I trust that my readers will not set me down as an inquisitive busybody when I say that as the days and weeks went by I found my attention and my thoughts more and more attracted to General Heatherstone and the mystery which surrounded him.
It was in vain that I endeavoured by hard work and a strict attention to the laird’s affairs to direct my mind into some more healthy channel. Do what I would, on land or on the water, I would still find myself puzzling over this one question, until it obtained such a hold upon me that I felt it was useless for me to attempt to apply myself to anything until I had come to some satisfactory solution of it.
I could never pass the dark line of five-foot fencing, and the great iron gate, with its massive lock, without pausing and racking my brain as to what the secret might be which was shut in by that inscrutable barrier. Yet, with all my conjectures and all my observations, I could never come to any conclusion which could for a moment be accepted as an explanation of the facts.
My sister had been out for a stroll one night, visiting a sick peasant or performing some other of the numerous acts of charity by which she had made herself beloved by the whole countryside.
“John,” she said when she returned, “have you seen Cloomber Hall at night?”
“No,” I answered, laying down the book which I was reading. “Not since that memorable evening when the general and Mr. McNeil came over to make an inspection.”
“Well, John, will you put your hat on and come a little walk with me?”
I could see by her manner that something had agitated or frightened her.
“Why, bless the girl!” cried I boisterously, “what is the matter? The old Hall is not on fire, surely? You look as grave as if all Wigtown were in a blaze.”
“Not quite so bad as that,” she said, smiling. “But do come out, Jack. I should very much like you to see it.”
I had always refrained from saying anything which might alarm my sister, so that she knew nothing of the interest which our neighbours’ doings had for me. At her request I took my hat and followed her out into the darkness. She led the way along a little footpath over the moor, which brought us to some rising ground, from which we could look down upon the Hall without our view being obstructed by any of the fir-trees which had been planted round it.
“Look at that!” said my sister, pausing at the summit of this little eminence.
Cloomber lay beneath us in a blaze of light. In the lower floors the shutters obscured the illumination, but above, from the broad windows of the second storey to the thin slits at the summit of the tower, there was not a chink or an aperture which did not send forth a stream of radiance. So dazzling was the effect that for a moment I was persuaded that the house was on fire, but the steadiness and clearness of the light soon freed me from that apprehension. It was clearly the result of many lamps placed systematically all over the building.
It added to the strange effect that all these brilliantly illuminated rooms were apparently untenanted, and some of them, so far as we could judge, were not even furnished. Through the whole great house there was no sign of movement or of life—nothing but the clear, unwinking flood of yellow light.
I was still lost in wonder at the sight when I heard a short, quick sob at my side.
“What is it, Esther, dear?” I asked, looking down at my companion.
“I feel so frightened. Oh, John, John, take me home, I feel so frightened!”
She clung to my arm, and pulled at my coat in a perfect frenzy of fear.
“It’s all safe, darling,” I said soothingly. “There is nothing to fear. What has upset you so?”
“I am afraid of them, John; I am afraid of the Heatherstones. Why is their house lit up like this every night? I have heard from others that it is always so. And why does the old man run like a frightened hare if any one comes upon him. There is something wrong about it, John, and it frightens me.”
I pacified her as well as I could, and led her home with me, where I took care that she should have some hot port negus before going to bed. I avoided the subject of the Heatherstones for fear of exciting her, and she did not recur to it of her own accord. I was convinced, however, from what I had heard from her, that she had for some time back been making her own observations upon our neighbours, and that in doing so she had put a considerable strain upon her nerves.
I could see that the mere fact of the Hall being illuminated at night was not enough to account for her extreme agitation, and that it must have derived its importance in her eyes from being one in a chain of incidents, all of which had left a weird or unpleasant impression upon her mind.
That was the conclusion which I came to at the time, and I have reason to know now that I was right, and that my sister had even more cause than I had myself for believing that there was something uncanny about the tenants of Cloomber.
Our interest in the matter may have arisen at first from nothing higher than curiosity, but events soon look a turn which associated us more closely with the fortunes of the Heatherstone family.
Mordaunt had taken advantage of my invitation to come down to the laird’s house, and on several occasions he brought with him his beautiful sister. The four of us would wander over the moors together, or perhaps if the day were fine set sail upon our little skiff and stand off into the Irish Sea.
On such excursions the brother and sister would be as merry and as happy as two children. It was a keen pleasure to them to escape from their dull fortress, and to see, if only for a few hours, friendly and sympathetic faces round them.
There could be but one result when four young people were brought together in sweet, forbidden intercourse. Acquaintance-ship warmed into friendship, and friendship flamed suddenly into love.
Gabriel sits beside me now as I write, and she agrees with me that, dear as is the subject to ourselves, the whole story of our mutual affection is of too personal a nature to be more than touched upon in this statement. Suffice it to say that, within a few weeks of our first meeting Mordaunt Heatherstone had won the heart of my dear sister, and Gabriel had given me that pledge which death itself will not be able to break.
I have alluded in this brief way to the double tie which sprang up between the two families, because I have no wish that this narrative should degenerate into anything approaching to romance, or that I should lose the thread of the facts which I have set myself to chronicle. These are connected with General Heatherstone, and only indirectly with my own personal history.
It is enough if I say that after our engagement the visits to Branksome became more frequent, and that our friends were able sometimes to spend a whole day with us when business had called the general to Wigtown, or when his gout confined him to his room.
As to our good father, he was ever ready to greet us with many small jests and tags of Oriental poems appropriate to the occasion, for we had no secrets from him, and he already looked upon us all as his children.
There were times when on account of some peculiarly dark or restless fit of the general’s it was impossible for weeks on end for either Gabriel or Mordaunt to get away from the grounds. The old man would even stand on guard, a gloomy and silent sentinel, at the avenue gate, or pace up and down the drive as though he suspected that attempts had been made to penetrate his seclusion.
Passing of an evening I have seen his dark, grim figure flitting about in the shadow of the trees, or caught a glimpse of his hard, angular, swarthy face peering out suspiciously at me from behind the bars.
My heart would often sadden for him as I noticed his uncouth, nervous movements, his furtive glances and twitching features. Who would have believed that this slinking, cowering creature had once been a dashing officer, who had fought the battles of his country and had won the palm of bravery among the host of brave men around him?
In spite of the old soldier’s vigilance, we managed to hold communication with our friends.
Immediately behind the Hall there was a spot where the fencing had been so carelessly erected that two of the rails could be removed without difficulty, leaving a broad gap, which gave us the opportunity for many a stolen interview, though they were necessarily short, for the general’s movements were erratic, and no part of the grounds was secure from his visitations.
How vividly one of these hurried meetings rises before me! It stands out clear, peaceful, and distinct amid the wild, mysterious incidents which were destined to lead up to the terrible catastrophe which has cast a shade over our lives.
I can remember that as I walked through the fields the grass was damp with the rain of the morning, and the air was heavy with the smell of the fresh-turned earth. Gabriel was waiting for me under the hawthorn tree outside the gap, and we stood hand-in-hand looking down at the long sweep of moorland and at the broad blue channel which encircled it with its fringe of foam.
Far away in the north-west the sun glinted upon the high peak of Mount Throston. From where we stood we could see the smoke of the steamers as they ploughed along the busy water-way which leads to Belfast.
“Is it not magnificent?” Gabriel cried, clasping her hands round my arm. “Ah, John, why are we not free to sail away over these waves together, and leave all our troubles behind us on the shore?”
“And what are the troubles which you would leave behind you, dear one?” I asked. “May I not know them, and help you to bear them?”
“I have no secrets from you, John,” she answered, “Our chief trouble is, as you may guess, our poor father’s strange behaviour. Is it not a sad thing for all of us that a man who has played such a distinguished part in the world should skulk from one obscure corner of the country to another, and should defend himself with locks and barriers as though he were a common thief flying from justice? This is a trouble, John, which it is out of your power to alleviate.”
“But why does he do it, Gabriel?” I asked.
“I cannot tell,” she answered frankly. “I only know that he imagines some deadly danger to be hanging over his head, and that this danger was incurred by him during his stay in India. What its nature may be I have no more idea than you have.”
“Then your brother has,” I remarked. “I am sure from the way in which he spoke to me about it one day that he knows what it is, and that he looks upon it as real.”
“Yes, he knows, and so does my mother,” she answered, “but they have always kept it secret from me. My poor father is very excited at present. Day and night he is in an agony of apprehension, but it will soon be the fifth of October, and after that he will be at peace.”
“How do you know that?” I asked in surprise.
“By experience,” she answered gravely. “On the fifth of October these fears of his come to a crisis. For years back he has been in the habit of locking Mordaunt and myself up in our rooms on that date, so that we have no idea what occurs, but we have always found that he has been much relieved afterwards, and has continued to be comparatively in peace until that day begins to draw round again.”
“Then you have only ten days or so to wait,” I remarked, for September was drawing to a close. “By the way, dearest, why is it that you light up all your rooms at night?”
“You have noticed it, then?” she said. “It comes also from my father’s fears. He does not like to have one dark corner in the whole house. He walks about a good deal at night, and inspects everything, from the attics right down to the cellars. He has large lamps in every room and corridor, even the empty ones, and he orders the servants to light them all at dusk.”
“I am rather surprised that you manage to keep your servants,” I said, laughing. “The maids in these parts are a superstitious class, and their imaginations are easily excited by anything which they don’t understand.”
“The cook and both housemaids are from London, and are used to our ways. We pay them on a very high scale to make up for any inconvenience to which they may be put. Israel Stakes, the coachman, is the only one who comes from this part of the country, and he seems to be a stolid, honest fellow, who is not easily scared.”
“Poor little girl,” I exclaimed, looking down at the slim, graceful figure by my side. “This is no atmosphere for you to live in. Why will you not let me rescue you from it? Why won’t you allow me to go straight and ask the general for your hand? At the worst he could only refuse.”
She turned quite haggard and pale at the very thought.
“For Heaven’s sake, John,” she cried earnestly, “do nothing of the kind. He would whip us all away in the dead of the night, and within a week we should be settling down again in some wilderness where we might never have a chance of seeing or hearing from you again. Besides, he never would forgive us for venturing out of the grounds.”
“I don’t think that he is a hard-hearted man,” I remarked. “I have seen a kindly look in his eyes, for all his stern face.”
“He can be the kindest of fathers,” she answered. “But he is terrible when opposed or thwarted. You have never seen him so, and I trust you never will. It was that strength of will and impatience of opposition which made him such a splendid officer. I assure you that in India every one thought a great deal of him. The soldiers were afraid of him, but they would have followed him anywhere.”
“And had he these nervous attacks then?”
“Occasionally, but not nearly so acutely. He seems to think that the danger—whatever it may be—becomes more imminent every year. Oh, John, it is terrible to be waiting like this with a sword over our heads—and all the more terrible to me since I have no idea where the blow is to come from.”
“Dear Gabriel,” I said, taking her hand and drawing her to my side, “look over all this pleasant countryside and the broad blue sea. Is it not all peaceful and beautiful? In these cottages, with their red-tiled roofs peeping out from the grey moor, there live none but simple, God-fearing men, who toil hard at their crafts and bear enmity to no man. Within seven miles of us is a large town, with every civilised appliance for the preservation of order. Ten miles farther there is a garrison quartered, and a telegram would at any time bring down a company of soldiers. Now, I ask you, dear, in the name of common-sense, what conceivable danger could threaten you in this secluded neighbourhood, with the means of help so near? You assure me that the peril is not connected with your father’s health?”
“No, I am sure of that. It is true that Dr. Easterling, of Stranraer. has been over to see him once or twice, but that was merely for some small indisposition. I can assure you that the danger is not to be looked for in that direction.”
“Then I can assure you,” said I, laughing, “that there is no danger at all. It must be some strange monomania or hallucination. No other hypothesis will cover the facts.”
“Would my father’s monomania account for the fact of my brother’s hair turning grey and my mother wasting away to a mere shadow?”
“Undoubtedly,” I answered, “The long continued worry of the general’s restlessness and irritability would produce those effects on sensitive natures.”
“No, no!” said she, shaking her head sadly, “I have been exposed to his restlessness and irritability, but they have had no such effect upon me. The difference between us lies in the fact that they know this awful secret and I do not.”
“My dear girl,” said I, “the days of family apparitions and that kind of thing are gone. Nobody is haunted nowadays, so we can put that supposition out of the question. Having done so, what remains? There is absolutely no other theory which could even be suggested. Believe me, the whole mystery is that the heat of India has been too much for your poor father’s brain.”
What she would have answered I cannot tell, for at that moment she gave a start as if some sound had fallen upon her ear. As she looked round apprehensively, I suddenly saw her features become rigid and her eyes fixed and dilated.
Following the direction of her gaze, I felt a sudden thrill of fear pass through me as I perceived a human face surveying us from behind one of the trees—a man’s face, every feature of which was distorted by the most malignant hatred and anger. Finding himself observed, he stepped out and advanced towards us, when I saw that it was none other than the general himself. His beard was all a-bristle with fury, and his deepset eyes glowed from under their heavily veined lids with a most sinister and demoniacal brightness.