Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/"Where are her father's bones?"
“WHERE ARE HER FATHER’S BONES?”
CHAPTER I. TREATS OF THE INTRODUCTION.
’Twas a wild, dark night, and the wind howled tempestuously round the ivied turrets of the old Castle of Ghostenstein, and swept through the thick, gloomy forests of pine and fir, which encircled it, while the trees bent and rustled with a mighty sound as the wild blast came full upon them.
I will not tell you where Ghostenstein is, or rather was, for I do not choose to be convicted of geographical errors, or of ignorance of the proper forms and customs appertaining to such and such countries, nor will I mention the exact season at which the occurrences I am about to relate took place; suffice it to say, that it was some part of the period in which the chivalry of nearly all European nations thought that true religion consisted in knocking infidels on the head, burning Jews, torturing heretics, and then praying that eternal destruction might befal all who did not think precisely as they did. Of course we know that storms in the good old times were very shocking things, particularly near old castles; but never was a storm more awful than the one of which I now write, and so thought Sir Alphonso Albert Ferdinand, Comte de St. Ernancourt, as he rode through the narrow forest path leading up towards the castle, ever and anon bending his brow till the dark purple plumes of his steel casque almost tickled his nose, in the vain hope that he might somewhat shield his person from the wild deluge of rain which the storm king shed around in such weird profusion.
“By Saint Derby of Epsom,” muttered the bewildered and half-drowned knight, “this beats all the storms in Palestine, and if thou, my trusty Deerfoot, dost not soon bear me on thy gallant back to yon haven of rest, I fear I shall be washed away; as it is, I shall not beseem me as a gallant knight should, when ushered in the presence of the fair and highly-dowered Lady Amandamine, for I have brought back no changes of raiment with me from Palestine, and only one clean shirt. I am only now freed from the vows I have kept for two years past to live in the odour of sanctity, abjure washing, shaving, clean linen, and matrimony, and thus my wardrobe is in a very poor condition, and I did not reckon on this storm spoiling the few things that are. Ten thousand plagues on Ephraim Manasses, for not giving me that maroon velvet suit, which would have just done for me at this critical juncture. Ah! let me once get Amandamine and this castle for mine own, and I will pledge my word that the old scurvy rascal’s thumbs and toes shall well pay for his daring to doubt my knightly honour.”
As he spoke the knight clenched his fists, and dug his spurs with renewed vigour into the bleeding sides of his jaded steed.
While he is hurrying on towards the castle, we will leave him to obtain admittance there, while we penetrate at once into the sanctum sanctorum of Ghostenstein, even into the bower chamber of the Lady Amandamine de Valentin.
CHAPTER II. TREATS OF THE HEROINE.
She sat moodily near a window looking out on the storm; and her maidens finding their mistress disinclined for their society, and having, like all serving women of all times, a nervous horror of the lightning, had huddled together at the farther end of the apartment.
Our heroine, of course, was handsome, but now an expression of deep sadness sate on her brow. At times she muttered low, then sighed, and again whispered such words as these:
“Must I always be alone? Ah, Alphonso! I have not forgotten thee, though two weary years have sped their course since I beheld thee last; and now, though I am my own mistress, thy love is as impossible to me as ever. Oh, my father’s bones! my father’s bones! woe! woe!”
And thus she wailed on, while the storm rattled round the castle’s turrets, and waved her long hair in the breeze as, regardless of influenza, she bent her lovely form towards the open casement.
She was here interrupted by her page who, bowing low, informed her that a knight of noble mien craved the shelter of the castle for that night.
“Most willingly,” responded the lady. “Bid them prepare all in readiness for one guest, and let the supper be served forthwith in the great hall. Did he tell thee his name and condition, my pretty page?”
“No, my lady, the knight regretted having left his cardcase at home, but bade me bring up his gauntlet, saying that thou wouldst know to whom it belonged.”
She languidly gazed on the gauntlet, and when she beheld engraved on it the device of two Turkey cocks rampant and a donkey couchant, the blessed truth broke on her mind, and she started up, ecstatically exclaiming:
“’Tis he, my Alphonso! oh, joy! joy! Here Beatrice, Mary, Elfleda, all of ye, haste hither, bring me my gayest robe, and deck me as for a festival.”
All traces of sorrow fled from her speaking countenance, and she was once more the bright, the sparkling Amandamine.
Shall I describe their meeting? No, there is something too sacred in such things for me to tell, or for you to hear. All was “love! joy! rapture! bliss! &c., &c.,” and the young people were most uncommonly tender.
Old Father Eustace, who enacted the part of guardian to the youthful heiress, felt his old eyes water with tears of sympathy as he gazed on their happiness. At last they sat down to supper, a most cosy little party.
Alphonso (enchanted to hear from the seneschal on entering the castle that the Baron de Valentin, who had always opposed his suit, had died a year ago, so that now all obstacles seemed cleared from his path) was playing the agreeable to the best of his abilities, and being besides very hungry, he was exceedingly busy in disposing of the good things before him.
Having finished the first plateful, he turned to the priest, saying:
“Reverend father, I will trouble you for a little more of that pasty—there were nothing but bones—”
Here he was interrupted by a groan from Amandamine, who sank back in her chair.
“My love, my fair one, what is it?” asked the knight.
“I forgot, I forgot!” gasped she. “My father’s bones. Oh, Alphonso, I can never be thine.”
“Why not, my adored one?”
“Because—because,” sobbed the maiden, “because of my father’s bones.”
“Because of your fa—ther’s bones!” exclaimed the almost petrified knight. “Father Eustace, is that delicate mind tottering on the throne of reason? Is my beloved one destraught?”
The priest shook his grey head, and replied, “Alas! Sir Knight, she has good cause for all her sorrow.”
“Yes,” shrieked our heroine, “I have, I have. My father’s bones—my father’s—”
But here her feelings overpowered her, and she sank on the ground in strong convulsions. In vain the distracted lover bent over her; in vain the priest sprinkled water on her pure, pale brow. At last they summoned the maidens, and she was carried from the hall, leaving the knight alone, and in a most uncomfortable frame of mind.
Soon, however, they brought word to him that the Lady A. was better, and prayed that the noble Comte de St. Ernancourt would be easy about her, as she was almost recovered. Hubert, the old seneschal, who brought this message, asked if he might show him to his room.
“Yes—no, I would fain see Father Eustace,” said St. Ernancourt, who was naturally anxious to find out the mystery.
“You cannot see him to-night,” replied the old man, “his reverence has just been summoned to attend the dying bed of one of my lady’s vassals, and will not be at home till the morn.”
“Lead the way then,” growled the comte; but when arrived in his room his curiosity overcame his dignity, and he asked, “Hubert, what is the matter—what is all this mystery?”
“Ask me not, my lord count,” replied Hubert in a low, agonised tone; “I would fain neither speak nor even think of aught that happens here, my attachment to my young lady alone inducing me to stay in this—” But feeling that he had already said too much, he tried to leave the apartment.
“Stay, old man; tell me more!”
“I will not,” firmly replied the old retainer. “I pray heaven, Sir Knight, that you may rest in peace, and wish you a good-night.” Then shaking his head ominously, Hubert left the room, muttering, but so as the knight heard him, “Don’t he wish he may get it.”
CHAPTER III. TREATS OF THE KNIGHT.
“Unpleasant this,—very,” thought the knight, when left to himself. “I expected opposition from the baron himself, but, somehow or other, when dead, he seems a far more formidable antagonist. What does it all mean? Is Amandamine always going to have these hysterical fits? if so I shall have a jolly life of it. That old dotard, too, seemed even to hint at my night’s rest being disturbed, and did not even deign to say what by.”
The knight proceeded to take a minute survey of his apartment, looked under the bed, peeped into the old oaken presses, probed with his sword any bits of the old tapestry which looked suggestive of concealed doors, and finally opened the casement and looked out on the night. It was a gloomy prospect, and almost startling at first: the window hung over a sheer precipice which went deep down some three or four hundred feet to the banks of the river beneath, so that even when the moon shone brightest you could scarce penetrate the black darkness beneath.
“Hum,” muttered the knight, “no foe can assail me from without, and within I will take care to make all secure.”
He closed the lattice, securely fastened and barricaded the doors, and slowly uncased himself from his heavy armour, his lighter garments having been so saturated with the heavy rain, that he had been compelled to sit down to supper without putting on the dress-coat of the period. By the way, what a nuisance dressing and undressing must have been in the good old days; instead of slipping off a Lincoln and Bennett at a moment’s notice, it took a gentleman an age to doff his steel “tile,” and heaven knows how long for his other clothes.
Our poor knight puffed and panted, when at last he was emancipated from his heavy attire, and then he addressed himself to his devotions, which were soon accomplished, for he did but take from his neck a golden chain, to which was suspended a small bag embroidered by the fair hands of Amandamine herself in former happy days, and which contained the pickled tip of St. Alphonso’s nose. Then muttering a few prayers to this holy relic, he put out his light and jumped into bed. The expiring fire flickered and glanced most disagreeably, bringing out all sorts of queer shapes in the faded tapestry and on the blood-red hangings of the ancient—and truth to tell—stuffy bed. For long he could not sleep, and lay listening to the storm which raged with greater fury than ever. It was an awful night,—the frequent gusts of wind and the loud peals of thunder, while the vivid flashes of lightning, which, as the fire died down, played incessantly around the chamber, threw a lurid glare on all the surrounding objects, and served to make the after darkness more terrific,—the awful silence being, perchance, succeeded by the noise as of cataracts of water plashing against the walls, and then again the thunder, and so on.
The knight was very weary, and at last, despite the noise, was beginning to feel drowsy, when—lo! a sound—quite distinct from all the other sounds—made itself heard; it was three distinct blows on the casement.
The knight shivered and drew the coverlet closer over him.
“’Tis but a bird flapping his wings against the lattice,” he said, to comfort himself.
But again, amidst one of the solemn pauses of the tempest, was heard the three knocks, and then a groan. The knight groaned in concert, and you need not laugh at him for so doing. I doubt if any one of my readers would much relish hearing such sounds at such a time, and in such a place, more especially as our poor hero had fully ascertained the fact that nothing human could touch that window from without.
“Oh! I do hope it is a bird,” he muttered once.
The knocks were now renewed, not three only, but a perfect torrent of blows, and at last a voice wailed forth:
“Let me in. Let me in.”
“I—I—daren’t,” gasped the count, now fairly covering his head with the sheet.
“Very well then,” said the Voice. “I wanted to come in peaceably, and have no row, but it is all your fault, so here goes.”
Then came a tremendous crash, the shutters were forced inwards, and by the electric glare of the lightning, the knight beheld a figure leaping in, and then all was black darkness.
CHAPTER IV. TREATS OF THE GHOST.
“Look at me,” said the Voice.
“I can’t see you, it is so dark,” replied Alphonso, with a quavering voice.
“Very well, I will soon amend that,” and in a trice, the light as of a burning torch was diffused through the room.
The figure had but seized one of the pine logs, and rubbing it slightly with his forefinger, it had instantly ignited, and now burned with a sulphurous smell.
“Now, look at me.”
St. Ernancourt slowly raised his head, and almost shrieked at the spectacle before him. It was that of a tall, gaunt figure, on which hung loosely sundry garments of knightly armour in a very charred condition; the face was of the hue of the grave, the long tangled locks hanging round it, but the worst of all was the fierce glance of despair which gleamed from his dark eyes.
St. Ernancourt gazed with horror on that face and form, and as he looked the recollection flashed on him that he had seen those stern lineaments before, and starting up, he exclaimed:
“The Baron de Valentin!”
“Yes,” replied the Spectre. “I was the Baron when on earth, and now I am worse than nobody. Listen to me Alphonso Albert Ferdinand, Comte de St. Ernancourt. I always opposed your union with my daughter on account of the ancient feud with your father’s house, but now I will withdraw all opposition to your alliance, if you will do something for me.”
“Say on,” stammered the knight, as well as his terror would permit him, “anything consistent with my knightly honour, I will do for her sake.”
“Give me my bones,” said the Spectre.
“Your bones,” said the knight. “I never had them; besides, you are in them now.”
“No, I am not,” replied the defunct baron, while the ghost of a smile flitted across his face. “They lent me these down below, but they don’t fit at all comfortably. I will tell you all about it; and, if you please, will take a chair, for I am rather tired. You must know, that in consequence of my having killed five hundred Turks, roasted sixteen Jews, and given 15,000 lbs. of the best wax candles to the Convent of St. Joseph, which is close by, our Reverend Father, the Pope, sent me a letter promising me only a month’s detention in purgatory. Soon after that I died of drinking, as you know, and my spirit went below, and endured, as patiently as it could, all the désagrémens of my situation. Being a good Catholic, and conversant with our faith, you are doubtless aware that it is the custom of all suffering souls at the end of their purgatorial penance to return to their burial-place, clothe themselves in their fleshly garments, and then repairing to the regions below, they present themselves to the “Old Gentleman,” who sets them at liberty if their credentials prove to be correct. At the end of my month I flew eagerly to our family vault, and lifted the lid of my coffin. To my horror I perceived it was empty, and I vainly searched the church and churchyard. I could not find my body anywhere. I should have fainted, only spirits can’t forget themselves, even in that way. I can assure you, Sir Knight, that the impossibility of oblivion, either by sleep or fainting, is one of the greatest tortures of purgatory. Weary of my useless search, I at last returned to the infernal regions, and sought and obtained an interview with One I would rather not mention, for they say when you talk of him he is sure to appear.”
[Here a faint chuckle came from the corner; but neither the Knight nor the Ghost heard it, so the Spectre went on with his story.]
“I told him that I could find neither my body nor the Pope’s letter which was buried with me, but assured him over and over again that I spoke the truth, and begged him to let me go as my month was up. He either did not, or would not believe me; in fact, was not at all gentlemanly about the business, so most wrongfully I have been kept below now quite a twelvemonth, and I see no prospect of release till my bones are found. I assure you,” said the Spectre, beginning to whimper, “I am very much to be pitied; you have no idea what unpleasant company I have to keep, and what a painful life it is. The only thing I am allowed to drink is Eau de Brimstone, and it is not nice. One privilege the dev—, he, I mean, allows me, is every now and then to revisit my former haunts in this borrowed set of bones. Of course, the first use I made of this liberty was to visit my daughter, who, I am sorry to say, has been subject to hysterics ever since; but she has behaved very well, and has promised never to marry till my bones are found. I knew in this lay my only hopes, for I remembered how you loved her, and the castle. So I determined to pay you this visit as soon as possible.”
“What am I to do?” said the unhappy knight. “I would willingly help you, but I don’t know anything about your bones.”
“But I do,” said a voice at his elbow, and turning his head, the count beheld the—don’t start gentle readers—beheld the black gentleman in propria personâ, horns, and tail, and all.”
The Ghost stormed in a perfect rage of passion. “You old rascal! you villain!” thundered he; “so you have been cheating me all this time.”
“Of course I have,” grinned the Demon; “it is my sole business and pleasure to cheat you all. However, I mean to be kind for once, and will even give you your bones, which includes giving your daughter to this young gentleman, provided he will grant me one little thing.”
“Name it,” said the Ghost.
“’Tis but a little thing,” said Old Nick; “on granting it the knight shall have all earthly blessings, and you the spiritual ones you covet.”
“What is it?” asked the knight.
“Promise to come and stay with me, at my Chateau d’Enfers as soon as you are defunct, and bring your fair lady with you, I will give you both a warm reception.” (The fiend chuckled at his own wit.) “Here, sign this paper, just one scratch of the pen, and all shall be as you wish.”
“Oh, Alphonso, please do it,” said the Ghost, who I am sorry to say followed the plan he had always adopted, and only thought of No. I.
“No, by my knightly honour! No, by all my hopes of heaven!” swore the knight.
“Very well,” replied the Old Gentleman, “I have plenty to do down below, and so must go; but you will think better of it by to-morrow, so I will call again, at this hour to-morrow, and get your final answer. Come along, Old Bones,” said he, scoffingly, to the baron; “I can’t part with you yet,” and seizing him by the throat, the Demon and his protégé vanished, leaving the knight in a state of mind more easily imagined than described.
CHAPTER V. TREATS OF THE BLACK GENTLEMAN.
The Demon was quite correct when he stated that he was exceedingly occupied just then. He was so much so, that he quite forgot his little appointment with the knight till within ten minutes of the hour, when, calling one of the minor imps to him, he commissioned him to get the knight to sign the document, impressing on him to be sure not to reveal the secret of the bones till the paper was signed. He added:
“He is such a foolish young fellow, you won’t have much trouble.”
The little imp put on his neatest brimstone suit, and set off on his upward journey. His master ought to have remembered “that there is nobody like oneself at one’s own wedding;” he would have reconnoitred before he entered the knight’s apartment; the imp, au contraire, who had only been 500 years in his employ, at once skipped into the room, and at once found out his mistake. The room was blazing with wax candles, and at the farther end stood the knight, but not alone, for there were Father Eustace, the Abbot, and twenty monks of the Convent of St. Joseph, in all their priestly vestments, with four-and-thirty little choristers all “clad in clean linen stoles,” and all waving their censers to and fro. In front of this ecclesiastical array were at least one hundred gallons of holy water, in golden and silver vessels, while above them were suspended sundry holy relics, above all, the famous reliquary of St. Ursulus, containing a hair of his sacred eyebrow, and a paring of the nail of his sanctified great toe. No wonder the little fiend stood aghast, and though he strove to rush away, felt spell-bound.
“I am very cold,” he shivered, “please let me go.”
“You shall be colder presently, little devil,” said the abbot, “if you don’t immediately tell us where are the baron’s bones.”
“If the knight will sign this document, I will tell you at once,” stammered the imp.
Not a word did the abbot say in reply, but he beckoned to the choristers, who with one accord raised the silver vessels, and showered at least twenty gallons of holy water on the poor little wretch.
“Oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t—it hurts me so, and makes me so cold, and I am not accustomed to be cold. I’ll tell anything, anything,” the little devil gasped forth. “It was reputed that valuable jewels were buried with the baron, so two robbers, inspired by my master, determined to dig up the body; but while they were examining it outside the church, they heard noises, and escaped with the body into the forest, and—and—but I dare not tell, I shall catch it so from him,” said the imp, gaining courage as the effects of the eau bénite began to go off.
“Repeat the dose,” said the abbot, and again at least forty gallons were cast on the miserable little fiend, who, almost beside himself, sobbed forth, “They buried the baron beneath the largest oak in the forest. May I go now?”
“You may,” said the priest, and the poor little fiend gladly vanished, though only, I fear, to get into very hot water below.
The whole of the saintly company repaired forthwith to the forest accompanied by the Lady Amandamine, and there beneath the oak tree lay the skeleton form of the baron, and clenched in his bony right hand was the Pope’s letter. As soon as the body was disinterred another figure was added to the group. It was the Ghost, who could scarce contain his joy at seeing his own bones again.
“Bless you, my children,” croaked he, turning to the young couple. “May you be very happy.”
“Shall we often see you again, sir,” asked his daughter, who, however she might have esteemed her father while living, certainly did not wish to see much more of him under the present circumstances.
“No, my dear,” replied the baron, “I shan’t come on earth again; and though I confess I should have liked to have quaffed at least one goblet to yours and Alphonso’s health, I must give it up; I have now no reason for complaint, and am very well content, and much obliged to you all for the trouble you have had.”
So saying the baron took up his bones, made a very polite bow to the whole company, and disappeared from the scene. And I, the author of this, cannot do better than follow the spectre’s example, as I have finished my story, and have nothing more to say.