How I Helped to Lay a Ghost
Author of "The Adventures of Romney Pringle."
How I Helped to Lay a Ghost.
A Complete Story.
" Well, Jarvis, anything the matter at the stable?" I asked, as the coachman entered rather breathlessly.
"No, sir; it's at the bank."
"The bank!" I echoed. "Why, they closed long ago, didn't they?"
"Yes, sir; that is, not altogether, sir. As I passed there, coming back from tea, I saw Mr. Major, the constable, who asked me to run and fetch you at once, as someone was hurt."
I was at Ashtreecroft, in West Berks, a little north of the Hants border, and I have seen few prettier spots even in that region of picturesque villages. I had heard of the practice from the agent as one that was growing rather beyond the single-handed powers of Sayfield, its owner; and as I had always had the idea of a partnership as the most satisfactory way of purchasing a practice, I agreed to take charge for a month to learn the best and the worst it had to offer. The fact is, I was beginning to chafe at my perpetual packing up and moving on—one month here, another there, for all the world like a strolling player; and now that Miss Innes had become such an important factor in my life, I pined more than ever for a settled habitation. Nothing calling for particular notice occurred during the greater part of the first month—indeed, had it not been for the special interest I took in what I began to regard as my own practice, the work might have seemed monotonous, and it was not until the third week of my stay that the event I am about to relate took place. It was now the third Wednesday—a date I remember for this reason: the business at Ashtreecroft being small, the bank, which was but a branch of a larger establishment at Reading, only opened on the Wednesday market-day. The office was on the ground floor of a little house in what, had the village been of more importance, would, I suppose, have attained the rank of the High Street; but as the only thoroughfare of the place it had no name, and the word "Bank" on the window was all that guided customers to what seemed in other respects a private residence.
"Mr. Major is waiting for you in the yard, doctor," said the policeman standing at the door, which he carefully shut behind me, and then led the way to a cobble-paved yard at the back, which opened into an alley running parallel with the High Street, as I had better call it. Here I found the senior constable endeavouring by threats and entreaties to clear the premises of a little group of villagers, unwilling to be deprived of a spectacle about as interesting in their dull lives as a travelling circus. The centre of attraction was the prostrate body of a young man, lying, apparently lifeless, by the back door of the bank. Posting my guide as sentinel over the alleyway, his superior greeted me silently, and helped me to turn over the man, who, I was relieved to find, was still breathing. He was neatly dressed in a dark flannel lounge-suit, and, well groomed and spruce, showed no apparent signs of any violence.
"Attempted murder, I should say, sir," observed the constable, drawing a revolver from his pocket.
"Did you find that here?" I asked.
"Yes, lying a little way nearer the door." And he handed me the weapon, of which only one chamber had apparently been loaded and discharged, the others being quite clear and empty.
As I turned the body over in search of any wound which might account for its condition, "Do you know him?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, sir! It's young Mr. Meadowcroft, from the bank. He drives over every week on market-day, and goes back in the afternoon."
Although with Major's help I examined the body thoroughly, carefully scanning the clothing for blood-marks, there was no evidence of hæmorrhage, as would be inevitable from a revolver wound, nor could I see any other trace of violence. There was certainly an abrasion on the left side of his forehead, and Major, when I questioned him, remembered that when first seen that was the side upon which the body lay; but the fact went for little in the presence of the discharged revolver.
"How came you to discover him?" I asked.
"Well, sir, Edwards, my assistant, walking by about five-thirty, noticed that the bank window hadn't been shut, although the door was closed—they always shut it all up at three o'clock. So he knocked to remind old Wells, the porter; but as he couldn't get any answer, he strolled along and came round the back way, expecting to find Wells somewhere about, as he sleeps on the premises. When he got to the backyard gate it was standing open; and when he looked in, there was the young gentleman lying just as you found him."
"And no one about?"
"Not a soul! The back door of the house was open, and Edwards peeped in and called for Wells. But as he didn't come, he went out and sent a boy running round to fetch me. As soon as I saw what had happened I sent Edwards off for you at once; but he met Dr. Sayfield's man just outside, and when he came back I left him in charge of the body while I went into the bank and had a look round; but there was no sign of Wells, though I hunted all over the house for him, and shouted loud enough to be heard in the street."
"But what about the revolver shot? Did no one hear it?"
"Ah! that's just it. You see, no one would be about but Wells. Mrs. Bell there," jerking his head towards the crowd which now seemed to embrace most of the village, "she said just now she heard something, but thought it was the door banging, and just after she heard the trap drive away as usual."
"Who would be driving?"
"Well, Mr. Meadowcroft drives over from Reading in the trap in the morning, and they puts it up under that shed there in the corner, and turns the horse into the stable place, and Wells puts it to at three o'clock or so ready for Mr. Meadowcroft to go back. I'm thinking he was just going to start when this happened, for Mrs. Bell says it was some time between three and four she heard the wheels go, and when I looked over the bank just now, it was all tidy, and no books or anything about, just as if Mr. Meadowcroft had cleared everything up."
"But where is his hat?"
"Just so, sir. And I know he always comes over with some books and a bag—I suppose with some money in it; I've seen him with them often, but they're nowhere about inside."
"Whose is the revolver?"
"That I can't say."
"Well, he doesn't seem to be coming round," I remarked. "We had better take him inside and put him to bed."
"But who's going to look after him," Major objected.
"Why, is there no one living here?"
"Only Wells, and he's a bachelor."
"Awkward!" I remarked. "Well, anyhow, we can't leave him here. There's no cottage-hospital or anything like that in the place, is there?"
"No, sir; no nearer than Reading."
"I suppose you have an ambulance, anyhow?"
"Yes, at the police station."
"Well, if you can bring him along to Dr. Sayfield's, I'll see if we can't put him up there—at any rate, until he is fit to send to his own place."
I was myself occupying the spare room, but I arranged with the housekeeper to give it up to Meadowcroft while I turned into Sayfield's room. As the rooms adjoined, the arrangement was a convenient one, enabling me to keep a constant eye on the patient. As it happened, we had scarcely got him undressed and put to bed before consciousness returned, and I was able to overhaul him thoroughly. I had already pretty well decided in my own mind that whatever else the revolver bullet might have done, it had certainly inflicted no damage on Meadowcroft; and after a further examination of him, I was not surprised that he complained of little beyond a severe headache and tenderness all along his left side. The bruise on his forehead was now quite apparent, and I suspected him to have been stunned by some blunt instrument. Anyhow, his memory was quite a blank at present, and as he seemed drowsy and inclined to sleep, I prescribed perfect rest
"He showed no apparent signs of any violence."
and quietude, and reassuring him as to his position, left Nature to do her own work; and when I took an occasional peep at him during the evening he was sleeping soundly.
I was having a quiet smoke in the garden after dinner, when Major was announced. He had not come, it appeared, in quest of information so much as to impart it, for when I told him how well Meadowcroft was doing, he shook his head.
"Ah! a bad business, I'm afraid, sir."
"Not anyone shot, I hope?"
"No, but I've had a wire from the manager of the Reading bank to ask what's become of Mr. Meadowcroft; I was just going to wire to him myself when the message came. He says the horse was found wandering with the empty trap close home, so I've only come to ask if I shall say that Mr. Meadowcroft is doing well, and he can see him to-morrow."
"Yes, I think you may safely say he is getting on all right, but I don't think he will be fit to see anybody to-morrow."
As I expected, so it turned out. The next morning Meadowcroft still showed a little mental confusion, and I decided to keep him for at least another day in the seclusion of his darkened room; so when Major sent his subordinate to ask if he might bring the Reading manager to see him, I was inflexible in refusing. Edwards told me that the horse was found grazing by the roadside near Reading; that the books were safe inside, but that a black leather bag with the cash was missing. He also added the curious fact that the clerk's hat was discovered lying at the bottom of the trap. He got this, he said, from the manager, who had brought over a new porter—a married man this time, whom he had installed in place of the missing Wells.
The day after, Meadowcroft was so much better that I allowed him to get up, but still thought it best to keep him to his room. He would have been quite reminiscent if I had suffered him, but I would not listen, telling him to reserve his story for the manager. The latter, when he arrived in the evening, proved to be not a very starched official, and I was pleased to see he greeted Meadowcroft in most friendly style.
"This is a change of scene, Mr. Herbert," said the poor fellow.
"Never mind; it might have been worse. I'm glad to find you as well as this. Do you mind my asking him what he remembers, doctor? Thank you. Well now, Meadowcroft, was there anything particular in the afternoon?"
"No; nothing particular. Just the ordinary business."
"When did you close?"
"At three as usual. I had cleared everything up at three-thirty, and told Wells to get the horse put to. I remember collecting the books and taking them out to the cart, and then I got in with the bag."
"There was about £500 in it, wasn't there? At least, that is the amount I make it from the books."
"Yes; I remember now it was about £300 in notes and £200 in cash, besides several cheques and bills paid in by customers. Except for the cheques and so on, I was going back with about as much as I brought."
"Well, what then?"
There was a long silence. I could see the clerk racking his brain for a glimmer of recollection, and was just going to put a stop to the catechism when he flung his arms wide with a hopeless gesture, exclaiming:
"It's no use! I really don't know what happened next! Everything seems a blank after that. Tell me, how long ago was it?"
"Never mind that for the present," I said. "Can you tell us what Wells did?"
"I can't say at all."
"Do you remember where he went to?" asked the manager.
"No; but why don't you ask him that?"
At this point I thought it time to interfere. Meadowcroft was becoming unduly excited; obviously, he had told all he knew, which, after all, was rather less than the manager seemed to know already. In the weak state of his brain it was not only cruel but dangerous to worry him with further questions, and to let him guess the real state of affairs might undo all the good of the rest and treatment I had been giving him.
"It certainly is a most mysterious affair," said the manager presently, as we sat together in the consulting room. "I would have trusted Wells to any extent. He was an old army man of exemplary character, and the last man on earth I should have suspected of robbing the bank, still less of adding murder to his crime. Yet still everything seems to point to his shooting at poor Meadowcroft, and leaving him for dead while he escaped with the money in the cart; and then he must have abandoned it at what he thought a convenient spot, and made off with the cash, for nothing was found in the trap but the books and the hat."
"That seems the most curious point of all," I remarked. "For how came the hat in the cart when the wearer was found lying on the ground with no sign of any struggle?"
"You are certain there was no struggle?"
"Positive. Meadowcroft would have had extensive bruises or other evidence of the fact about him if there had been. But have you traced the revolver?"
"Oh, that is very easily explained. A clerk going to a branch for the day and taking cash with him always carries one—more for the look of the thing, I admit, than anything else, for I never knew of one being used before; and whether Meadowcroft fired it in self-defence at the porter, or whether the porter fired it murderously at him, and, if so, how Meadowcroft ever let him get possession of it, I can't imagine."
"Then, after all, the revolver part of it seems a very simple affair. It was with almost a sense of disappointment that I heard this matter-of-fact explanation, and added: "I suppose you will be able to trace the notes?"
"Certainly. The numbers and all information were sent to the Bank of England and Scotland Yard the same evening; while the cheques and papers in the bag would be, of course, quite valueless to Wells or anyone else. I would have staked my life on that man's honesty; but I suppose he gave way to a sudden temptation. Well, good-evening. I hope if the patient remembers any more you will let me know; perhaps, too, you wouldn't mind treating it with due secrecy." He added, as I was about to make the natural protestation, "I mean that quite apart from your professional attitude, I hope you won't acquaint the police with anything fresh until we have had an opportunity of talking it over together, as the bank doesn’t care for too many details to be made public."
The next day was Saturday, and rather a busy one, so that I had no chance of speaking at any length with Meadowcroft. He seemed on the whole to be a little more collected; but as he made no reference to the affair I was only too glad to avoid the subject. But it was fated that I should hear a good deal about it from other sources.
Returning from my morning rounds, I found Major awaiting me. His manner was portentous, and for reply to my query as to any fresh developments he silently handed me a shapeless lump of metal.
"Whatever is this?" I asked; and then, as I began to see in it a flattened mass of lead, "Is it the missing bullet?"
"That's it, sir. It took a little finding, but I spent nearly the whole of yesterday afternoon at the bank, for I knew that bullet must be somewhere about, and sure enough, after hunting round the back-doorway for about an hour, I saw some fresh-looking splinters on the eaves a little to the right. So I got the ladder from the stable, and with a little more damage to the place, as you might say, I dug this here out of it."
"Good!" I exclaimed, and then with a recollection of the manager's caution, "How do you suppose it got there?"
"Well, I've been thinking that Mr. Meadowcroft may have had his hand knocked up just as he was firing on Wells when he attacked him; or it may have been the other way, and he may have knocked Wells's hand up as Wells was firing at him. It's a puzzle anyhow, and one we shan't get to the bottom of till one of them tells us. Has Mr. Meadowcroft said anything about it?"
"Nothing fresh," I answered curtly.
"Well, it's one more step, this finding of the bullet, so I hope he'll say something soon, for there's but a poor chance of finding Wells, seemingly."
"He certainly has a good start."
"Ah, yes, doctor; but, you see, he's got the money." Here Major's voice sank to a whisper, and he continued, "Bag found in the Loddon this morning—caught in some rushes—ripped open and quite empty."
"The same bag?"
"Stamped with the bank's name and all! Well, I must be getting on, sir. I just looked in on my way up to London. I've had a wire to go up to Scotland Yard about this case. Sorry you can't tell me more."
In the afternoon I had intended to have a talk with Meadowcroft, when a patient arrived, and then another and another, until I found the evening work was about to form a fitting close to a busy day. One of the women was specially garrulous and hard to dispose of, this affair having got on her nerves, as, indeed, it bid fair to get on mine. There was some excuse, however, for her, as she was the wife of the new bank porter, Jackson, and complained of nervousness and insomnia; was sure the bank was haunted; ghostly noises were to be heard at night (of course) near the scene of the tragedy; no one else heard them; her husband never heard anything—would snore while she was being murdered. She seemed otherwise a sensible woman, and crediting her with a vivid imagination, I dismissed her with a mysterious tonic, and soon forgot her in the press of other work. At length I was free, but it was then too late to talk with Meadowcroft; so I postponed my interview until the next day, when, as will be seen, it was practically forced upon me.
I had arranged an easy morning's work, and returning about noon was told by the housekeeper that Meadowcroft was asking for me. I should observe that I had allowed him to read the newspaper the previous day, so that when I went upstairs the sight of a Sunday paper in his hand gave me no surprise; but I had cause to regret my permission when he showed me a report of the case, which in full detail extended to nearly a column. An enterprising newspaper
"Clawing at Meadowcroft as if fending off some horrid apparition" (p. 690). agency had even recorded the fact of the bullet being found; but there was a later and more startling item, to this effect:—
We understand that the police have effected the arrest of a man alleged to be the bank porter Wells, who has been missing since the day of the occurrence. With a carelessness scarcely to be expected from his previous actions, the person who obtained possession of the cash which the unfortunate clerk was in charge of appears to have changed several notes for smaller sums in various places on the road between Reading and London, so that the police have been enabled to trace his progress with the greatest accuracy. A slight check was only to be expected when London was reached, had not a lucky accident enabled the police to arrest the alleged criminal. Early on Saturday morning, the proprietor of a lodging-house in the East India Dock Road gave information that a coloured seaman had been stabbed in a brawl with another inmate, who, on being taken into custody and searched, was found to have a large portion of the stolen property in his possession. When charged with the attempted murder and robbery at Ashtreecroft, the man, who gave the name of Stevens, stoutly protested his innocence, and declared he was able to establish a perfect alibi, and, although admitting that the property was not his own, made a statement as to having found it in a trap deserted by the roadside as he was on tramp from Reading.
Before I had read down the column I saw that any attempt to conceal matters from Meadowcroft might lead to unnecessary discussion, and probably excitement, which could only be injurious to him. The time had come to tell him everything. So I sat down beside the sofa and calmly, and in as few words as possible, told him all that I knew. I was relieved to find he took it very quietly; only occasionally did he interrupt me with questions, and their nature plainly showed that his memory was clarifying. Although I knew the counsel was rather impracticable, I endeavoured to persuade him not to let his thoughts dwell upon the matter, and during the rest of the day, which I spent with him, I took every precaution to lead the conversation into other channels; and when I got him off to bed at last I felt satisfied with my success.
The first visitor to the surgery on Monday morning was Jackson, the porter from the bank. It appeared that the noises which had so alarmed his wife persisted. He was, he agreed with her, a sound sleeper, and had never heard them; but last night she had roused him in the small hours, and insisted on his searching the premises. Of course he found nothing; but as his wife was highly nervous, starting at the slightest noise and becoming quite hysterical, he hoped I would come and see her. I agreed somewhat contemptuously, and was just setting out, when Major came in.
"Well, doctor," said he, "I had my journey to London for nothing."
"Indeed; I saw in the paper that the stolen property was found on a man arrested for stabbing someone."
"That's true enough, sir. He admits finding it in the trap, but he's put forward the best alibi possible concerning the bank business. He says he was on his way from Reading gaol when he met the trap about a mile away from there. And I called at the prison yesterday and found it was quite true. A man exactly answering to his description had been doing fourteen days, and for some insubordination was not discharged in the morning, but detained as punishment till four p.m."
"Then you are not much further forward?"
"Only as to recovering the money. It's all safe except about £30, which this man will have to answer for. But I've called, doctor, to ask you to let Mr. Meadowcroft come round to the bank. Perhaps, if he has a look round, he may remember something which will help us."
I was privately rather inclined to this course myself, and as Meadowcroft at once fell in with the suggestion, we all went round together.
"Well," said Major to the clerk, as we stood in the yard, “here you were found lying, and up above the door there I found the revolver bullet. Now, sir, can you remember who fired it?"
"Yes!" exclaimed Meadowcroft. "That newspaper report brought it all back to me yesterday. I seem to see it in a dream. I got into the trap with the bag, Wells handed me the reins, and I was driving off, when I remembered that I had laid down the revolver in the passage. Wells ran back for it, and I leant over and took it from him. The horse was restive, and attending more to him than to Wells, I caught the revolver awkwardly, and it went off as I held it."
"And then you fell?" I prompted him as he paused.
"Yes, but you did!" I insisted. "You were not wounded in any way; you were bruised exactly as you would have been by such a fall. The horse, as you tell us, was a restive brute, and of course it plunged about and perhaps kicked when the revolver went off, and so you were thrown out of the cart."
"But what became of Wells?" objected Major.
"Help! help!" shrieked a woman's voice at this instant.
We all ran towards the door, just as the porter's wife rushed from it in a frenzy of terror.
"The ghost! the ghost!" she cried, and collapsed into Major's arms.
I heard a growl of something which sounded like "Keep quiet, or I'll brain you!" and one of the most woe-begone and forlorn objects I have ever seen rushed along the passage, then stopped, amazed at the sight of us, and leant gasping against the doorpost. It was a man, haggard and filthy, his face covered with many days' stubble, who crouched blinking and shading his eyes with one hand, the other grasping a coal-hammer, his jaws inarticulately chattering the while.
"Why, if it isn't Wells!" roared Major.
On this the creature recovered his voice, and clawing at Meadowcroft, as if fending off some horrid apparition, he huskily ejaculated:
"Take him away! It's not true—I never done it!"
"Why, Wells, don't you know me?" asked Meadowcroft, holding out his hand to him.
"Keep off! Don't come a-haunting me in daylight!" the man screamed, shuffling back into the passage.
By this time the fresh air had revived the porter's wife, so propping her against the step Major dashed after the retreating figure, who was stumbling towards a dark and narrow stairway. Dragging him back by the collar of his dilapidated coat, Major confronted him with Meadowcroft.
"It's all right, Wells; don't be frightened," said the latter soothingly.
"Why, are—aren't you dead, sir?" stammered the poor wretch.
"Not a bit of it; feel me!" And with that he grasped the dirty one's hand and wrung it, by no means gently.
"Oh, the Lord be praised! I thought you were shot."
"Well, who did it?" asked Major.
"Not me—not me! It was an accident."
Meadowcroft and I exchanged glances.
"But tell us," I asked, "how did it happen?"
"Oh, my! You're sure it's all right? I ain't a murderer, am I?" and he began to whimper, as much, I could see, from the effects of weakness as from the mental strain he must have gone through. "Oh, Mr. Meadowcroft, the pistol went off as I handed it to you, and the horse reared—I always said he was too flighty for our work—and you fell out of the cart, and I thought you were shot, and everyone would say I'd done it, and I should perish on the scaffold, and—and I didn't know what to do!"
"But what became of the horse and trap?" said Meadowcroft.
"He galloped out of the yard, bad luck to him! And then I made sure they'd say I'd shot you to get the money, and I ran downstairs to the furthest cellar, and there I hid. Oh, dear! oh dear! What I've suffered these five days down in that cellar with all the slugs and devil's coach-horses and horrid things. I never come out in daylight till to-day, and then I ran straight against this good lady, whoever she is, and she screamed so I thought the whole place would be roused, and it would be all up with me."
"You haven't had much to eat?" I suggested.
"No, sir, indeed that's true. I used to try and forage a bit in the larder o' nights, but I feared to take much in case they'd miss it."
"Yes," chimed in the lady indignantly, "frightening folk out of their senses wandering about all night! I thought the food was going faster than it ought, but I didn't say nothing, as I knew ghosts didn't eat, and my husband would only have laughed at me."
"Well, now Wells has turned up at last, I wonder what ought to be done with him?" said Major, who seemed half-inclined to take the unfortunate porter into custody.
"Give him a wash and a good meal," said I.
It was quite six months later as we passed the bank on a market day that I asked my wife whether the substantial figure in a porter's uniform at the door quite realised her ideal of a ghost; but I regret to say that neither his "presence" nor the dignity of his office protect Wells from the ribaldry of the village boys, who, after the manner of their tribe, do not suffer him to forget his painful experience.