Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Of a haunted house in Mexico
OF A HAUNTED HOUSE IN MEXICO.
Nature has gifted me with an excellent memory, but not a particle of imagination, otherwise I might clothe with details many interesting narratives which now repose in my mind as mere dry facts. As captain of a ship carrying passengers of every grade, from the man of humble origin who has made a fortune by successful speculation, to the members of royal families, it often happens that one or other of them beguiles the time by walking up and down the deck with me, while smoking his evening cigar, and relating some of his experiences at the places where he has been. Some of these are tedious enough to listen to, very frequently more on account of the manner in which they are told than because they are uninteresting in themselves, but others are, as far as I am able to judge, of sufficient interest to be told again, and to a larger audience. I will only ask those who read them to remember that they are written by one who makes no claim whatever to the distinction of being considered as a literary man.
I once entered the port of Vera Cruz, in Mexico, while a revolution was going on—no very extraordinary coincidence in the case of a country where disturbances of the kind are so common as they are there. Of course, under these circumstances, I did not attempt to land the consignments intrusted to my charge, but waited till things had settled down a little, as there is always a good deal of pillage and robbery on these occasions, and it is difficult to prove by whom, as it may be by the troops who have gone out, or by those who have come in, or by the populace. The reports of the muskets were incessant, and as there was no occasion for my landing, I intended to remain on board till the affair was concluded one way or the other, and advised the few passengers I had on board to do the same, which, with one exception, they did. The man who declined to follow my advice was a young German from Bremen, who had come out to join an uncle, whose name I do not think I am at liberty to mention, especially as it is well known to most men who have had commercial dealings with Mexican houses. That Mr.—Van Hoogen, say—the young man in question, should be only the more anxious to get ashore when he found what was going on, was natural enough. His uncle was an elderly man, and reputed to be very rich, a reputation which was strengthened by the humble style in which he lived. He did not live in the city, but had a house between two and three miles from it, in quite a lonely situation, and his friends frequently urged him to give it up, on account of the number of vagabond ruffians who were always to be found in and about the city, waiting for something to turn up, and always ready to sell themselves to an adventurer who appeared to have a chance of forcing his way into the capital, without caring greatly whether he gained his object or not, so that it gave them a chance of gaining theirs, which was simply one of plunder. To all these solicitations the old man turned a deaf ear, and only laughed at their fears, assuring them that he never even locked his doors at night, though his house had been repeatedly entered and searched by thieves. The fact was, there was nothing in it which a thief could carry away which was likely to be of any use to him; and when this became generally known among the brigands, they left the old man unmolested, probably supposing that he left his money in the city, as the man who did not think it necessary to secure his house at night in a country like Mexico could not possibly have anything in it worth the taking; which was precisely the inference he desired them to draw, no doubt.
Mr. Van Hoogen being determined to land at all risks, I ordered a boat to be got ready, and as soon as he had settled his account with the steward, he was rowed ashore, and I concluded that I had seen the last of that gentleman—for this voyage, at all events.
There is an awful waste of powder and ball in these Mexican outbreaks. So far from “every bullet having its billet,” the mass of them meet with the fate of Mr. Winkle’s shot, and are unfortunate foundlings cast loose upon the world, and billeted nowhere, instead of finding a location in a Mexican’s body. I sincerely believe that nothing would tend more to the preservation of peace in that country than the introduction of a few hundreds of Enfield rifles, with the like number of men able and willing to develope their capabilities to the utmost, on one side or the other, it does not matter which, provided they adhere consistently to the side they choose, and do not fight on Harry Wynd’s principle. At present there is an immense amount of firing and very little execution in these affairs, the combatants appearing to derive a kind of stimulant from the noise they make, and think more of discharging their muskets rapidly than of doing execution.
As soon as the firing had slackened sufficiently to show that the advantage had declared itself on one side, and that there was a fair probability that a European uniform would be respected, I went ashore to look after the consignees, in order to get rid of the cargo on board as quickly as possible, so that I might be in a position to sail with the least delay, the rates for passengers commonly ruling high after these occasions. There were a few dead bodies lying about the streets here and there, but not sufficient to induce me to believe there had been such an immense slaughter, as was represented in the newspapers afterwards, according to which “the gutters ran with human blood;” a phenomenon that might very well occur without the sacrifice of life being at all in proportion to what the imagination would conceive from reading the expression. I found most of the consignees in their offices in the city, and I accepted the invitation of one of them to spend a few days at his house, leaving the ship in charge of the chief officer during my absence. The evening of my return on board, while I was receiving his report, I happened to run my eye down the passenger list, and among many foreign names which had no interest for me, I came to that of Van Hoogen.
“Van Hoogen!” I said. “Is he come on board again? I do not see his uncle’s name here. Do you know if anything has happened to the old man?”
“No, I don’t, sir; but something has happened to Mr. Van Hoogen, for he looked like a bale of rags when he was brought on board. If I had known the condition he was in when the man came to take his berth, I would have refused the money.”
“Has he got a fever, do you suppose?”
“No. I stopped him till I was satisfied that he had nothing of that sort the matter with him. I could only make out, from what his attendant said, that he had been wounded, for you know I don’t speak their language much, nor understand it either.”
“Very well. So long as he has got no fever to frighten the other passengers, there can be no objection to his being on board, poor fellow. Tell Robert to give him as much of his time as he can spare, for if his servant can only speak Mexican, he is not likely to be of much use to him.
The arrangements made by my representative while I was ashore were so advantageous, that there was no necessity for my waiting to take in more cargo than was brought down by the passengers on board, and to their great gratification we were in a few hours at sea, till which time they seemed to live in a continual dread of being torn from their sanctuary.
We had been several days at sea before Van Hoogen had recovered sufficiently to be brought upon deck. He was a pitiful object in comparison with the strong, healthy-looking passenger who had come out with us. Instead of the round, full face, there was the face of a skeleton, over which a piece of parchment had been tightly drawn, while the shape of the body from chin to heel was completely hidden by bandages. That I should ask him what had befallen him to reduce him to this miserable condition was only natural, but his explanation, which follows without a break, was the result of many conversations.
Mr. Van Hoogen’s Narrative.
“The first thing I did after I got ashore was to hire a half-naked fellow I saw standing at the landing-place, to take me to my uncle’s office. These men always know the city they live in well, especially the worst part of it, and he took me by obscure streets, where everything wore as tranquil an appearance, as though there was no fighting going on within fifty miles of it; it was only when we were close to the house I wanted to go to, that the firing sounded clear and sharp. On inquiring for my uncle, I was told by the man who had charge of the office that he was at his country-house, and not likely to come into the city till the revolution was over. I had a good deal of difficulty in persuading this man to leave the office to become my guide, he being doubtful whether my uncle would approve of his leaving his post for that purpose; but he consented at last, and I went straight to bed, with the understanding that he would call me at daybreak.
By the time I had breakfasted the next morning, the sun had well risen. There was no firing in the streets, though every now and again we came upon a group of armed men, who barred the road till they had had a short dialogue with Mindanho, after which we were suffered to go on our way. I shall not soon forget this exciting walk. The novel scenery, the houses, so different in appearance to those to which I had been accustomed, the character of the vegetation, and the pleasure of being able to step out freely on firm land, made me enjoy it greatly, in spite of the drawback to its full enjoyment in the shape of bands of brigands who, having been driven out of the city, were scattered in all directions in search of plunder. To do these but justice, I must say, that I don’t think they often murdered anybody. I passed several houses of the better class which had been ransacked, but I saw no signs of personal violence. Men were occasionally seen working in the fields, as though they had nothing to fear, and the women who came to their doors as we passed appeared to be under no apprehension on this score, though a band of these ruffians was camped under some trees within two hundred yards of the largest group of cottages I saw in the course of my walk. On asking Mindanho how this was, he told me they were too much accustomed to these things to be frightened by them. The explanation was conveyed in rather an equivocal form, but if I had had any desire to get more precise information, I could not have done so just then, for a number of the robbers surrounded us, and wanted to know who we were, where we were going, and what money we had about us. Mindanho replied to these queries, but we were now among a different set of men to those who had stopped us in the streets,—men who made no pretence of fighting in the cause of order, and to whom all fish were welcome that fell into their net.
The end of our discussion was, that I agreed to give up all the money I had about me, provided they would go so far on our way with us as to insure that I should not be again molested before reaching my uncle’s house. The consent they gave to this proposition did not cost them much, for they halted at the top of the next rising ground, and, pointing out my uncle’s house, told me they would remain where they were till they saw me enter it. On reaching the house I found that so far as external appearances went, there was nothing to induce one to suppose that any violence had been perpetrated there: quite the contrary; there was an air of peculiar peacefulness about the place, which struck me the more forcibly after what I had seen within the last two hours, so that I felt completely relieved from the apprehensions on the score of my uncle’s safety, which, in spite of all my efforts, had forced themselves upon my imagination. The sound of our footsteps brought out no servant to see who was approaching; but I had heard of my uncle’s habits, and as Mindanho paid no regard to this, I saw nothing in it which, under the circumstances, was not quite natural; but when we entered the house, and there was still no sign of life, an indefinable dread of something wrong made me push forward with a quicker and firmer step. Mindanho, who knew the house well, went direct to the room in which my uncle invariably sat, took his meals, and slept. At the door we met my uncle’s attendant, a man of about forty-five years of age apparently, but who might have been some years older, being one of those thin, dark-visaged men whose age it is difficult to determine from appearance. I looked keenly at him as I waited eagerly for his answer to Mindanho’s question respecting my uncle, and I could not avoid noticing that he was greatly confused and agitated, and instead of replying at once, he looked uneasily about the room, and retreated, as it seemed to me unconsciously, towards the fireplace. There was an immense fire burning, and it certainly could not have been on account of the coldness of the weather; but Mindanho, who saw that I was surprised at the circumstance, told me that this was one of my uncle’s whims, and that he never saw the grate—which was a large one, of English make—without a fire in it. I repeated the inquiry respecting my uncle, and the answer which José now gave was:
“Indeed I know not, Señor. The brigands have been here and carried him away with them.”
“When did that happen?”
“The night before last, Señor. They came at midnight, the doors were unfastened as usual, and your uncle was sleeping in this room. I heard them come in, and came down here to assist my master, but he was talking to them quite tranquilly, and did not look as if he were at all frightened.”
Here he paused, and if at that time I had had any reason to suppose that he was implicated in my uncle’s disappearance, I should have suspected him of being at a loss what further to say; but having no suspicion, I only suggested to him that I was waiting for further explanation by ejaculating “Well!”
“Well, Señor, they asked him for money, and he told them he had not got any here except what was in his purse, which he gave to their leader. The man opened it, and seemed very dissatisfied, and began to curse and swear at my master; but he would give them no more. They searched the house, and after they had eaten and drank all they could, they ordered him to come away with them, and I have never seen him since.”
At this moment my attention was distracted from what he was saying by a low and rather ringing sound, as of the collision of metals, in some place at a little distance. José heard it, too, and became so violently agitated that I believe he would have fallen to the ground, if he had not been able to save himself by clutching at the table. Without waiting to be questioned, he said:
“Oh, Señor! I fear my master has been murdered, for ever since yesterday morning I have heard these noises in the house, sometimes in one room, sometimes in another, but louder and more often here than anywhere else. All the servants have run away, and I could not have stayed another night in the house if you had not come . . . Holy Virgin! hear that again.”
With this exclamation the man rolled from the table to the floor, and I had a difficulty in keeping myself upright, for the sounds that were distinctly audible were enough, in the absence of visible agency to produce them, to chill any man’s blood. Groans and cries, mingled with the same peculiar metallic sounds I have already mentioned, filled the room. Mindanho was even more agitated than I, but he was the first to recover himself sufficiently to propose that we should examine the other rooms. The examination was of no avail, though the sounds were much fainter in them than in that we had left. We then returned to the room which had been occupied by my uncle, but we found all quiet there now. José told us that this was as it always was. It began with the same sounds, and went on increasing more and more, till it at last died away, as it had now, only it lasted longer at one time than at another.
I must acknowledge that I had heard so much of spiritual manifestations, rappings, and so forth, in Germany, that, in spite of my reason, my imagination had assented to the possibility that the respectable persons who had declared themselves to have been witnesses of the phenomena might not have been mistaken. Now, when these inexplicable sounds were still ringing in my ears, I found myself more ready to admit the existence of supernatural causes, especially as there was no darkness to shroud the actors in any trickery. I walked out of the house, followed by Mindanho, and sat down in the broad sunshine to reflect on the occurrence, and consider what it was best to do.
I have always found that there is something in brilliant sunshine which is opposed to superstitious beliefs of a vulgar kind and degrading to the intellect. I could readily enough admit the possibility of the existence of invisible spirits in the atmosphere surrounding us, but not that they could enter into such puerile extravagances as those imputed to them. As I sat there, revolving in my mind the cause of what I had heard, the idea that the sounds had been produced by spiritual agency—which, from the impossibility of discovering any material cause, had made its way into my mind—gradually faded out, and I determined on remaining there till I had discovered the real cause. Besides, I could not leave before I had learnt the fate of my uncle. Till this moment it had not occurred to me to ask Mindanho his opinion of the origin of the noises we had heard, and when I did I found he had quite made up his mind that it was the work of the devil. He gave his opinion with an air of such profound conviction that his solution of the difficulty was the true one, that I saw I had only my own understanding to rely upon in discovering an explanation of what we had heard. I had read your Walter Scott’s works, and I remembered the tricks which were practised at the house of that old royalist—I forget his name, but I think the house was called Woodstock. There was nothing alike in the two things, but it suggested the question whether, supposing my uncle had been murdered, there were not those interested in driving me away that they might appropriate his property to their own uses. The idea was a great relief to me, and I did not at once see how untenable it was, or, perhaps, it would be nearer the truth to say, that I was so glad to grasp at anything like a natural solution of the matter, that I wilfully closed my understanding against the consideration of objections; but when I came to discuss with Mindanho the probable fate of my uncle, these objections made themselves heard. His opinion with respect to my uncle’s disappearance was, that if the brigands had really taken him away, his life was safe, as he was so well known in the country, and, besides, being a foreigner was also a strong circumstance in favour of his safety. The only person who could possibly benefit by his master’s murder was José, and it would be very easy to find out if the brigands had really been there; if they had not, he would be inclined to suspect him of knowing something more about the cause of the disturbance than he acknowledged. To satisfy himself on this point, he first ascertained from José the cottages to which the women servants had gone—all except one, who, he said, had gone away with the brigands. Mindanho was not long before he returned to tell me the result of his inquiries, which was that José had told the truth so far as the robbers were concerned, for the latter had all made their escape while they were trying to force their master to confess where his money was, and had not returned to the house till the following day, when they were obliged to leave it again on account of the dreadful noises they heard there. Apart from the confirmation their statement gave of the truth of José’s tale with respect to the brigands having actually been there, it tended to relieve him from suspicion, inasmuch as it showed that the noises were not prepared for the purpose of frightening me. When I recalled, too, to my recollection the horror and fright expressed in the man’s face the moment the noises began, I found it impossible to doubt that he was really under the influence of those passions; by no effort of the imagination could I bring myself to admit that they were simulated, though I had all the will to do so.
You will see, then, that all my cogitations and inquiries up to this point left me without any clue to the discovery of the mystery.
Feeling that any occupation away from the place for a few hours, would strengthen me for the searching inquiry I had mentally decided on making, I proposed to Mindanho that we should spend that day in trying to ascertain the direction taken by the brigands who had carried off my uncle.
He did not attempt to oppose my wishes, and went in search of somebody who could lend us a couple of mules, for those which had belonged to my uncle had been taken away, José said, by the men who had carried him off. Strange to say, though we made three complete circuits round the house at increasing distances, we could nowhere learn that such a body of brigands had been seen corresponding with the description given by José—which had been very precise, and rendered identification easy, apart from the presence of my uncle among them.
Leaving our mules at the places from whence they had been borrowed, we walked towards the house. Everything seemed as quiet and tranquil as when I arrived in the morning. In my uncle’s room there was still a large fire burning, and when I asked José why he continued to keep such a fire now, seeing that my uncle was not there, he said that his orders were peremptory—that whether my uncle were there or not, he was always to keep a good fire burning in that room. I next asked him if there had been any repetition of the noises we had heard in the morning, and he said there had, several times. As all was quiet now, I thought the moment a good one for taking some refreshment. There was little to be had beside bread and some fruit which Mindanho himself picked in the garden. As to wine, I refused to take any, though José brought several kinds, which, he said, my uncle was in the habit of praising very highly. It wanted a few minutes to nine o’clock when we went back into the house,—for we had taken our meal in the garden—and here I found that José, notwithstanding my refusal to drink wine, had placed several decanters, with boxes of cigars, as though he was anxious to show his desire to please his master’s nephew. I don’t know precisely what Mindanho’s position was in my uncle’s office, but he must have had much of his confidence, and, in return, he appeared very much attached to him, and showed himself as willing and anxious to discover what had become of him, as I was myself. I mention this chiefly because I believe that nothing else would have induced him to stay in the house with me that night, firmly convinced as he was that the sounds arose from supernatural causes, and to relieve him from any blame that might be cast upon him on the score of what happened to me on the succeeding night.
To return to this, the first night of my watch.
We had not been sitting long before the same dull metallic sound I have already spoken of became plainly audible. It continued for several minutes, and was then interrupted by a rapid succession of shrieks which chilled my blood. These were followed by the clashing of weapons, as though men were engaged in fierce combat. After a time this too ceased, and there was a dead silence for some minutes. Then suddenly burst forth a louder noise than ever; without being distinct enough for me to distinguish words, I yet imagined that cries for help were mingled with curses and inarticulate utterances, all of which seemed gradually to subside into groans and passionate weeping, and finally into sounds of a less definite character.
All that the imagination can conceive of the sounds which issue from that place where there is said to be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, were here more than realised. I confess that when it was over I found myself trembling from head to foot, and bathed in perspiration. I looked at Mindanho, and from the expression of his face, I feared that he had lost his senses. As for José, who had volunteered to sit up with us, he was huddled together in a heap in one corner of the room, staring at the fire as though his eyeballs were about to start from his head.
As soon as I had recovered myself sufficiently to reason on what we had just heard, I again appealed to Mindanho for his opinion as to the cause of it. I might as well have spoken to a statue—he neither answered nor moved. José, rather to my surprise, though he had exhibited greater signs of fright, was much more composed than he, but all I could get from him was a repetition of his belief that his master had been murdered. When I told him that, even if he had, that could have nothing to do with the sounds we had just heard, he only shook his head, and repeated that it was my uncle’s spirit.
Finding it was impossible to rouse Mindanho, I made José take a lamp and go before me into every room, but, as before, without discovering anything which gave me the slightest clue to the origin of the noises.
On returning to the room I had left, I missed Mindanho. He was of no assistance to me, it is true, but only those few who have been situated as I was, can realise the fortitude one derives at critical moments from the mere presence of a human being, however useless in a material point of view. Remembering the condition in which I had left him, I feared he might do himself some injury, and therefore left the house to look for him, perhaps not altogether sorry to have an excuse for abandoning the post I had determined not to quit till I had exhausted all hope of getting at the secret of the disturbances. Be this as it may, I spent the rest of the night in the garden, and in the fields round it, in a vain search for the poor fellow. It was not till the morning, when I was able to inquire of the villagers, that I learnt he had taken one of the mules we had borrowed the day before and returned to the town.
I was now left to my own resources, and poor as these were, I was fixed on one point, that I would not leave the neighbourhood till I had exhausted every means I could imagine of discovering the fate of my uncle. First of all, and before returning to the house, I engaged several of the peasants to go in search of him in the surrounding country, and with particular instructions to inquire of every armed man they met concerning him.
Not to repeat the same thing again, I may say, that repeatedly during the day there was the like horrible outcry, with some variations. Sometimes the shrieks lasted a longer time than at others, and were not followed or preceded by the clashing of swords; but the deep groans, as of persons suffering intense agony, were almost incessant. There was one time when the shrieks sounded louder than ever, and this was, when I was in the room above that which had been used by my uncle, and there was a strong and peculiarly disagreeable odour in the room which I had not perceived before; but on the whole, the noises were fainter this day than during the night.
I spent the whole day in examining every part of the house, including the wine cellar and out-houses, and even drew a ground plan of the different rooms, to make quite sure that there was not even a closet capable of concealing anybody which I had not visited. I had not eaten a mouthful the whole day, and this, I suppose, joined to the depressing effects of the terror caused by the horrible sounds that had been ringing in my ears for so many hours, made me feel so intensely cold that I drew my chair to the fire, for the sake of the warmth. I had before ordered José to let it out, but now I offered no objection to his heaping on the fuel as much as he pleased; and I must acknowledge that he did this with as much zeal as if he derived gratification from obeying his master’s commands not to suffer it to go out.
The exhaustion produced by excitement, and the want of food and sleep, was such, that in spite of the sounds—which, though faint, were constantly audible—I fell asleep before the fire. It is not, of course, possible for me to tell how long I may have slept, but this I can affirm, that I woke with the suddenness with which I should have started up had the shriek, which was still echoing through the house, been uttered in my ears. I was standing like one stupefied, listening to the screams, which came more and more faintly, when suddenly there rose, seemingly from the very midst of the fire, a succession of screams so loud, so shrill, and expressive of such intense pain, and this time in a woman’s voice, that I could bear it no longer, and fell down insensible.
Of what happened after this I have no knowledge; I can barely remember being brought on board your vessel, but I know now that I have been stabbed in several places, and that the doctor says mine is the most extraordinary instance of recovery he ever saw or read of. I have questioned the Mexican who came aboard with me as my attendant, but he can tell me nothing of the person who engaged him to wait upon me. He says he was waiting at the port, when a gentleman came up and asked him which was the vessel that had entered four or five days before, and brought several passengers, and he pointed out this one. The same person then asked him if he would like to make a voyage in her, to wait upon a gentleman, who had been wounded by brigands, and who would pay him handsomely for his services. Having answered that he would like it very well, his questioner brought him on board, and bought two tickets, which he gave to him, with twenty dollars, to buy what he wanted for the voyage, and then took him to an inn on the outskirts of the town, where he gave me in his charge, with instructions to take me to the ship in which he had taken our passage.
I have nothing more to tell you; and I would rather you would not ask me for an explanation of what I heard in my uncle’s house, for I can give you none. I have tried my utmost to account for the noises, and am as much at a loss now as at first to imagine what produced them.”
We sailors have the reputation of being more credulous than the generality of people, but I think without sufficient reason. I can safely say that I did not believe for a single instant that anything supernatural was concerned in the production of the sounds spoken of by Mr. Van Hoogen; at the same time, I am bound to say, that having had a great deal of conversation with him coming out, he had impressed the firm conviction on my mind that he was not the man to be led away by his imagination; and I could not help sharing his opinion that the sounds he had heard were expressive of real pain, however impossible it was to account for their being heard there.
During the voyage, and after he had told me all this, we had many conversations on the subject; and as he improved in health, the sort of awe with which he had at first spoken of it seemed to wear away. I was not at all surprised, therefore, to hear him say, when we shook hands as he was leaving the ship, that he would return with me to Mexico.
On arriving at Vera Cruz, business compelled me to remain on board till the second day, but as soon as this was transacted, I and Van Hoogen, attended by a sailor with a couple of handspikes, set off for the house in which he had been wounded, he having in the meantime, with Mindanho’s assistance, done what was necessary with the officials of the town to establish his claim to inherit any property belonging to his uncle, in the event of that gentleman not again making his appearance, which he had not yet done. We rode straight to the house, the road to it being too well remembered by Van Hoogen to render it necessary that we should pause to make inquiries. Short as was the time which had passed since he was last there, we found that it had been sufficient for the country people to reduce the place to a perfect wreck. All the rooms were empty, and everything that could be moved had been carried away. We lost no time in beginning our examination, which, minute as it was, had led to no discovery, when the sailor I had brought with me came running in to tell us that part of the foundation of the house had given way. I must mention here that not requiring his assistance in-doors, I had directed him, with Van Hoogen’s permission, to root up some fine shrubs which grew under the walls of the house, and take them on board ship. While doing this, the earth had sunk in with him, shrub and all, and he had scrambled out as fast as he could to come and tell us. The hole was amply large enough to allow of our passing through it, but the stench which issued from it was so powerful that we were obliged to draw back. We waited a considerable time thinking it would clear away with the admission of fresh air, but finding that it continued as bad as ever, we fetched three men from the nearest village to dig away the earth so as to enlarge the opening. These began by removing a portion of a mound of earth opposite the opening, and so close to the wall of the house that they could do nothing effectual till it had been cleared away. This led to the discovery that a tunnel had been made into the mound in a line with the hole in the foundation. It was about four feet in diameter and twenty in length, and in it we got the first clue to the origin of the noises described by Van Hoogen. The men, working under our own eyes, were made to throw out every shovelfull of earth as they went, and as the thickness of the earth above the tunnel varied from five to ten feet, the progress made was slow. They had reached a distance of five paces from the wall, and their work was getting easier, owing to their having cut through the thickest portion of the mound, when the man who was throwing the earth out of the hole called out that he could see a man’s foot. He was at once made to come out, and we jumped into the trench. True enough, there was the body of a man in a half-sitting, half-lying position, one leg bent under him, the other stretched out, and his right hand still grasping the hilt of a sword, the point of which was buried in the earth. From the attitude we concluded that he had died while trying to penetrate through the mound to the outer air, as much probably from suffocation caused by breathing the impure air exhaled from his own lungs, as from exhaustion produced by want of food.
The search having been brought to an end in this direction, another attempt was made to enter the cellar, or cave, or whatever we may choose to call it, beneath the house, but it was unsuccessful, the odour being too powerful to be overcome by the air which had entered since it was first broken into; all that could be done to facilitate admission was the enlargement of the hole and keeping a wood fire burning just inside till the next day, when it was allowed to go out. Even then I do not think we could have entered if Van Hoogen, who was something of a chemist, had not suggested the plan of tying up small lumps of charcoal in a handkerchief, which we fastened across the mouth and nose, and which to a certain extent purified the air we breathed. Seeing the probability that we should require lights to enable us to examine the cellar, I had sent to the port for a couple of ship’s lanterns, and with these we were able to see what I will endeavour to describe in the least repulsive manner of which I am capable.
At the end of the cellar, on our left hand as we entered, was heaped up the earth which had been taken out in making the tunnel. On the ground, before and around us, were lying partially decayed bodies—every one, or nearly every one, with a sword by its side. At the end, on our right hand, we came to some steps cut in the earth, and roughly planked, and at the bottom of these was lying a corpse, not much altered in appearance, which Van Hoogen pronounced to be that of José from the dress, even before we had turned it over to look at the face. Ascending the steps we came to a small platform, where it was not possible for me to stand upright except by putting my head into a narrow shaft or chimney. On this platform lay the remains of two bodies, one that of a woman, and a very cursory examination was sufficient to show that they had been partially burned, portions of the bone, even, being charred. Two sides of this platform were formed by the solid earth; the third, that facing us as we ascended the steps, of an iron plate about four feet square, which Van Hoogen judged to be the back of the grate in the sitting-room. I believe it was at this moment we began to see the explanation of the whole affair; but to continue. Finding there was not sufficient room to wrench it from its position by means of the handspike, we descended the steps, and went into the open air to recover ourselves, and to consider what was the next thing to be done.
Remembering the reputation his uncle had of being very rich, and that nothing to justify this reputation had been discovered hitherto, it was not an unreasonable supposition on Van Hoogen’s part, that this cave might have been contrived by his relative for the purpose of concealing the more valuable of his property. To ascertain this we entered the cave again, but could discover nothing to show that the supposition was well-founded, beyond that afforded by the actual presence of the dead bodies there. The villagers were now called in to remove these, and they were ranged side by side in the open air, to be identified by their relatives, if they had any in the neighbourhood. Still nothing had been found of any value, and we decided that the earth which had been heaped up at the end of the cave should be thrown out. Scarcely half-a-dozen shovelsfull had been cleared away before the body of a human being was exposed, and then a second, and another, and another in succession. In short, the earth had been used by the survivors to cover the bodies of their comrades as they ceased to exist, till a common fate had befallen them all. Nearly the whole of this had been cleared out before the men dug out a box of large size, strongly bound with iron, and with a bunch of keys hanging from the lock. What the value of the contents of this box was I never heard, nor is that material; it is sufficient to say it contained bullion. After this had been secured, and the cellar thoroughly emptied of everything it contained, we returned to the room where Van Hoogen had heard the sounds most plainly, and made a careful examination of the grate to ascertain if there were no springs or anything of the kind by which it could be opened like a door. We could find nothing of this sort, but no sooner did I take hold of the bars, and give a moderately strong pull, than it came away from its position, and swung round into the room, exposing the charred remains behind it of which I have already spoken, and a spring-bolt at the back, which could not have been in its socket.
All that now remains for me to do is to give the explanation suggested by Van Hoogen of what, but for our successful examination, would have been one of the best authenticated instances on record of a house being haunted by supernatural beings. Of course this explanation is mere hypothesis, and the reader may be able, by the exercise of his imagination, to correct it in many points.
He assumed that José was aware of the existence of the cellar, and by intimidation, or from some other motive, had been induced to betray its existence to the brigands. These had then forced his uncle to expose the entrance, and, as a precaution, to lead the way; how the woman came to enter with them is not so easy to imagine, but probably female curiosity would be a sufficiently powerful motive. Once in the cellar, some devilish impulse must have prompted José to throw back the grate to its ordinary position, with the view of getting possession of the property it contained at some future time. The back of the grate being red hot, those imprisoned in the cellar were unable to touch it with their hands, and as not more than two could approach it at one time, and then only in a stooping position, they could not use their swords with any effect to force it open. As to the charred bodies, horrible as the supposition is, they must have been the remains of the old man and his servant, who had been forced against the red-hot plate and held there, with the view of compelling them to reveal the secret of opening it; a thing impossible on that side, which would also account for the dreadful shrieks. As to the confused noises, clashing of swords, &c., he supposed these were made in the hope of attracting attention; and the poor wretches had ample cause for weeping and groaning who were caught in such a trap. As to the way in which José’s body came among them, he conceived that he must have been in the act of going down to secure his plunder, and that the instant he stepped off the platform he was most righteously punished by being suffocated by the gases generated by the decomposing bodies. Thus, though dead, his victims were the instruments of his punishment.
Capt. Walter Browne.
- This was written before the intervention of the European powers was thought of.