her courage. “You know the secret of our race?”
“I do. Understand me,—I do not object to the eccentricities of your youth. I know the fearful destiny which, pursuing you, led you to poison your sister and drown your lady’s maid. I know the awful doom which I have brought upon this house. But if you make away with these children”—
“Well,” said the Lady Selina hastily.
“They will haunt you!”
“Well, I fear them not,” said Selina, drawing her superb figure to its full height.
“Yes, but, my dear child, what place are they to haunt? The ruin is sacred to your uncle’s spirit. Your aunt monopolizes the park, and, I must be allowed to state, not unfrequently trespasses upon the grounds of others. The horse-pond is frequented by the spirit of your maid, and your murdered sister walks these corridors. To be plain, there is no room at Sloperton Grange for another ghost. I cannot have them in my room,—for you know I don’t like children. Think of this, rash girl, and forbear! Would you, Selina,” said the phantom mournfully,—“would you force your great-grandfather’s spirit to take lodgings elsewhere?”
Lady Selina’s hand trembled; the lighted candle fell from her nerveless fingers.
“No,” she cried passionately; “never!” and fell fainting to the floor.
Edgardo galloped rapidly towards Sloperton. When the outline of the Grange had faded away in the darkness, he reined his magnificent steed beside the ruins of Guy’s Keep.
“It wants but a few minutes of the hour,” he said, consulting his watch by the light of the moon. “He dare not break his word. He will come.” He paused, and peered anxiously into the darkness. “But come what may, she is mine,” he continued, as his thoughts reverted fondly to the fair lady he had quitted. “Yet if she knew all. If she knew that I am a disgraced and ruined man,—a felon and an outcast. If she knew that at the age of fourteen I murdered my Latin tutor and forged my uncle’s will. If she knew that I had three wives already, and that the fourth victim of misplaced confidence and my unfortunate peculiarity is expected to be at Sloperton by to-night’s train with her baby. But no; she must not know it. Constance must not arrive; Burke the Slogger must attend to that.
“Ha! here he is! Well?”
These words were addressed to a ruffian in a slouched hat, who suddenly appeared from Guy’s Keep.
“I he’s here, measter,” said the villain, with a disgracefully low accent and complete disregard of grammatical rules.
“It is well. Listen: I’m in possession of facts that will send you to the gallows. I know of the murder of Bill Smithers, the robbery of the tollgate-keeper, and the making away of the youngest daughter of Sir Reginald de Walton. A word from me, and the officers of justice are on your track.”
Burke the Slogger trembled.
“Hark ye! serve my purpose, and I may yet save you. The 5.30 train from Clapham will be due at Sloperton at 9.25. It must not arrive!”
The villain’s eyes sparkled as he nodded at Edgardo.
“Enough,—you understand; leave me!”
About half a mile from Sloperton Station the South Clapham and Medway line crossed a bridge over Sloperton-on-Trent. As the shades of evening were closing, a man in a slouched hat might have been seen, carrying a saw and axe under his arm, hanging about the bridge. From time to time he disappeared in the shadow of its abutments, but the sound of a saw and axe still betrayed his vicinity. At exactly nine o’clock he reappeared, and crossing to the Sloperton side, rested his shoulder against the abutment and gave a shove. The bridge swayed a moment, and then fell with a splash into the water, leaving a space of one hundred feet between the two banks. This done, Burke the Slogger,—for it was he,—with a fiendish chuckle seated himself on the divided railway track and awaited the coming of the train.
A shriek from the woods announced its approach. For an instant Burke the Slogger saw the glaring of a red lamp. The ground trembled. The train was going with fearful rapidity. Another second and it had reached the bank. Burke the Slogger uttered a fiendish laugh. But the next moment the train leaped across the chasm, striking the rails exactly even, and dashing out the life of Burke the Slogger, sped away to Sloperton.
The first object that greeted Edgardo, as he rode up to the station on the arrival of the train, was the body of Burke the Slogger hanging on the cowcatcher; the second was the face of his deserted wife looking from the window of a second-class carriage.
A nameless terror seemed to have taken possession of Clarissa, Lady Selina’s maid, as she rushed into the presence of her mistress.
“Oh, my lady, such news!”
“Explain yourself,” said her mistress, rising.
“An accident has happened on the railway, and a man has been killed.”
“What—not Edgardo!” almost screamed Selina.
“No, Burke the Slogger, your ladyship!”
“My first husband!” said Lady Selina, sinking on her knees. “Just Heaven, I thank thee!”
The morning of the seventeenth dawned brightly over Sloperton. “A fine day for the wedding,” said the sexton to Swipes, the butler of Sloperton Grange. The aged retainer shook his head sadly. “Alas! there’s no trusting in signs!” he continued. “Seventy-five years ago, on a day like this, my young mistress”—but he was cut short by the appearance of a stranger.
“I would see Sir Edgardo,” said the new-comer impatiently.
The bridegroom, who, with the rest of the wedding-train, was about stepping into the carriage to proceed to the parish church, drew the stranger aside.
“I’s done!” said the stranger, in a hoarse whisper.
“Ah! and you buried her?”
“With the others!”
“Enough. No more at present. Meet me after the ceremony, and you shall have your reward.”
The stranger shuffled away, and Edgardo returned to his bride. “A trifling matter of business I had forgotten, my dear Selina; let us proceed.” And the young man pressed the timid hand of his blushing bride as he handed her into the carriage. The cavalcade rode out of the courtyard. At the same moment, the deep bell on Guy’s Keep tolled ominously.
Scarcely had the wedding-train left the Grange, than Alice Sedilia, youngest daughter of Lady Selina, made her escape from the western tower, owing to a lack of watchfulness on the part of Clarissa. The innocent child, freed from restraint, rambled through the lonely corridors, and finally, opening a door, found herself in her mother’s boudoir. For some time she amused herself by examining the various ornaments and elegant trifles with which it was filled. Then, in pursuance of a childish freak, she dressed herself in her mother’s laces and ribbons. In this occupation she chanced to touch a peg which proved to be a spring that opened a secret panel in the wall. Alice uttered a cry of delight as she noticed what, to her childish fancy, appeared to be the slow-match of a firework. Taking a lucifer match in her hand she approached the fuse. She hesitated a moment. What would her mother and her nurse say?
Suddenly the ringing of the chimes of Sloperton parish church met her ear. Alice knew that the sound signified that the marriage-party had entered the church, and that she was secure from interruption. With a childish smile upon her lips, Alice Sedilia touched off the slow-match.
At exactly two o’clock on the seventeenth, Rupert Sedilia, who had just returned from India, was thoughtfully descending the hill toward Sloperton manor. “If I can prove that my aunt, Lady Selina, was married before my father died, I can establish my claim to Sloperton Grange,” he uttered, half aloud. He paused, for a sudden trembling of the earth beneath his feet, and a terrific explosion, as of a park of artillery, arrested his progress. At the same moment he beheld a dense cloud of smoke envelop the churchyard of Sloperton, and the western tower of the Grange seemed to be lifted bodily from its foundation. The air seemed filled with falling fragments, and two dark objects struck the earth close at his feet. Rupert picked them up. One seemed to be a heavy volume bound in brass. A cry burst from, his lips.
“The Parish Records.” He opened the volume hastily. It contained the marriage of Lady Selina to “Burke the Slogger.”
The second object proved to be a piece of parchment. He tore it open with trembling fingers. It was the missing will of Sir James Sedilia!
When the bells again rang on the new parish church of Sloperton it was for the marriage of Sir Rupert Sedilia and his cousin, the only remaining members of the family.
Five more ghosts were added to the supernatural population of Sloperton Grange. Perhaps this was the reason why Sir Rupert sold the property shortly afterward, and that for many years a dark shadow seemed to hang over the ruins of Sloperton Grange.