The Haunted Inn
“It was a cold winter-night when three men sat round the fire of an old half-way house. ‘He was a fool to go that night,’ said one. ‘Why did not he burn the box when he had broken it open?’
“‘But it was not broken,’ answered a second: ‘before the traveller died, he gave Giles Framham the key. Giles went away, they say, because he was a bankrupt, and could not make old Heyhope wait awhile.’
“‘Well, Heyhope came before any of the rest to look after his leavings. Little enough they found except that old clock and this kitchen-gear. Dick Ostler says he saw Giles talking with the traveller who left the box, about Spanish coin. How came that huge strange dollar in Heyhope’s house?’
“‘Why, he says Giles offered him a handful of such silver in part payment of his debt, but he doubted how it came, and would not touch the tender. That odd dollar might have been dropped when we found it.’
“‘Ay, by Heyhope himself mayhap. Dick sat alone in this kitchen the night his master took to hiding from his creditors, and he heard a foot about the house — ay, under the window where the traveller’s trunk was left.’
“‘What was he doing there?’ said a third voice.
“There was silence till the first constable spoke again. ‘I always said Giles was too poor to be a rogue and Heyhope too covetous to be honest. Besides, nobody knows . . . don’t we remember the minister of Spottes Parish?’”
The young reader paused to breathe and his companion’s eyes grew large as a gazelle’s.
“Two pages are torn — but here it begins again. ‘He preached that sabbath in the old Kirk of Spottes. His sermon was awful. Such heart-stirring words had never been heard there. When he came down from his pulpit, he staggered like a fainting man and one of the elders walked home with him. His beautiful young wife had been at home many days sick. They looked in and saw. . . .’”
“O Henry, dear Henry, read on!”
“It is too shocking, Marianne. Let me read the story of Marshal Saxe benighted in the forest.”
“Yes, yes — I remember the trap-door and the iron cage. But Henry—” and the little romancer with all the pomp of mystery — “I have seen a trap-door in a bed-room.”
“You! Tell me where.”
“Do you not know? In your grandpapa’s —”
“I was never at my grandfather’s,” said the boy gravely. He said no more for his mother was dead, but he remembered she had taken their little guest with her when she paid a brief and last visit to her birth-place. He had been at school, and his father prevented from accompanying her by family circumstances.
The fine instinct of childhood held Marianne silent till her playmate’s countenance lost its sadness. Then her soft silver voice was heard again. “Your grandfather slept in a green room — the seventh, they called it — and at the bed’s foot I saw a door, a trap-door, and all below so dark!”
“Why did you not ask its use?”
“The lawyers’s clerk is listening — hush!”
“We came away that night — Mama, that is — your Mama said she could not stay and I thought she looked afraid.”
“Afraid! Of what?”
“Speak lower, children!” said Henry’s father, whose table was covered with papers brought by his law-agent. The boy and girl drew nearer and as usual, the last spoke first again.
“They bid us go away — two angry men, and your grandpapa looked as she — as she did when —”
The child left that sentence unfinished and told other recollections till stopped by the sudden resemblance of her young companion’s face to his mother’ when dead, and by the earnest eye of another listener. Her history ended, but she had spoken the preface of another.
“Father,” said the boy, “why was the Scotchman so amazed and pale? He listened as if he heard Macbeth’s own witches and this had been their heath.”
“There are trapdoors in law as in old inns, child, and his is a strange story. Listen, for the last chapter is new and began to-night. It is not ended yet.
“We have all heard the wild sound of some small bell tinkling among mountains. There is a ruined church standing near the bay called Glenluce in Scotland, where the people were gathered one sabbath-morning by the tinkling of the old church-bell. Till a new place of worship could be completed, they heard their preacher in a wide green, walled by a crescent-shaped rock fronting the sea. On this morning, a few April clouds were floating and the rainbow which stretched across the cove seemed a fit witness and emblem of the hopes the pastor delighted to teach. But he was not seen, and after waiting an extraordinary length of time, the elders went to his manse or glebe-house. It was in a lonely and remote nook near the shore. He was dead. His only servant, an aged woman, seemed almost crazed with terror and gave a strange account of the past night. Two or three neighbours had been called at day-break, and had seen her master lying on his own hearth lifeless. Skulking in one of the bed-chambers they found a youth hardly eighteen, half-starved, tattered, and in visible agony of fear. A piece of gold was found upon him, and some linen belonging to the dead man. He was strongly and plausibly suspected. Violence had been committed and the few valuables of the old clergyman’s chamber plundered. He was conveyed to prison, with very few believers of the innocence he protested. When the trial was preparing, an English traveller visited the prison, heard the friendless boy’s story, and ascertained its truth. He had been, he said, one of the miserable patients in an infirmary for paupers and having recovered slowly from a brain-fever, had been thrust into the ward assigned to lunatics. Made desperate by hideous sights and sounds, he had escaped on the eve of the dismal sabbath, and knowing the merciful heart of the minister, had taken refuge in his house. He received food, linen, and a small piece of old coin, the only gold his old friend possessed, and they were sitting together past midnight when, as the stranger said, both perceived smoke, and rushing into the kitchen, found the female servant asleep near the hearth among linen which had taken fire. While James endeavoured to extinguish it, the minister hastily gathered the little plate in his house, forcing some locks, and scattering whatever lay in his way. Either apoplexy or fear acting on infirm nerves had produced sudden death, for when the woman, roused from her stupor, was able to seek her master while his guest busied himself with the smouldering furniture, she found his corpse. Thus far her credence confirmed the boy’s, but she denied intoxication and insisted that he had made no attempt to wake her. The medical examiner alleged, with some hesitation, his belief of a natural death and the great probability that the bruise seen on the temple of the deceased might have been caused by his heavy fall against the andirons on his hearth. From the infirmary nothing was learned in contradiction to James Bruce’s statement of his illness and escape. His English advocate persisted in sustaining his defence, and the Sheriff-depute, balancing the circumstantial evidence of guilt against the certainty that he remained in the dead man’s house without removing any of the scattered valuables except the gold which he might have concealed, pronounced the charge “not proven”. This verdict was farther justified by discoveries of the servant’s frequent purchases of whisky at one of the shops which suit the Scottish character by dealing “fortiter et suaviter” in grocery and aquavita.
“The Englishman thought his work unfinished till the acquitted prisoner was placed in safe and honest employment. Bruce had no relatives to assist, nor any home to receive him. His family, of which he gave his new friend some touching particulars, was altogether sunk and dispersed. But is talents were good and had been benefited by the education so cheap and common in every Scottish parish. Therefore he obtained a seat in a practised writer’s office as pupil and assistant, acting diligently even in a humbler department. Saunders M’Casquill, his employer, grew rich enough to traffic in land and redeem the mortgages of his clients. A judicial sale was announced of some good acres, and his English patron commissioned him to purchase. The estate was not well cultivated, but it contained an old hereditary house once possessed by the English purchaser’s father-in-law. The price was settled and a day appointed for payment and conveyance of the title-deeds. M’Casquill ordered Bruce, now his senior clerk and probable successor, to prepare an inventory and expressed very natural surprise when Bruce presented an old parchment containing a conveyance of the property to the persons by whom it was, or had been, possessed before it became M’Casquill’s. Bruce remarked the very singular omission of the grantor’s signature, and was assured the error had been remedied by a subsequent and complete transfer, registered and established publicly. But M’Casquill added the original deed to the packet prepared for his client and dispatched it in the custody of Bruce himself. The road was wild and the night stormy. Before he had crossed the dell which divides Carsleath from a thick wood, a horseman followed with a note from his master requiring his instant attendance at a precognition or inquest, and instructing him to deliver the parcel in his custody to the messenger by whom it would be carried to its destination, and the purchase-money received.
“Bruce knew this man as a frequent agent on M’Casquill’s official errands, and obeyed the missive without hesitation. He went to the house where the inquest was begun, and found the Sheriff-depute examining an imbecile girl concerning the death of a crippled pauper left to her care in this solitary place. But on his return, his master complained of the other messenger’s delay, as he had a large sum in his custody. After more patient expectation than was usual, M’Casquill sent to the man’s house and was told he had not been there since his journey. Neither the money nor the bearer was to be found. He had proceeded to Edinburgh, received the amount of the Englishman’s order from the Bank of Scotland and departed to America. M’Casquill followed, and has never returned.”
“Father,” said young Henry Stewart, when his historian paused, “was he never suspected?”
“Not immediately, nor by all. The messenger’s wife was questioned and found innocent, if the most utter desolation was any proof. It was punishment enough if she was not. Bruce had his share of evil report, excited by M’Casquill, who had whispered hints that he had favored and probably contrived the messenger’s bold fraud. He was left without employer or credit, but the Englishman knew he deserved both. The imperfect Deed was not among those sent to him. When the packet was examined and compared with Bruce’s inventory, another conveyance had been substituted, distinctly signed by the grantor and witnessed by a woman, M’Casquill, and another man. By the strong light of a reflecting mirror, erasures were discovered and dates inconsistent with the grant. The third witness was an architect and surveyor of repute. He was found, and immediately recognized his own signature. He had attached it, as he could prove by memoranda, to the plan of a division proposed among the three joint tenants of an estate he had surveyed; and the deceased possessor of the Englishman’s purchase had signed his assent to that division. A female dependent on the family, and himself had witnessed it and subscribed their names, but he had never attested any other deed in her presence, nor any of the kind now exhibited on what had been one of his own plans, which though very artfully effaced, had left distinguishable traces.”
“Then,” said young Stewart, “the fraud was distinctly proved, but how remedied?”
“Not yet, yet not past hope. The woman, as Bruce discovered after long labour, had married twice, and being abandoned by one of her husbands, resumed her first name. We must seek her.”
“Why did he start so amazedly while we talked of that trap-door?”
“Because our little Mayflower spoke of your grandfather’s house, now a neglected inn. It is on the land I have purchased, and your pensioner — your old gossip Susan shall be its tenant.”
“O Father! How can I see her there?” and remembering his mother’s departure from that house, his features were strongly convulsed. His father’s hand was laid on his brow. “My son, justice will be done. If this forgery can be exposed, your mother’s birth-right and yours is restored. The land needed no price from me, but I am well repaid for the sum M’Casquill’s fraud obtained, if you are benefitted.”
“But my mother is dead!”
After a short pause, the high-minded and sagacious boy added, “Bruce asked what became of Susan — I did not name her — how did he guess?”
“He has often heard you celebrate her honest pride in a hovel, and you may remember scrawling her name on the sun-dial contrived among her bee-hives. Bruce is a Scotchman and of course an antiquary. He went to admire the scrolled architrave of the old wall which props her hut, and curiosity requires no nice diet.”
“Yet remember, Father, we were speaking of the old haunted inn and its dame Lambert. Our Susan’s name is Blair. See, Marianne has woven it into this basket for her.”
“And as small twigs, my boy, have made a bridge for honest men. That name may do more than is dreamed of in your philosophy. Go to bed now and remember the legend of Winterwell.
“Three branches had that ancient Oak — a fair and stately tree!
Three sons sat round their Father’s hearth — his daughter at his knee —
“Father, my babe is in my lap — shall he be called thy son
Who bids me from they hearth depart?” He answered, “I have none.
They have my lands, they have my hall, and thou hast nothing now
But one leaf of our Oak and this — my blessing on thy brow;
And whereso’er thy Brothers look, on earth, or sea, or sky
They shall my blessing hear on thee, and see a dead man’s eye.”
Their name is dead, their house is dead, their lands lie buried deep
Where, glassy as a dead man’s eye, the gather’d waters sleep:
A stranger’s axe has hewn their Oak and branches it has none,
But at its root another shoot, a fresh and youthful one.”
The Haunted Inn
The last note of a funeral bell had ceased and the sexton was leaving his task when a stranger’s question stopped him. “Do you remember, or can you shew me, my good friend, the name of Winterwell among these gravestones?”
“Winterwell! Why, the house is dead too —” He pointed to the end of a long straggling street, disgraced by the miserable remnant of a market-cross and a cluster of hovels in the centre.
“You show me something like an inn. Does it afford lodgings?”
“Plenty of lodgings here rent-free!” answered Ozias grinning at his own jest and at the questioner whose meagre face and frame promised him a tenant.
“But not without a fee,” was the retort with some professional emphasis and another enquiring glance at the half-buried stones and mounds of rank grass in which the ancient church was itself half-buried.
“We are two of a trade, I reckon,” quoth the man of spades. “If your money is not all turned to dust, you may find a nook in the dead house. The two-legged rats are not gone yet.”
The traveller took his cloak-bag again on his arm and having heard all the sexton could tell of a ruined family almost forgotten, went slowly and alone towards “the Dead House.” A narrow paved lane led to a brook choked with the abominations ejected by its inhabitants. One side of this lane was formed by the wall of a green waste, once a garden; and the entrance, a black low-browed arch, leaned on the remnant of a gateway. Our traveller found a door under its shadow and stumbling over broken steps, entered the kitchen. A demand for rashers and the best ale awoke the beldame whose spinning-wheel stood within the huge blank chimney. Two sullen ill-clad clowns occupied the only table. They stared at their new guest whose threadbare garment was of better pretensions but less use than their own. He seated himself in silence, surveying the coarse planks and plaister contrived to divide into two or three wretched cells, a space which had once been a well-proportioned kitchen. Then meekly asking for the bed he had been promised, his way was shewn by the silent hag, and the door closed on him.
The traveller placed his cloak-bag carefully on the bed, considered the narrow casement crossed in bars of lead and sunk in enormous mullions. If any peril should approach, no escape was possible by their aid, and a call for succour could hardly be heard beyond the brook and the hill which overshadowed it. And this hill, once distinguished by Cromwell’s encampment, was now worn into new trenches and circumvallations by gangs of vagrant idlers. He examined the ragged receptacle of old straw intended for his couch, and with some fear and more disgust ventured his whole length on it. He had probably dozed a few moments when a hollow murmur or moan awoke him. He started upright, seized his precious cloak-bag. Could his purpose be known and its contents suspected? His den was intensely dark except where the moon-light entered through a slanting crevice in the roof. The first attempt was to leave his mattress, but the floor seemed sinking under his feet, and the returning sound resembled the creak of machinery. Then it changed to a gurgle which froze his very blood. Perhaps another life was in danger, and he might prevent or discover crime. Stooping to apply his ear and eye to the mouldering floor, he perceived a small square trap-door. It moved slowly, and a hand and arm became visible. Whether the intruder perceived the traveller’s position or heard some warning sound, can only be imagined. No farther advance was made: the trap-door descended softly but not before the traveller’s eye had caught a reflection of the moonbeam as if in a dark pool beneath it. Strange remembrances of the celebrated well which gave its name to this house in the olden time were still alive. Stranger tales of inns contrived to decoy unwary strangers, legends of this wild house, and especially of its seventh chamber, his own peculiar mission and the secret in his custody gave awful probability to his fears. The woman of this house seemed infirm and her only companions were men of no greater bulk than himself. The best expedient might be to face his enemies in a place divided from the public street only by a decayed door and dull windows easily broken. One more glance at the mysterious panel — it slid beneath his touch and revealed a most unguessed spectacle.
“Sorry to vex your honour’s sleep, but this rain-water must be saved —” and a grisly hand guided the dark reservoir into some darker receptacle below.
The traveller, having narrowly escaped an awkward descent into this ill-place bath, muttered some masculine expletives and resolved to prevent any farther trespass on his rest by quitting the room. The simplicity of the excuse might be the exquisite craft a bachelor expects in woman. Seated in the corner of the kitchen-chimney, he found his ancient hostess immersing some unshapely mass in a deep vessel filled from a water-conduit above. Still gloomily suspicious, he secured his cloak-bag under his cloak, and enquired how long she had tenanted this forlorn house.
“A Dead House, sir, they may well call it. Nothing and nobody thrives at Winterwell since the Lamberts went.”
“And the Lamberts took it in Cromwell’s fashion. Well, dame, it is only lost to its right owners again. Are you of the General’s family?”
“My name is Susan Lambert,” said his hostess smoothing the grey hairs under her scanty coif, and shewing a keen grey eye full of fire. The questioner started slightly and softened his tone.
“Were you not here in this place — sitting as we now sit, when the last Lambert was bidden to leave it?”
“No, not the last! — thanks to Him — not the last —”
“Well, my good woman, be not angry with a friend who brings you good news. They say in this town, and I have searched the parish register for the last of the Lamberts, that you, Susan, are the only survivor of the name. Be not afraid of being asked for fees though I am a Scotchman and a Scotch lawyer’s clerk. Have you forgotten M’Casquill’s?”
The poor woman clasped her hands in speechless gratitude. “You need not fear your absent husband. He is in no danger and you will hazard nothing. Four persons were present on the day and at the hour I wish you to remember. Does your memory fail?”
Still Susan, as he called her, was silent as if in fear and doubt.
“Let me help your recollection. It was a night like this — the fire covered this broad hearth and there was no other light in the hall.”
“Ah, you say right! It was no dead house then, and this was the great warm hall-hearth.”
“Give me time. The old oak settle and the black varnished screen stood yonder. An old man, his daughter and three sons were round the fire. What happened?”
“Master James, say nothing more if you saw all. Why do you ask me?”
“Because a witness may be needed and you know the truth. You heard the daughter ask her father if in his presence her elder brother had authority to turn her with her child from this house.”
“And the poor babe clung to the old Squire’s knees! Ay, and the house-dog looked in his face and licked his hand as if it would have spoken! Poor little orphan child! But I could not help — I was but their servant, and the young man swore their sister should not rob them.”
“What said she?”
“She said, and her eyes shone in her pale face like corpse-lights — she said, ‘Father, if you bid me leave your door this night, I will go but at no other bidding.’ Then they told her — and I thought the stones shook under them — it was their house and not their father’s — ‘Go,’ said one, ‘we are masters here. He can give women and boys — nothing.” And there was no more word. She looked once at her father — there he sat — turned into stone — the fire-light on his son’s faces and well I guess, a worse fire in their hearts — but the youngest wept — and he took his sister in his arms and said, ‘We will go together, Agnes, if this is true — Father, is it true?’ Now, as I sit here, I think the face is there and the voice in my ear still — ‘It is true,’ he answered — none ever heard him speak again.”
Both the narrator and the listener paused as if the dead had gathered around them. The student of the law spoke first. “Of these brothers where are the survivors?”
“Gone, gone, all in the dust — their name and their place known no more. Their sister died in her grief and I — she had not bread to give and I was wed, as you have seen, to a man who left me none to give. Fifty years! This is the fiftieth winter since the last funeral passed these doors.”
“It is strange,” he answered, “to see you still where even bats and owls would not linger —”
“But it was where they lived, and who are living for me now? I heard the Dead House would be let for anything or nothing, and I came to see if it would cover me — but it will not — it will not — I am too poor to give and none but beggars would ask lodging here —”
“Except a friend, worthy woman. And you have others. Cannot young Stewart, the bold merry school-boy, bring patrons to your inn, and make this cold hearth jovial again?”
“Ah, blessings on his warm heart! — but his father is too bountiful to be rich, and bought these old walls, they say, only because the rent where you saw a trap-door, was made by a gun-shot from Cromwell when he tried to batter down our castle. It holds rain-water now, for washing-days.”
“A right use, dame, and a fit retribution. Other good may come from evil, and you may help to wash out stains. Those brothers said truly that their father had no house. Afraid of eager creditors, he trusted his sons, and transferred lands, tenements, and money to the elder. They registered the deed and I have seen it. M’Casquill kept it among papers never meant for honest use and his successor in a dusty office found it.”
“Too late, too late!” said honest Susan: “They have sinned in their graves long enough, but what can paper do when none are living to have justice?”
“Their sister’s child is dead, but her grandson lives. Your darling Stewart is his son. Long as the land has been waste and the very house dead, both may be restored. This deed is not signed — the sister’s offspring may regain their rights. Tell them this — you deserve to be a witness.”
Susan Lambert scarcely credited joy so great. When next her young patron visited her to ask if the haunted inn had any promise of success, she told him the greater good promised by the Scotch man of law. The elder Stewart, slow to believe any benefit entangled in claims of ancient date, and too well content with moderate wealth to plunge in litigation, would have declined enquiry. But he remembered his son, and his son had not forgotten his buried mother, though he had never been permitted to know her sufferings. When the discoverer and possessor of the unsigned Deed presented himself, his prompt, acute, and accurate assertion of their rights gave complete success. And his aid was doubly valued because he neither awaited nor demanded a price for his intelligence. The friends he acquired by his integrity were strong in their gratitude, but Susan’s happiness was glorious. She had repaid her benefactors tenfold, and when their counsellor became a judge, he called to ask a lodging again in the haunted inn, now graced by the “Glenalmond Arms”.