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We Four, and the Stories We Told

The Pater's Ghost Story

page 38

The Pater's Ghost Story.

It now came to my turn to tell some tale, and as everyone else had done their best willingly, I could not ask to be excused. So I said, “Well, boys, I am. not a good hand at telling a story, but, if you like, I will read one that a friend once told to me.” As they were agreeable, I went to my bedroom and brought back with me a notebook, from which I read The “Pater's Ghost Story,” as follows:—

“It was just the night for a story. The wind was loud and boisterous, now dying out in low sobs, now shrieking in wild glee, making the house tremble with its force, and we knew that if the warm green curtains at the windows were drawn aside we should see the snow-flakes swirling down ward through the gloom. All this, however, only enhanced the comfort we felt in the good fire that brightened up the objects near at hand, but made strange shadows stir in the distant corners, and flicker, phantom-like, against the further walls. We were alone in the house, the Pater and I. My chair was tilted comfortably aslant, while he, with his arms folded behind his head, lay back in a low arm-chair. His two dogs, brown, curly-haired, wise-eyed retrievers, snoozed luxuriously at our feet. Presently a gust of unusual violence struck the house, and roared about the roof, renewed again and again with such wild clamour, that I exclaimed—‘By Jove! Pater, isn't it an awfnl night!’ Then I repeated, half-unconsciously, Robert Buchanan's weird lines beginning, The wind, lad, the wind, how it blows, how it blows, it gripes the latch, it shakes the house, it whistles, it screams, it crows!’

“The Pater nodded assent, but spake no word. Let me here explain that, beyond a long and sincere friendship, there is no other connection between the Pater and myself—no tie of blood or birth, not even that slight link which makes men of the same country one kin. But long years page 39 passed close together have given to each a feeling of Action and esteem that time cannot destroy. As to the nickname of ‘Pater,’ it was given to him in kindly recognition of many friendly deeds, of many pleasant hours passed together, of pranks we played, and cares or sorrows we have known; and the familiar by-name is now more commonly used between us than his own proper Patronymic. As his real name is of no consequence to this story, I have chosen the title ‘Pater’ to introduce as good a friend and as hearty a fellow as ever the sun shone on. So we sat together this evening, the Pater and I, silent for the most part—old friends have no need to keep up that distressing flow of small talk, which politeness demands among mere acquaintances.

“For a time, no sound was audible but the roar and piping of the wind as it rose or died away, and the impolite snoring of the dogs at our feet. At length, when it seemed likely that we would follow the example of those wise animals, I said, ‘Pater, rouse up and tell a story.’ Now, the art of story-telling is one of the Pater's special accomplishments, and many a pleasant hour have I passed in listening to his gruesome Highland legends, his tales of ‘suffering, want, and woe’ in the Crimea; his reminiscences sounding like pages from ‘The Arabian Nights’—of the ruined palaces or desolated shrines at Delhi and Lucknow, and his vivid descriptions of the life and scenery of that wondrous Oriental land. But to-night the Pater was lazy, protesting I had heard all his tales again and again, but finally relented so far as to ask what kind of story I wanted.

“‘Oh! a good cold-blooded murder or a ghost story is most fitting for a night like this.’

“‘Well, as I have never committed a murder, nor yet have ‘shuffled off this mortal coil,’ I don't see how I can easily suit you.’

“‘Now, Pater, don't begin to attempt sharp answers, for you get very unpleasant in that way sometimes. Be obliging—just for a change, you know.’

“‘Thanks for the compliment. But it is stupid to retail second-hand stories, and the only ghost I ever saw you must have heard of long ago, for the affair happened in this very township.’

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“‘The ghost you saw, and here! By Jove, that's glorious! I'll put on another log before you begin, for I might not be game to face the dark when you have finished.’ So when I had replenished the fire, swung the kettle above the blaze, shaken the snowflakes from my coat and once more placed my chair comfortably aslant, I signified my readiness to listen by the familiar, if slangy, expression, ‘Now then, Pater, go a-head.’

“‘You must not look for anything too wonderful in this story of mine, Harry, nor can I tell why or wherefore it should have happened to me. It led to no ultimate discovery of murder or foul play, as ghostly visits are generally said to do. Only I am sure of this: That I saw clearly and distinctly all I am going to tell you, and that at the time I was neither drunk nor dreaming.’

“He paused, and I nodded to assure him of my acceptance of the conditions of his story, then drew my chair in closer to listen.

Looking now to that evening, many years ago, fancy brings back the time, and again I am sitting in the red firelight, looking into the Pater's kindly face, brightened by expressive, keen, grey eyes, and hearing the slow, distinct, earnest voice that rose and fell, or at times paused awhile to give full effect to his tale, while, outside, the wind sobbed plaintively or rose to a fierce shriek, making this strange story seem yet more weird and awful.

“‘You recollect,’ continued the Pater, ‘that accident which happened at Donnybrook when poor Ned Bolton was crushed by a fall of earth? Then, you know, there arose a dispute as to the actual cause of death, and it was decided to hold an inquest. Well, I left this place to carry the mail up to Nokomai the day previous to that on which Bolton died, and when I went from home he was not thought to be in any very great danger. Of course I remained that night at Nokomai, then had to go on to the Upper Nevis, so that four days elapsed before I returned. I got back here in the evening shortly after dark, put my horse in the stable, and went to light the lantern to bed him down. But I found the lantern had been moved, and as I knew there was some loose straw in the next stall, I thought I could do the work without the trouble of going for a light. Groping about in the stall, I page 41 came suddenly against some strange object. It seemed to be ting on a tressel, and feeling still farther, I started back in instinctive horror when I recognised the stiff, cold, damp form as a human body. The shock was over in an instant, only the puzzle remained as to whom it could be, and why it was put in the stable I gathered up the straw, and without lighting the lantern, fed my horse and was ready to go.

“‘And not unwilling, I should think, with that ghastly object close at hand, Pater?’

“‘It made no difference, lad, nor would it necessarily have been ‘a ghastly object.’ I have seen men look far more happy and peaceful when dead than ever during their life. In this case I had no idea what he would have been like, for, in the darkness of the stable, I could only distinguish a vague black something at the end of the stall, but could not make out a single detail Before leaving the stable, I glanced at the stall once again, wondering who it could be, for, strange to say, the thought of Ned Bolton did not once occur to ma I did not know him much, and when I left he was not thought to be dangerously injured, so I had quite forgotten all about his accident. After locking the stables, I went away down to the Sergeant's for tea. There I learnt first of Bolton's death, and the inquest that was to be held so soon as a doctor could come from Lawrence. But the roads were heavy and the rivers high (we had had very hard rain a few days before) so that it might be another day before he arrived. In the meanwhile the body was to remain in the Camp stable. We had tea, and after, a long and jolly chat. Then, as the Sergeant had to go into the town, we left the house and walked up the hill together. Having reached the Warden's office, he turned off to the township. I paused for a final look round before going to bed. It was a lovely night—frosty, clear, and still. From a cloudless, purple sky, the full moon shed a flood of brightness, shewing every object as clearly as by day. The Argyle Ranges, furrowed by many a deep gully where blue shadows lay, curved round to meet the Dome Peak, that shone all sparkling with snow above the line of dark birch bush. From the Camp, you know, one can see right on beyond the semi-circular valley at the racecourse and the little hill at the back, across the flat, with the wrinkled hills upon, each leading up to the loftier mountains which in the winter shut in. the view page 42 with a snowy wall. I like nice scenery, and it is worth while to stand for half-an-hour, even on a frosty night, to see the Waikaia curving like a silver band through the long grey plain. Turning round, I noticed some waggoners had camped just beyond the fluming, and their horses, some of them with bells on, were feeding close by. ‘I hope,’ said I to myself, ‘that those tarnation brutes won't be coming and tramping round the house with those jangling bells to keep one awake, and to make sure, I drove them down the road before I went to bed. I locked the front door, turning the inside catch as well, and also fastened my bedroom door. But I could not sleep. The rush of the water down the race disturbed me, the still dead-ness of the frosty night made me wakeful, and I was the more so when I could hear, faintly at first, but gradually coming nearer, the sharp tinkling horsebells. The brutes came on, and were presently champing the fresh grass by the door, rubbing themselves against the walls and stamping about, while with each movement the bells jangled again. At last it got past endurance, and partly dressing myself, I went out and drove them far away down the road. The keen frosty air thoroughly roused me, and I lay in my bed knocking from side to side, or watching the moonlight streaming through the window.

Presently I was startled by what appeared to be the figure of a man going slowly past the window. It struck me the more, because, though I could see it plainly enough, yet I fancied it did not seem to intercept the light, to cast no shadow, to be transparent, in fact. Before I had time to reason about the matter, I heard the front door opening—it creaks, you know—and felt the draught of the keen night air. Then my bedroom door opened, and a figure glided in. I can't say walked in, for the lower limbs were motionless—it seemed to drift along. It came on, and stopped at my bed's-head. I crushed myself against the wall as close as possible, and looked in wonder at this uncanny visitor. The figure was that of a man about my own height, but of slighter build. The hands lay stiff and close against the sides; the face I could not see. It was concealed by a canvas bag that came low down beneath the shoulders, and there was a string fastened round the neck. I had not been able to distinguish any of these particulars in the dark stable, you page 43 remember. I looked at it long and treadily, and shrank still closer to the wall as it began slowly to bend down towards me. It came down closer and closer, till the face was near my own, then I put up my hands to thrust it off. It was no shadowy substance I encountered, but a heavy, dead, stiff form that pressed down on me. I seized it near the shoulders, could distinctly touch the canvass wrapper, could recognize that nameless horror that one feels when touching a corpse, and with all my might fought against it, trying to keep it off. Suddenly it straightened itself, glided from my bedside and was gone. In vain I tried to persuade myself it was all a dream, and that the big drops of perspiration on my forehead were the effects of mental agony. No, I was awake—thoroughly, wide awake; and though I searched everywhere, and this directly, the figure had gone. I could find no one hidden who might have played me so cruel a trick. I could hear voices in the town, and looking down the hill could see a light in the Sergeant's house. For a time I had some thought of going there and telling them what I had seen; but, reflecting on the matter, who would believe me? I could only say that the figure of a man dead, stiff, and cold, had come into my room, that I had wrestled with it, and it had vanished. Was it a credible story? No, they would only laugh, and hint, perhaps, that I was not sober. In fact, standing there in the moonlight, with familiar objects close at hand, I began to doubt my own experience. It must have been a dream, I said to myself, and so went to bed again. But not to sleep. I heard the noises more disturbingly than ever. Listening, yet trying not to hear, I caught the faint tinkle of the bells, each moment becoming sharper and more distressing. At last the horses were again close to the door and rubbing against the house. I sat up, meaning to go and turn them away, when again the same ominous shadow slipped past the window, and breathlessly I waited, till, with a breath of frosty air, and through the creaking doors, it passed into my room. Now, there could be no mistake. I saw it as plainly as I see you and, when it stopped and bent towards me, I grappled with its cold, dead weight, and touched the canvass round its head as plainly as I touch you now. (Don't jump, old boy; I'm not a ghost.) Well, as at first, the struggle was hard and fierce. It pressed close down as if it wished page 44 to place its damp, dead face beside mine, then suddenly sprang aside, and was gone. I lay there thoroughly mystified. I knew now I was not asleep. Outside, I could hear the horses jingling their bells, and the water sweeping down the race. There, too, was every object in my room to be plainly seen. I rose, wiped the perspiration from my fore-head, and going out, I chased the horses away, walked about a bit, then, looking at my watch, found it was past one o'clock. The town was silent; the light was gone from the Sergeant's house, so I walked up and down inside my room waiting for the dawn. It was twenty minutes past two when I heard the horses again coming slowly up the hill. They kept coming closer and closer, tramping round and round, rubbing against the house, and always with, the accompaniment of the sharp, discordant bells. At first, the noise and movement were comforting in contrast to the horror of that dead thing, but by-and-bye the clanking became intolerable, and I was just on the point of going out, when again the shadow glided past the window. Now, I was thoroughly prepared, and sat up in bed. Tt came on and stopped beside me. I saw it as clearly as T now see you,—the stiff unbending form with the canvass round the shoulders, which were sharply outlined through the wrapper, and the string round its neck. I don't know why, but these details seemed to strike me most. It bent down towards me, and now such a struggle began as I never had in my life before and do not wish for again. I was determined to find out what the thing was, and had grasped it by the shoulders. I am as strong as most men, but I was powerless against this. It crushed me down on my bed. I held fast. It moved away, and we struggled through the room till we came to where my box stood in a corner. It forced me down on that, bent me backwards over it, pressing me harder and harder, closer and closer, then suddenly it slipped from my grasp and was gone. I lay a minute or so panting after the terrible struggle; then, having dressed myself, went out. No more attempts at sleep for me; and I was not sorry when the first golden flash of dawn brightened the sky. As soon as the light was strong I went into the stable, and there, at the upper end of the stall, lay the dead body, with canvass wrapped about the shoulders, which stuck out sharply, a string being tied round the neck, in every par- page 45 ticular just as it has appeared to me during the night. That's my ghost story, Harry, and I can neither explain nor understand it. The dead man was no friend of mine, hardly to be called an acquaintance. He was buried late next day, and I saw no more of him either by dark or daylight However, lad, I can tell you this: I always hated those sharp tinkling horse-bells, but more than ever since that night, for now a shudder always comes across me at the sound.’

“‘And well it may do, Pater,’ I replied. ‘Still, is it not possible that, in spite of its seeming reality, it was only a very vivid and hideous nightmare after all?”

“‘Tarnation! don't I tell you I was wide awake—had. never once closed my eyes or lost consciousness. No, you can't explain the matter in that way.’

“‘And as for drinking, I suppose——’

“‘Suppose what you please,’ interrupted the Pater, getting angry now. ‘I had but one drink all day, just before starting down the Gorge and after a ride of 35 miles through a keen, wintry afternoon could have little effect.’

‘Well, it is the queerest thing I ever heard of, I can't understand it—but—er. er—’

“‘Confound your inconsequential ‘buts.’ If you have any objection to make, make it.’

“‘No, oh no; I was merely going to say as before, that it is quite beyond me.’

“‘H'm,—n. If you live to be as old as I am, lad, you will find there are a good many ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

“Such is the Pater's Ghost Story, boys. He was as brave and true a fellow as ever breathed, and though he could never find any reason for it, you may take my word he did see all this exactly as I have told you.”

“Ah!” said Harry Clare, “it's all mighty fine to talk about ghosts, wait till you've got realities in the shape of a dozen youngsters to think of, and you'll have no call to be afraid of ghosts. Are you ready for home, Archie?”

“Will, look here, Harry, I don't half like that ghost story, and besides, it is very wet and dark outside, I think I'll get a bid here to-night.”

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“Now, I do call that real mean,” ejaculated Harry, “to let a fellow walk home alone through the dark, after telling him a blessed yarn fit to frighten——”

“Oh, but you don't believe in ghosts or such things,” said Archie.

“No, that I don't,” was Harry's defiant reply, “and so I'm off, and a very good night, boys, one and all.”

The End.

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