Colonel Starbottle’s Client

The Ghosts of Stukeley Castle

Bret Harte

THERE SHOULD have been snow on the ground to make the picture seasonable and complete, but the Western Barbarian had lived long enough in England to know that, except in the pages of a holiday supplement, this was rarely the accompaniment of a Christmas landscape, and he cheerfully accepted, on the 24th of December, the background of a low, brooding sky, on which the delicate tracery of leafless sprays and blacker chevaux de frise of pine was faintly etched, as a consistent setting to the turrets and peacefully stacked chimneys of Stukeley Castle. Yet, even in this disastrous eclipse of color and distance, the harmonious outlines of the long, gray, irregular pile seemed to him as wonderful as ever. It still dominated the whole landscape, and, as he had often fancied, carried this subjection even to the human beings who had created it, lived in it, but which it seemed to have in some dull, senile way dozed over and forgotten. He vividly recalled the previous sunshine of an autumnal house party within its walls, where some descendants of its old castellans, encountered in long galleries or at the very door of their bedrooms, looked as alien to the house as the Barbarian himself.

For the rest it may be found described in the local guide-books, with a view of its “South Front,” “West Front,” and “Great Quadrangle.” It was alleged to be based on an encampment of the Romans—that highly apocryphal race who seemed to have spent their time in getting up picnics on tessellated pavements, where, after hilariously emptying their pockets of their loose coin and throwing round their dishes, they instantly built a road to escape by, leaving no other record of their existence. Stow and Dugdale had recorded the date when a Norman favorite obtained the royal license to “embattle it;” it had done duty on Christmas cards with the questionable snow already referred to laid on thickly in crystal; it had been lovingly portrayed by a fair countrywoman—the vivacious correspondent of the “East Machias Sentinel”—in a combination of the most delightful feminine disregard of facts with the highest feminine respect for titles. It was rich in a real and spiritual estate of tapestries, paintings, armor, legends, and ghosts. Everything the poet could wish for, and indeed some things that decent prose might have possibly wished out of it, were there.

Yet, from the day that it had been forcibly seized by a Parliamentary General, until more recently, when it had passed by the no less desperate conveyance of marriage into the hands of a Friendly Nobleman known to the Western Barbarian, it had been supposed to suggest something or other more remarkable than itself. “Few spectators,” said the guide-book, “even the most unimpassioned, can stand in the courtyard and gaze upon those historic walls without feeling a thrill of awe,” etc. The Western Barbarian had stood there, gazed, and felt no thrill. “The privileged guest,” said the grave historian, “passing in review the lineaments of the illustrious owners of Stukeley, as he slowly paces the sombre gallery, must be conscious of emotions of no ordinary character,” etc., etc. The Barbarian had been conscious of no such emotions. And it was for this reason, and believing he might experience them if left there in solitude, with no distracting or extraneous humanity around him, it had been agreed between him and the Friendly Nobleman, who had fine Barbarian instincts, that as he—the Friendly Nobleman—and his family were to spend their holidays abroad, the Barbarian should be allowed, on the eve and day of Christmas, to stay at Stukeley alone. “But,” added his host, “you’ll find it beastly lonely, and although I’ve told the housekeeper to look after you—you’d better go over to dine at Audley Friars, where there’s a big party, and they know you, and it will be a deuced deal more amusing. And—er—I say—you know—you’re really not looking out for ghosts, and that sort of thing, are you? You know you fellows don’t believe in them—over there.” And the Barbarian, assuring him that this was a part of his deficient emotions, it was settled then and there that he should come. And that was why, on the 24th of December, the Barbarian found himself gazing hopefully on the landscape with his portmanteau at his feet, as he drove up the avenue.

The ravens did not croak ominously from the battlements as he entered. And the housekeeper, although neither “stately” nor “tall,” nor full of reminiscences of “his late lordship, the present Earl’s father,” was very sensible and practical. The Barbarian could, of course, have his choice of rooms—but—she had thought—remembering his tastes the last time, that the long blue room? Exactly! The long, low-arched room, with the faded blue tapestry, looking upon the gallery—capital! He had always liked that room. From purely negative evidence he had every reason to believe that it was the one formidable-looking room in England that Queen Elizabeth had not slept in.

When the footman had laid out his clothes, and his step grew fainter along the passage, until it was suddenly swallowed up with the closing of a red baize door in the turret staircase, like a trap in an oubliette, the whole building seemed to sink back into repose. Quiet it certainly was, but not more so, he remembered, than when the chambers on either side were filled with guests, and floating voices in the corridor were lost in those all-absorbing walls. So far, certainly, this was no new experience. It was past four. He waited for the shadows to gather. Light thickened beyond his windows; gradually the outflanking wall and part of a projecting terrace crumbled away in the darkness, as if Night were slowly reducing the castle. The figures on the tapestry in his room stood out faintly. The gallery, seen through his open door, barred with black spaces between the mullioned windows, presently became obliterated, as if invaded by a dull smoke from without. But nothing moved, nothing glimmered. Really this might become in time very stupid.

He was startled, however, while dressing, to see from his windows that the great banqueting hall was illuminated, but on coming down was amused to find his dinner served on a small table in its oaken solitude lit by the large electric chandelier—for Stukeley Castle under its present lord had all the modern improvements—shining on the tattered banners and glancing mail above him. It was evidently the housekeeper’s reading of some written suggestion of her noble master. The Barbarian, in a flash of instinct, imagined the passage:—

“Humor him as a harmless lunatic; the plate is quite safe.”

Declining the further offer of an illumination of the picture gallery, grand drawing-room, ball-room, and chapel, a few hours later he found himself wandering in the corridor with a single candle and a growing conviction of the hopelessness of his experiment. The castle had as yet yielded to him nothing that he had not seen before in the distraction of company and the garishness of day. It was becoming a trifle monotonous. Yet fine—exceedingly; and now that a change of wind had lifted the fog, and the full moon shone on the lower half of the pictures of the gallery, starting into the most artificial simulation of life a number of Van Dyke legs, farthingales, and fingers that would have deceived nobody, it seemed gracious, gentle, and innocent beyond expression. Wandering down the gallery, conscious of being more like a ghost than any of the painted figures, and that they might reasonably object to him, he wished he could meet the original of one of those pictured gallants and secretly compare his fingers with the copy. He remembered an embroidered pair of gloves in a cabinet and a suit of armor on the wall that, in measurement, did not seem to bear out the delicacy of the one nor the majesty of the other. It occurred to him also to satisfy a yearning he had once felt to try on a certain breastplate and steel cap that hung over an oaken settle. It will be perceived that he was getting a good deal bored. For thus caparisoned he listlessly, and, as will be seen, imprudently, allowed himself to sink back into a very modern chair, and give way to a dreamy cogitation.

What possible interest could the dead have in anything that was here? Admitting that they had any, and that it was not the living, whom the Barbarian had always found most inclined to haunt the past, would not a ghost of any decided convictions object to such a collection as his descendant had gathered in this gallery? Yonder idiot in silk and steel had blunderingly and cruelly persecuted his kinsman in leather and steel only a few panels distant. Would they care to meet here? And if their human weaknesses had died with them, what would bring them here at all? And if not them—who then? He stopped short. The door at the lower end of the gallery had opened! Not stealthily, not noiselessly, but in an ordinary fashion, and a number of figures, dressed in the habiliments of a bygone age, came trooping in. They did not glide in nor float in, but trampled in awkwardly, clumsily, and unfamiliarly, gaping about them as they walked. At the head was apparently a steward in a kind of livery, who stopped once or twice and seemed to be pointing out and explaining certain objects in the room. A flash of indignant intelligence filled the brain of the Barbarian! It seemed absurd!—impossible!—but it was true! It was a holiday excursion party of ghosts, being shown over Stukeley Castle by a ghostly Cicerone! And as his measured, monotonous voice rose on the Christmas morning air, it could be heard that he was actually showing off, not the antiquities of the Castle, but the modern improvements!

“This ’ere, gossips,”—the Barbarian instantly detected the fallacy of all the so-called mediaeval jargon he had read,—“is the Helectric Bell, which does away with our hold, hordinary ’orn blowin’, and the hattendant waitin’ in the ’all for the usual ‘Without there, who waits?’ which all of us was accustomed to in mortal flesh. You hobserve this button. I press it so, and it instantly rings a bell in the kitchen ’all, and shows in fair letters the name of this ’ere gallery—as we will see later. Will hany good dame or gaffer press the button? Will you, mistress?” said the Cicerone to a giggling, kerchief-coifed lass.

“Oi soy, Maudlin!—look out—will yer!—It’s the soime old gag as them bloomin’ knobs you ketched hold of when yer was ’ere las’ Whitsuntide,” called out the mediaeval ’Arry of the party.

“It is not the Galvanic-Magnetic machine in ’is lordship’s library,” said the Cicerone, severely, “which is a mere toy for infants, and hold-fashioned. And we have ’ere a much later invention. I open this little door, I turn this ’andle—called a switch—and, has you perceive, the gallery is hinstantly hilluminated.”

There was a hoarse cry of astonishment from the assemblage. The Barbarian felt an awful thrill as this searching, insufferable light of the nineteenth century streamed suddenly upon the up-turned, vacant-eyed, and dull faces of those sightseers of the past. But there was no responsive gleam in their eyes.

“It be the sun,” gasped an old woman in a gray cloak.

“Toime to rouse out, Myryan, and make the foire,” said the mediaeval ’Arry. The custodian smiled with superior toleration.

“But what do ’ee want o’ my old lanthorne,” asked a yellow-jerkined stable boy, pointing to an old-fashioned horned lantern, tempus Edward III., “with this brave loight?”

“You know,” said the custodian, with condescending familiarity, “these mortals worship what they call ‘curios’ and the ‘antique,’ and ’is lordship gave a matter of fifty pounds for that same lanthern. That’s what the modern folk come ’ere to see—like as ye.”

“Oi’ve an old three-legged stool in Whitechapel oi’ll let his lordship ’ave cheap—for five quid,” suggested the humorist.

“The ’prentice wight knows not that he speaks truly. For ’ere is a braver jest than ’is. Good folks, wilt please ye to examine yon coffer?” pointing to an oaken chest.

“’Tis but poor stuff, marry,” said Maudlin.

“’Tis a coffer—the same being made in Wardour Street last year—’is lordship gave one hundred pounds for it. Look at these would-be worm-holes,—but they were made with an auger. Marry, we know what worm-holes are!”

A ghastly grin spread over the faces of the spectral assembly as they gathered around the chest with silent laughter.

“Wilt walk ’ere and see the phonograph in the libry, made by Hedison, an Hamerican, which bottles up the voice and preserves it fresh for a hundred years? ’Tis a rare new fancy.”

“Rot,” said ’Arry. Then turning to the giggling Maudlin, he whispered: “Saw it las’ toime. ’Is lordship got a piece o’ moy moind that oi reeled off into it about this ’ere swindle. Fawney that old bloke there charging a tanner apiece to us for chaffin’ a bit of a barrel.”

“Have you no last new braveries to show us of the gallants and their mistresses, as you were wont?” said Maudlin to the Cicerone. “’Twas a rare show last time—the modish silk gowns and farthingales in the closets.”

“But there be no company this Christmas,” said the custodian, “and ’is lordship does not entertain, unless it be the new fool ’is lordship sent down ’ere to-day, who has been mopin’ and moonin’ in the corridors, as is ever the way of these wittol creatures when they are not heeded. He was ’ere in a rare motley of his own choosing, with which he thinks to raise a laugh, a moment ago. Ye see him not—not ’avin’ the gift that belongs by right to my dread office. ’Tis a weird privilege I have—and may not be imparted to others—save”—

“Save what, good man steward? Prithee, speak?” said Marian earnestly.

“’Tis ever a shillin’ extra.”

There was no response. A few of the more bashful ghosts thrust their hands in their pockets and looked awkwardly another way. The Barbarian felt a momentary relief followed by a slight pang of mortified vanity. He was a little afraid of them. The price was an extortion, certainly, but surely he was worth the extra shilling!

“He has brought but little braveries of attire into the Castle,” continued the Cicerone, “but I ’ave something ’ere which was found on the top of his portmanteau. I wot ye know not the use of this.” To the Barbarian’s intense indignation, the Cicerone produced, from under his, his (the Barbarian’s) own opera hat. “Marry, what should be this? Read me this riddle! To it—and unyoke!”

A dozen vacant guesses were made as the showman held it aloft. Then with a conjuror’s gesture he suddenly placed his thumbs within the rim, released the spring and extended the hat. The assembly laughed again silently as before.

“’Tis a hat,” said the Cicerone, with a superior air.

“Nay,” said Maudlin, “give it here.” She took it curiously, examined it, and then with a sudden coquettish movement lifted it towards her own coifed head, as if to try it on. The Cicerone suddenly sprang forward with a despairing gesture to prevent her. And here the Barbarian was conscious of a more startling revelation. How and why he could not tell, but he knew that the putting on of that article of his own dress would affect the young girl as the assumption of the steel cap and corselet had evidently affected him, and that he would instantly become as visible to her as she and her companions had been to him. He attempted to rise, but was too late; she had evaded the Cicerone by ducking, and, facing in the direction of the Barbarian, clapped the hat on her head. He saw the swift light of consciousness, of astonishment, of sudden fear spring into her eyes! She shrieked, he started, struggled, and awoke!

But what was this! He was alone in the moonlit gallery, certainly; the ghastly figures in their outlandish garb were gone; he was awake and in his senses, but, in this first flash of real consciousness, he could have sworn that something remained! Something terror-stricken, and retreating even then before him,—something of the world, modern,—and, even as he gazed, vanishing through the gallery door with the material flash and rustle of silk.

He walked quietly to the door. It was open. Ah! No doubt he had forgotten to shut it fast; a current of air or a sudden draught had opened it. That noise had awakened him. More than that, remembering the lightning flash of dream consciousness, it had been the cause of his dream. Yet, for a few moments he listened attentively.

What might have been the dull reverberation of a closing door in the direction of the housekeeper’s room, on the lower story, was all he heard. He smiled, for even that, natural as it might be, was less distinct and real than his absurd vision.

Nevertheless the next afternoon he concluded to walk over to Audley Friars for his Christmas dinner. Its hospitable master greeted him cordially.

“But do you know, my dear fellow,” he said, when they were alone for a moment, “if you hadn’t come by yourself I’d have sent over there for you. The fact is that A— wrote to us that you were down at Stukeley alone, ghost-hunting or something of that sort, and I’m afraid it leaked out among the young people of our party. Two of our girls—I shan’t tell you which—stole over there last night to give you a start of some kind. They didn’t see you at all, but, by Jove, it seems they got the biggest kind of a fright themselves, for they declare that something dreadful in armor, you know, was sitting in the gallery. Awfully good joke, wasn’t it? Of course you didn’t see anything,—did you?”

“No,” said the Barbarian, discreetly.

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