Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Midnight at Marshland Grange

MIDNIGHT AT MARSHLAND GRANGE.


The Supernatural Investigation Society—that was what we styled ourselves—was limited to six members: namely, Messieurs Toombs, Graves, Knight, Gashleigh, Scully, and Bone. For a twelvemonth or more we had been addling our brains by culling ghost-stories out of books, or collecting them from our friends. But this was, at best, second-hand evidence.

“What we want,” said Jack Toombs, our president, bringing his fist upon the table with a crash, and startling us all (for twelve months of continuous spectral literature tends to unstring the nerves)—“what we want is to see a ghost!”

“That,” observed Mr. Gashleigh, “is easier said than done. Gentlemen,” he continued, solemnly, “although there is not a rood of ground in this mighty city upon which some deed of blood and darkness has not been perpetrated, I don’t believe there’s a ghost to be heard of in all London. Either the noise of the night-cabs, or the carbonised atmosphere, or the policemen’s bulls-eyes, or the cats on the roofs—whatever it is, something keeps ’em away. For aught we know, a frightful and mysterious murder may have been committed under this very roof—nay, on that exact spot where you, Scully, are now sitting.”

(Mr. Scully looked uncomfortable, and shifted the position of his chair.)

“Why don’t we hear of that murder?” pursued Mr. Gashleigh. “Because, sir,” said the honourable member, fixing his eye on the president, “in this bustling, excitable metropolis, it was probably only a nine-days’ wonder. In a secluded country place it would have afforded gossip for a century. Now this is the gist of my argument. Ghosts don’t care to walk except where there’s a public who know all about their affairs. Here in London, if you met a ghost on the stairs you would take him for a housebreaker, and insist on giving him in charge; whereas in the country, your blood would curdle with horror at a similar visitation, because you would recognise the spectre of old Job Tatterly, the miser, who was found in the horsepond one November morning, but whose hoarded wealth was never discovered.”

“Why not advertise,” said Bone, “for a Haunted House?”

The proposal was received with acclamation, an advertisement was composed and inserted in the public prints; all answers to be addressed to me, A. Wynter Knight, Esq., secretary to the Society.

We received several written replies, which I may dismiss very briefly. Two or three of them were palpable hoaxes, while one was from the landlord of a boarding-house who alleged that he had lost all his lodgers owing to supernatural noises. This gentleman wanted us to take the lease of his house off his hands, and we had nearly concluded the bargain, when Graves, our vice-president, met one of the late boarders in society, who informed him that he and the other inmates had quitted the house not because of ghosts, but because a frightful and mysterious stench pervaded the lower part of the premises, which not even Burnett’s Disinfecting Fluid could cure. In short, the landlord was a humbug, as I periphrastically told him during our last interview.

Then there was an old lady, widow of a master-mariner, resident in Three Colt Lane, Victoria Park, N.E., who wrote thus:

Sir,—I have a drawing-room floor to let, furnished, with use of kitchen if not cooking too late dinners. The house is haunted, not that I have ever seen anything myself; but my son, who is mate of a collier-brig, coming home late from the Commercial Docks, stumbled over a Newfoundland dog on the first-floor landing, which ran down stairs, and though he followed it was no longer visible. Now, sir, a party lived in the drawing-room sett who threw himself into Sir George Duckett’s Canal, through sporting and betting. I never heard he kept a dog, but why not, on the sly? His employers being aware that paunches are expensive, and naturally suspicious, as his salary was only eighty pounds a year. I can give you reasonable attendance; and remain, sir, your humble servant,

Mary Clack.

We could not accept this worthy dame’s proposal. There was a vein of honesty running through her somewhat confused letter which pleased us; but a haunted first-floor, with an obsequious landlady cooking chops for us on the basement storey, in the intervals of spectral visitation, was too absurd.

More than a week passed away, and we despaired of getting anything to suit us, when one day, as I was seated in my office (I may mention that, when not supernaturally engaged, I am in the hemp, jute, and gunnybag business)—one day, as I was seated in my office alone, a gentleman entered and introduced himself by laying a card on my desk. It was a large, old-fashioned, thick card, and bore the name Mr. Edgar Batesford, beneath which was written, in yellow-rusted ink, Marshland Grange, Essex.

“You advertised for a haunted house?” he said, smiling.

I started; for at that moment my thoughts were immersed in fibrous commodities.

“Yes, sir, I did. Have you anything eligible to offer us?”

“Possibly I have, on certain conditions.”

“Will you name them?”

“That you visit the house in question alone in my company, without informing your brother-clubmen of your intention until the following day.”

I regarded my visitor earnestly, to see if he looked like a rogue. His appearance was in his favour. He was a tall, thin young man, with good features and (what is noticeable in these bearded days) a clean-shaven face. His clothes were new and fashionably cut; but I observed that he wore an old-fashioned stand-up collar and stock.

“Where is the haunted house?” I asked.

“This is the place,” he answered, pointing to the card—“Marshland Grange, my own property. Owing to all sorts of absurd sinister rumours I haven’t been able to let it for years. I shall therefore be delighted to have the mystery cleared up by your Society.”

“What are your terms?”

“My terms! My dear sir, I shall be only too happy to pay you, if you can prove the house unhaunted. Should it, on the contrary, appear to be supernaturally infested, a few guineas to repay my expenses will amply suffice—say ten guineas; you can put the amount in your pocket.”

My features must have betrayed some hesitation, for Mr. Batesford continued:

“You demur to my suggestion, and very naturally too. You say to yourself: ‘I know nothing of this man. What is to prevent his inveigling me into some lonely ruinous place, and then extorting the ten guineas by violence?’ Now, I know your respectability. Your firm, A. W. Knight & Co., was established in 1803, if I mistake not, just before Boney became Emperor.”

“It was; and it strikes me I have seen the name of Batesford in our old ledgers.”

“Very possibly: but never mind that at present. Now, I am going to give you a guarantee of my respectability. Here is a twenty-pound Bank of England note. Lock that up in your safe until to-morrow, and meet me this evening at the Shoreditch Station for the 6.40 train. We will go together, and sit up till twelve o’clock at Marshland Grange. Do you agree?”

“I do,” I replied, as I turned my Chubb-key on his deposit. “There’s my hand upon it!”

Mr. Batesford did not appear to notice my proffered palm, but bowing slightly quitted the office.

“This is a queer customer,” I thought. “As I have an hour to spare, I will follow the fellow, and see what becomes of him.” I put on my hat, and went out into Thames Street; but though I traced his tall figure for some time, outtopping the ordinary run of wayfarers, I lost sight of him under the arch of London Bridge.

“Never mind,” said I. “I shall see if he is true to his appointment this evening.”

I must confess I felt rather nervous as my cab rattled up Bishopsgate Street towards the station. But the possible honour and glory in store for me buoyed me up. Perhaps while my brother-inquirers have only been talking about ghosts, I may be privileged to see one. Still I experienced some secret qualms, and I should have breathed more freely if Mr. Batesford had not been awaiting me in front of the booking-office.

He nodded slightly, and said:

“Netherwood is our station. I presume, Mr. Knight, you will pay the fares? I am not above travelling second-class.”

I took the tickets accordingly, and entered a carriage that was pretty full of people; for I felt rather shy of my companion.

To beguile the tedium of the journey, I tried to engage him in conversation, but with little success. He appeared to be totally uninterested in politics, and in reply to my remarks on our financial prosperity, said:

“I believe in Billy Pitt, sir. Look at his Sinking Fund. There’s a masterpiece!”

Now, if the man who uttered these words had been eighty years old, I should have regarded him with interest as a harmless old fossil of the past; but here was a young man of five-and-twenty, who invariably spoke of guineas instead of pounds, called the French Emperor Bonaparte, and mentioned Pitt, as if that financier were still living. I could make nothing of him; so I drew out the “Evening Standard,” and plunged into Manhattan’s last letter.

Presently I heard the rustling of paper opposite, and peeping over my own broadsheet, observed that Mr. Batesford was also engaged with a newspaper. I felt anxious to know what journal he patronised, and was surprised to see the name of a well-known daily paper which has recently become extinct. The diminutive size of the sheet also astonished me; it appeared to have shrunk to half its normal bulk. I peeped again; and being an adept at the old schoolboy accomplishment of reading upside down, managed to spell out the date—19th October, 1863.

“To-day’s paper!” thought I; “and yet, certainly, that journal has ceased to exist for months past.” My curiosity was on tiptoe. I determined to have an explanation.

“Mr. Batesford, would you oblige me by exchanging papers?”

“Thank you,” he replied, blandly; “I shall take no interest in yours, and I do not care to part with my own. However, you may just look at it.”

He reversed the sheet, so as to hold the title before my eyes. I had made a slight mistake in my topsy-turvy decipherings. I had added a flourish to a figure where no such flourish existed; for Mr. Batesford’s paper was the “Morning Chronicle” of the 19th October, 1803!”

“Sixty years ago, this very day! I should like to read that paper. It must be quite a curiosity.”

“Wait till we get home,” said Mr. Batesford, smiling, and folding up the newspaper. “Come, here we are at Netherwood. There is your carpet-bag. We will walk across to the Grange, as it is dry under foot.”

Mr. Batesford was probably an Essex man, and connected by Darwinian affiliation with the frogs of his native swamps; for in my opinion it was as damp, greasy, oozy, and slushy a walk as I ever took on a murky, lowering October night. We traversed lanes where the water dripped down our backs from the overhanging hedgerows; we got over stiles which led into clayey footpaths by the side of slow-moving streams; we entered, at last, upon a region of bulrushes, where the chilly water actually gurgled up about my ankles. I endeavoured to keep up a stout heart. I said:

“A. W. Knight, remember that you are a Searcher after Truth; remember, also, that there are a pair of dry shoes and socks in your carpet-bag.”

At length, after three miles of this glutinous journeying, we came out upon a firm high-road. I blessed the memory of Macadam, and strode merrily onwards. Presently we halted in front of a house separated from the road by a small garden.

“Marshland Grange,” observed my companion, breaking a long-continued silence.

I looked up at the house with a sigh of disappointment: it was such an utterly commonplace dwelling. I had pictured Marshland Grange as a rambling old edifice, exhibiting in its wings, gables, and additions, specimens of half-a-dozen architectural eras, and situated far from other human abode in a desolate swamp. In place of this, I beheld a common ten-roomed brown brick box, built evidently about the end of the last century, when picturesqueness was deemed a barbarism, and within hail of half-a-dozen labourers’ cottages.

“This a haunted house?” I asked, half-contemptuously, as Mr. Batesford led the way into the parlour.

“So the neighbours say,” replied my companion.

For some seconds I was unable to tell why he was such a long time striking a light. I then saw that he used a flint, steel, and tinder-box.

“You are singularly old-fashioned,” I remarked. “To be consistent, you should have travelled down from London in the old Essex Highflyer, Mr. Batesford.”

“The railway was more convenient, this evening,” he answered quietly: as much as to say, “On other evenings I should prefer the Highflyer.”

As soon as he had lighted the candle (which, by the way, was a common, guttering, snuff-accumulating dip) I looked round the room. It was desolate enough: several windows were broken, while the furniture consisted of a couple of rickety chairs and a dilapidated deal table.

“Change your boots, Mr. Knight, and then I will show you over the house.”

He took up the candle and preceded me. We went upstairs and downstairs, examining both kitchens and attics. The remainder of the rooms were entirely bare of furniture; and the house was a regular formal up-and-down affair, which might have been situated on the Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate. There were no gloomy corridors—no deep-sunk unexpected cupboards—no possibility of secret doors or passages. It was damp, mouldy, and depressing, but perfectly commonplace.

“No room for a ghost to hide here,” said I, jocularly.

“It don’t look like it,” observed Mr. Batesford; “still the neighbours say otherwise. Let us return to the parlour, close the shutters, and make ourselves as comfortable as we can till twelve o’clock strikes. That is, I believe, the legitimate hour for ghostly visitants.”

We took our seats in the comfortless apartment, which felt chilly and miserable enough to depress any professional ghost-hunter. The wind whistled through the chinks of the decaying shutters, threatening every moment to extinguish our feeble candle.

“Let us fortify our spirits with a little supper, Mr. Batesford,” I said, diving into my carpet-bag, and producing a cottage-loaf, a chicken-and-ham sausage, and three bottles of Bass’s ale. My companion fell to work with alacrity, eating and drinking in a singularly rapid yet noiseless manner. He consumed the lion’s share of two bottles of ale, and watched me with wistful eyes as I opened a third. I began to despise him. “He drinks,” I said to myself, “to obtain a stock of Dutch courage. So much the better. Had he not swallowed more than his share, I might have been tempted to tipple, whereas now my head is cool. I am prepared for anything.”

For one thing I was not prepared;—for Mr. Batesford suddenly falling asleep, and snoring hideously. I called to him once or twice, when he ceased for a few moments without waking up, but presently began again as bad as ever. I looked at my watch; it was only eleven o’clock. What should I do till twelve? I did not like to smoke. I fancied it would look disrespectful, when you expected a ghost, to be puffing out the vapour of tobacco. I had forgotten to bring a pack of cards, or I might have had a game at Patience. What should I do? Just then my companion emitted a more energetic snore than usual, which caused me to turn towards him. His legs were stretched out, his chair was tilted back, and his head was supported by the edge of the table. For a sparely-built man he was a most uncomfortable sleeper. His breathing was perfectly convulsive. But his breast-pocket rather than himself engaged my attention, for from it protruded that newspaper which I had been so eager to see in the railway-carriage. I could no longer restrain my curiosity, but drew it softly forth, and settled myself down to read it by the flickering candlelight. I soon became interested in the tiny old newspaper. The England of 1803, just as we were recommencing that tremendous struggle which terminated in Waterloo and St. Helena, rose before my eyes. But a paragraph of half-a-dozen lines in the third page put politics completely out of my head.

I felt my blood congeal, and my skin roughen with horror as I read those words. I rose slowly to my feet. “Gracious Powers!” I murmured; “I sneered at the notion of this house being haunted, and here, within a yard of me, in yonder chair, sits——

I bent cautiously over him. His head was thrown back. I shuddered with affright. I could guess now why he wore a high collar and stock. I could see the fatal——

Just then a distant clock struck twelve. My companion suddenly woke, and said, with a yawn, “What! twelve o’clock, and no ghost yet! Come, Mr. Knight, I think you will be able to certify that, barring a few repairs, the house is fit for anybody to live in; and I shall be happy to give you a liberal commission if you can find me a respectable tenant.”

While he spoke thus, I was staring at him with a fixed gaze of horror. He did not seem to notice my expression of countenance, but presently, observing the newspaper in my hand, exclaimed, in an angry voice, “How dare you, sir!” and snatched it from me.

Just then an unusually strong gust of wind penetrated the crazy shutters, and blew the candle out. The snuff was still redhot, and I contrived to relight it; as I did so, I heard a distant door bang. I looked round for my companion, but he was gone!

With trembling knees, and a swiftly-palpitating heart, I hastily packed my carpet-bag and quitted that house of desolation. After trudging a hundred yards or more along the road, I reached the village inn, and was surprised to observe a stream of light pouring from the chinks of the door at that late hour. I knocked, and was immediately admitted.

“Why, you look ’most as scared as we do, master,” observed the landlord; “and we’ve been a watching the corpse-light over in the Haunted House yonder. Just as twelve o’clock struck, out went the light, ’zackly as I said it would; didn’t I, missus?”

“Aye, that ye did, Joe,” replied the wife.

“My friends, I can explain something of this,” said I. “I belong to a Society up in London, instituted with the view of inquiring into ghost-stories; and I came down to visit Marshland Grange for that purpose, in company with the landlord. That accounts for the light you saw.”

“Why, there bain’t ne’er a landlord,” piped out a village patriarch. “The house has been in Chancery ever since Batesford the forger cut his throat, in the front-parlour, sixty year ago.”

*****

I returned to London next day in such an excitable state, that I was scarcely able to attend to business; but I made a circumstantial report of my adventures to the Supernatural Investigation Society. I added the singular fact, that on examining our old ledgers I found the name of Edgar Batesford among our customers during the year 1803, and that his account had been ruled off suddenly with a considerable debit, which was passed to Profit and Loss.

This certainly sounds like a genuine ghostly visitation. But, on the other hand, I am bound to confess that, on unlocking my safe, I found the twenty-pound note to be an unmistakable sham—in fact, it was drawn on the Bank of Elegance. Now, I am positive I locked up a genuine Bank of England note. Supernaturalists will say that this strengthens their belief in the story: for the substitution of a counterfeit for a genuine note, by some shadowy sleight-of-hand, was the very trick to be expected from the spirit of a forger; but Jack Toombs, our President, who is a hard-headed sceptical fellow, holds another view. He reasons thus:—

“It is well known that our respected secretary has a younger brother in his office, who is perpetually gibing and jeering at our Society. This gentleman possesses a duplicate key of the safe. Supposing that he has learnt the fact of Edgar Batesford’s connection with the house of A. W. Knight and Co. in 1803, and his subsequent suicide, what is to prevent him suborning some clever fellow to personate the forger? At the right moment this pretended ghost blows the light out, and slips away by the back-door. That banging of the back-door is fatal to the supernatural theory: a real spectre would have disappeared silently.”

To this I will rejoin but little. Whichever view you adopt, the matter is surrounded with difficulties: but this I will say, that if Jack Toombs had seen that Being as I saw him, with his head thrown back, he would not have been in a condition to theorise so dispassionately. At any rate, I have had enough of it. My nerves are completely shattered; so I purpose resigning my secretaryship, and joining the German Turnverein. Gymnastics will, I trust, make me myself again.