The Shadow on the Blind is the title story from Louisa Baldwins 1895 anthology The Shadow on the Blind and other Ghost Stories. It’s the story of a couple that rents a haunted house.
As is often the case in tales of this nature, the husband does not believe in ghosts and ridicules the house’s reputation as a hot-spot for supernatural activity. Not surprisingly, by the end of the story, he has been forced to reevaluate his opinion about ghosts.
About Louisa Baldwin
Sometimes credited as ‘Mrs Alfred Baldwin’, Louisa Baldwin was an English novelist, poet, and writer of short stories. She was one the ‘Macdonald sisters’ the aunt of the author Rudyard Kipling and the mother of the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin.
The MacDonald sisters were four Scottish women who became famous for the fact that all four of them married well-known men. Louisa’s husband, Alfred Baldwin, was a businessman and a Member of Parliment for the Conservative Party.
Louisa and Alfred’s son, Stanley Baldwin, was elected British Prime Minister three times. He holds the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to serve under three monarchs (George V, Edward VIII and George VI).
After the birth of her son, Lousia Baldwin became plagued by bad health and spent much of her time in a bathchair. Due to the fact that she always seemed to recover her strength while on holiday, it has been speculated that Louisa Baldwin may have been a hypochondriac.
Lousia Baldwin died on the 16 May 1925. To this day her work is often included in ghost story anthologies.
The Shadow on the Blind by Louisa Baldwin
Harbledon Hall had stood empty for seven years. For seven years no smoke had issued from its chimneys telling of the cheerful hearth within, no voice or laughter had been heard under its roof, no footstep coming or going across its threshold. A straggling growth of ivy and Virginia creeper that covered the walls and veiled the windows made the front of the house look as forlorn and neglected as the face of a sick man who has grown a ragged beard during a long illness. The window-sills were green with the drip of rain from the spouts choked with decaying leaves, and the brickwork was stained with dark patches of damp. The birds had built their nests undisturbed in every gable and projection of the roof, and in the wide chimneys, secure from danger of being smoked out of their comfortable quarters.
And within the house, though man had withdrawn his presence from it, other tenants were in possession. Rats and mice held revels in the empty rooms and passages, that resounded with the patter of their feet, the squeak of their voices, and the nibbling of their teeth. In the dead of night, bold as they had grown, they scared themselves by catching in wires that set bells ringing and echoing through the house, and an army of rats would rush helter-skelter down the great staircase, bounding over one another’s backs in their panic, as we see them depicted in illustrations of the famous history of Whittington and his cat.
If desolation reigned in Harbledon Hall its gardens were returning to a state of savage nature, and the rank growth of weeds choked and overtopped the flowers and shrubs. No seeds had been sown, no lawns mown, no hedges clipped or tree or bush pruned in seven long years, and the once orderly gardens had become a tangled thicket where the fairy prince might seek the sleeping beauty. A bramble had sprung up by the sundial, anci clasping it in its thorny arms, threw its branches about it, effectually hiding it from the light of day. The stone basin of the disused fountain had become a nursery of young frogs, that hopped, swam, and croaked undisturbed, and nature was endeavouring to re-establish her sway where man had withdrawn his cultivating and restraining hand.
It was a radiant day in June. The hot sun poured down on the tangled overgrowth in the gardens of Harbledon Hall, the birds were in a perfect riot of song, and a south-west wind rocked them on the bough. Even the old forsaken house on such a day wore its least sombre aspect. One could imagine there had been happy household life within its walls, and it was possible to conceive that they might again resound to the laughter and voices of children at play.
Some such thought as this must have entered the mind of an elderly gentleman driving by in an open carriage, with his wife, a pale grey-haired lady, seated beside him. Mr. Stackpoole was a cheerful, energetic man of sixty years of age, of strong likes and dislikes and sudden impulses. As he caught sight of the wide front of Harbledon Hall with its red gables glowing in the sun, its confused mass of creepers almost hiding the lower storeys from view, he told the coachman to draw up at the iron gates at the entrance.
‘This is a very picturesque house, my dear ; I should like to have a look at it.’ he said to his wife ; ‘it may be the kind of place we are in search of,’ and he alighted from the carriage as nimbly as a young man to read the notice painted on the weather-stained board fastened to the gates. ‘For admission to view these premises, apply to Mr. Judd, sexton, by the church.’ Mr. Stackpoole returned to the carriage and bade the coachman drive to the church, the tower of which they could see embowered among trees, apparently not more than a quarter of a mile distant. As they drove he continued, ‘I like the look of the place very much. I am sure I could do something with it. I should just enjoy setting to work upon it to call order out of chaos, and in six months I would undertake to effect an entire transformation in the house and grounds and make it one of the prettiest places in the neighbourhood. What do you think, my dear? Hey ?’
The frail-looking elderly lady thus addressed made but a faint rejoinder, and her husband’s sanguine enthusiasm by no means communicated itself to her. Harbledon Hall was the sixth old house to which Mr. Stackpoole had taken a fancy in the last ten years, and fallen out of love with as quickly, after exercising his ingenuity in putting it in perfect order and living in it for a short time. It was his diversion, now that he had retired from business and had nothing particular to do, to hunt up old country houses, put them in thorough modern repair and working order, live in them just long enough to induce his wife to hope that he had pitched his tent finally, when the demon of unrest would break out in him once more, and he was off again on the old quest.
This hunting of houses, catching them, and then letting them go that he might pursue game of the same kind elsewhere was naturally more entertaining to Mr. Stackpoole than it could be to his wife and daughter. But the elder lady was patient and philosophic, and when her daughter said petulantly, ‘Oh, Mamma, what a shame it is that we have to be dragged about the country like this ! We have not been a year in this lovely house, and Papa is tired of it already, and looking out again for some tumble-down old place to put that in good order, and leave it too, I suppose !’ Mrs. Stackpoole would say, ‘Never mind, Ella. Papa must do as he thinks best. The excitement and interest he finds in frequently changing house are necessary to him now that he has done with business; and remember, my dear, he has no home occupations to pass the time like you and I have.’ But Ella Stackpoole was now married and settled in a home of her own, and the only other child, a son, was stationed with his regiment in Malta.
Therefore it was that when Mr. Stackpoole became suddenly interested in the appearance of Harbledon Hall his wife was unable to feel any enthusiasm on the subject. Their last home had been in Cornwall, where, after six months spent in its most westerly corner, Mr. Stackpoole discovered what everyone else had always known, that he was in a decidedly rainy part of England. He could scarcely have been more astonished at the quantity of rain that fell if it had been in Egypt, and he fled to London to make that his headquarters while he looked about for an old house to suit his fancy in the drier county of Surrey.
And on this bright June day he and his wife were driving through the fair country house-hunting, and the more dilapidated a house looked, provided that his experienced eye saw capacities of improvement about it, the more attractive it appeared to Mr. Stackpoole, as affording wider scope for his particular form of genius. His was a costly hobby, and strangers reaped the benefit of his lavish outlay on houses he perfected, tired of, and left so soon.
Mr. Judd, the sexton, was found without difficulty, for, indeed, he was a conspicuous object, sitting in a large armchair by his cottage door reading the newspaper, and taking an occasional sip from a glass of cold brandy-and-water that stood beside him on the window-sill. He was a person of dignity in the village, accustomed to waste his own time and that of others; but Mr. Stackpoole hurried him off to the carriage as soon as he had found the keys, and compelled him to unwonted activity. ‘The garden be a wilderness, sir,’ said the old man, opening one of the great iron gates, ‘and it’s four years since e’er an inquiry was made about the place.’
‘It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, you see ; it’ll need a considerable outlay upon it before it is fit for habitation,’ said Mr. Stackpoole complacently as he stooped to disentangle a briar from his wife’s skirt. ‘Who were the last tenants, and how long had they lived here?’ he said, turning to the old man and asking two questions at once.
‘Sir Eoland Shawe and his family had it last, sir. They took the place on a twenty-one years’ lease, and they left uncommon sudden when it had five years and more to run. There was a deal o’ talk about what made ’em leave it that way,’ and Judd opened wide the front door as he spoke, and they entered a large, lofty hall, smelling mouldy as though there were vaults below.
‘Folks did say there was reasons more ‘n what they’d own up to, for a large fam’ly to turn out all of a sudden, as if they was running away from the plague,’ and the old sexton looked mysterious and as though he longed to be questioned. Mr. Stackpoole, however, was too much interested in pacing the length of the dining room to notice any hints he might throw out.
‘My dear,’ he said to his wife, who was resting on the low window seat, ‘we will have the whole of this oak floor polished, and Turkish rugs laid down at intervals.’
‘That is just what we did in our house in Cumberland,’ said Mrs. Stackpoole gently, ‘and if you remember you were not pleased with it when it was done;’ then, turning to the old man: ‘You were going to tell us why Sir Koland Shawe left so suddenly.’
‘Forbid, ma’am, that I should say definite why he left, not knowing for certain,’ said Mr. Judd, swelling with importance as he spoke. ‘I never believe more ‘n ‘alf o’ what I hear, and puts no faith in tales, whether master’s or man’s. But by what I can make out and old Jimmy Judd can see through a stone wall as fer as most folks I should say as ghosts was at the bottom of the whole kick-up.’
Mrs. Stackpoole smiled at the old man’s mode of expressing himself, and then looked anxiously towards her husband, who laughed heartily, and they left the dining room for the upstairs regions, which he was impatient to explore.
‘They fled before ghosts, did they?’ said Mr. Stackpoole, still laughing at the idea. ‘If the house is supposed to be haunted I should like it all the better for its reputation,’ and he swung open the door of a large, low room, with a deep projecting chimney-place and wide window letting in a flood of sunshine.
‘This is certainly a very cheerful aspect,’ said his wife, stepping to the window and looking out upon the wild garden enclosed by ragged yew hedges; ‘there is nothing ghostly about this room, at all events!’
‘Pooh! Ghosts indeed! those who believe in them deserve to see them,’ said Mr. Stackpoole contemptuously. ‘If we take the house this shall be your morning-room; you’ll get plenty of sunshine, which is a great thing for you; and if I like the room under it I will have it done up for a business-room for myself.’ And they wandered from cellar to attic of the big house, Mr. St ackpoole delighted with the possibilities of the place, and noting in his pocket-book the dimensions of the chief rooms and of the entrance hall.
‘At all events I shall inquire on what terms the house is to be let,’ he said, after spending two hours in energetically inspecting the premises, and as he slipped five shillings into Mr. Judd’s expectant palm, ‘By the way, I have not asked who is the landlord?’
‘The landlord, sir, be a many and not one,’ and the old man named a well-known city company to which the property belonged.
‘I’ve rented from landlords, and landladies, and trustees, but never yet from a company. It’s all one to me, and I shall see their agent in town tomorrow.’ Then Mr. Stackpoole took a farewell look at the room on the ground floor, immediately under the cheerful room at the head of the stairs that he had assigned to his wife’s prospective use, and decided that it was exactly adapted to his requirements, after which they threaded their way back to the gates through the neglected maze of the garden.
‘And how do you like the look of Harbledon Hall?’ he asked his wife as they drove away; ‘what do you think of the old place?’
‘I confess that I was not very favourably impressed with it, though it is a handsome, well-built house, and might be made very comfortable, no doubt. But it struck me with a kind of chill.’
‘So would any place, my dear, that had been shut up for seven years. I feel it in my back now; I wish it may not mean an attack of lumbago for me.’ Mrs. Stackpoole smiled at the literal interpretation of her words.
‘I don’t mean that kind of chill, but a sort of depressed, foreboding feeling that I have never had before in any of the houses you and I have been over together, and their name is legion.’
‘Why, Anna, you don’t mean to say that the tedious old sexton has frightened you with his gossip! It was merely some nonsense or other he had made up to increase his importance. If I take the place I shall put an army of workmen in an army of workmen in a week from now, and when next you see it, with good fires drying the rooms, windows bright and clean, and paperers and painters busy upon it, it will look very different, I can assure you. Any house that has been uninhabited as long as Harbledon Hall wears a forlorn look, but for all that I see the possibilities of it, and I could make it the prettiest place we have lived in yet.’ And Mrs. Stackpoole felt certain that her husband would take the old house.
The following day, when Mr. Stackpoole saw the company’s agent, he was surprised at the very moderate rent asked for the house. Whether he wished to take it on lease or as a yearly tenant, the sum demanded was small enough to arouse suspicion in the most unwary.
‘Why do you ask such a low rent for a fine old place likethat? ‘ he asked.
‘It is so much out of repair from standing empty so long, that I suppose the company is willing to submit to a certain loss, for the sake of having it inhabited again.’
‘But with such a temptingly low rent, how is it that it has not been taken long ago?’
‘There have been any number of applications for it.’
‘Indeed! The old fellow in charge of the keys who showed me over the place yesterday said that no one had inquired about it for four years.’ A peculiar expression passed over the agent’s face, but it was not one of surprise.
‘He said so, did he? I’ve had plenty of inquiries.’
‘He certainly said so. He was a talkative old man, and anxious to impress us with the idea that Sir Eoland Shawe left Harbledon Hall suddenly, some considerable time before his lease was up, in consequence of an absurd notion that the house was haunted. Now, personally I care nothing about it, but my wife is sometimes nervous, and I thought I would ask you if you know anything of any unusual circumstances connected with his leaving so abruptly.’
‘Judd is a chattering old fool! Did he tell you anything definite about it himself?’ asked the agent.
‘Nothing whatever, but he said some nonsense about ghosts driving them away from the place.’
‘Of course there was an absurd story that got about at the time! It was some hocus-pocus with a magic-lantern, I believe, got up by the young fellows to frighten the servants, with pictures of a skeleton on a sheet hung up somewhere or other. The whole thing was a stupid practical joke, only too successful, for the scare spread to the ladies of the house, and of course Sir Eoland had to leave; they made the place too hot for him,’ and the agent laughed uproariously. ‘I remember all about it now you come to ask me. The young Shawes got up the panic for their own purposes. They found the country too slow for them, they wanted to live in London, so with the simple apparatus of a magic-lantern and a sheet or blind they frightened the family back into town and got what they wanted. Naturally Sir Eoland used not to speak of it when he found it out, for no one is proud of having been made a fool of. And now, my dear sir,’ he said, assuming an air of great candour,’ you know as much about this childish folly as I do myself. It has been magnified into something wonderful till we’ve had that tempting property on our hands all these years in consequence.’
Mr. Stackpoole was pleased and amused with the agent’s frank explanation of the basis of Mr. Judd’s mysterious allusions and he and his wife laughed at it together over their evening dinner. Mrs. Stackpoole was now willing that her husband should take Harbledon Hall, which he did as a yearly tenant, with the right of taking the property on a lease, if at the end of three years he felt inclined to prolong his stay.
Then began all the delightful bustle that Mr. Stackpoole’s soul loved — the drying, warming, painting, lighting, decorating, and furnishing of the house; the taming and reclaiming of the garden; the stubbing up of old lawns and laying down of new turf; the cleaning and regravelling of weed-grown paths. Such an army of workmen was engaged that Mr. Stackpoole calculated that in less than five months the house would be ready to go into, and the gardens be all clean, smooth, and bare in their winter tidiness. ‘It must be finished by the middle of December,’ he said, ‘that I may keep Christmas here with my family; and if every man has done his work well, and is out of the house by the twelfth of December, I will give each one a bonus on his wages, and a Christmas supper to you all.’
No wonder that the workmen caught something of Mr. Stackpoole’s enthusiasm, and that every time he brought his wife to see what was going on she was delighted with the progress made. All their friends were informed of the lucky find of the beautiful old house in Surrey, and invitations were issued long before for a series of entertainments, dances, and private theatricals that they intended to give at Harbledon Hall in the following January, when their daughter, Mrs. Beaumont, and her husband would be staying with them.
Shortly before Mr. and Mrs. Stackpoole removed to Harbledon Hall they were dining out one evening, and after the ladies had left the room and the gentlemen had rearranged their chairs comfortably and were seated at their wine, Mr. Stackpoole began on his favourite theme, the furnishing and repairing of the old house in Surrey. As most of those present had frequently heard him on the subject before, he was not much heeded, and prosed on without interruption till a tall, bald-headed gentleman opposite him caught the words Harbledon Hall and became an attentive listener.
‘Harbledon Hall, did you say? Do you mean the old gabled, red-brick house three miles from Mendleton in Surrey? I hope no friend of yours is thinking of taking it.’
Mr. Stackpoole smiled. ‘Not exactly a friend of mine, though probably I know him better than anyone else. I have taken Harbledon Hall myself and intend moving into it next December.’
‘The deuce you do!’ said the bald-headed gentleman, setting down his glass.
‘I don’t know why it should surprise you,’ said Mr. Stackpoole.
‘Surprise me? Certainly not. Only I thought that the house was empty and likely to remain so.’
‘Surely it has stood empty long enough for seven years. It requires an immense deal doing to it, of course, but I took a fancy to the place, and am putting it into thorough repair, introducing the electric light among other modern improvements; in fact, I am sparing no expense. Do you know anything about Harbledon Hall ?’
‘I used to do. Sir Eoland Shawe, the last tenant, is my brother,’ and the bald-headed gentleman spoke in a dry and uncommunicative manner. But a hint was not enough for Mr. Stackpoole.
‘Then you are the very person to tell me about an absurd story I have heard it had something to do with a magic-lantern, I believe, some kind of scare the young people got up to pretend there were bogies in the house, and frighten their parents back to town, where they preferred to live. You see, I’ve heard all about it, and I only want it corroborating by a member of the family,’ and he laughed heartily, as though it were the best joke in the world. But the gentleman opposite him grew grave to severity, and said, ‘I am unable to understand your allusion to a magic-lantern performance which is supposed to have tried my brother’s nerves, and absurd is the last word applicable to the circumstances under which Sir Roland was compelled to leave Harbledon Hall.’
‘Then I must have been misinformed in the matter,’ replied the undaunted Mr. Stackpoole, whose curiosity was now thoroughly aroused. ‘As I am about to live in the house, will you not tell me the real circumstances, that I may be able to contradict the foolish stories that one hears?’
‘Why should it be necessary for you to contradict gossip on the subject? Sir Roland never mentions it. It is possible that some time you may learn for yourself why my brother left the house; then I think you will be satisfied that he acted wisely, and if not, I should be sorry to prejudice you against Harbledon Hall.’ And the gentlemen rose to join the ladies, and Mr. Stackpoole remained in a state of mystification., Evidently something had happened to drive Sir Roland Shawe and his family from Harbledon Hall with which neither old Judd nor the agent was acauainted. What could it be? For himself, so long as it was neither rats nor drains, he did not care; but with his wife it was different. If she had the least inkling that there was anything uncanny about the house, she would refuse to go into it at the eleventh hour, or, if she went, would make a point of seeing a ghost the very first dark night.
But she must hear no silly talk about it. Any ghosts that former inhabitants of the Hall had imagined they saw was when they went about the house starting at their own shadows by the dim light of oil-lamps. The electric light would put all that to rights. It was the best cure for such preposterous folly, and in its illumination Mr. Stackpoole felt that he should be more than a match for all the powers of darkness.
But shortly after meeting Sir Roland Shawe’s brother an odd coincidence happened that drew his attention again to the subject of their conversation. Mrs. Stackpoole had written to her son at Malta telling him that his father had taken an old house in Surrey with which he had fallen in love, how beautifully he was fitting it up, that they expected to keep Christmas in it, and that it was at Harbledon Hall that they hoped to welcome him on his return to England. In reply Jack wrote, ‘So my father is again on the move. Well, this time I am glad he is taking you to a thoroughly accessible place, and not to Cornwall or Cumberland. But is the old house he has taken a fancy to not far from Mendleton? I suppose there can’t be two Harbledon Halls in the county, but it is odd if it is the house of that name I have lately heard something about. There was a young civilian out here for his health he has gone to Egypt now and he told me that his uncle, a Sir Roland Smith, or some such name, had been fairly driven out of an old house in Surrey by ghosts. I’m sure he called it Harbledon Hall, and he said that his uncle was not in the least a nervous man, but it was more than he could stand, and he had to leave. I wish now that I had asked him all about it, but he was such a dull chap nothing he said interested me, so I lost the chance of learning particulars. Don’t you be timid, dear mother. Let me tackle the bogies when I come home; I should enjoy nothing better.’
Mrs. Stackpoole did not like this at all. It produced an eerie and creepy sensation, and her husband took care not to increase her discomfort by telling her of his conversation with Mr. Shawe.
‘It is odd, my dear, very odd,’ he said in his most cheerful tones, ‘and we are obliged to confess that, somehow or other, someone or other received some sort of a fright at Harbledon Hall. Nothing can be more vague, and yet that is all that is known about it. A pity the whole silly business was not inquired into on the spot, for of course it would admit of a perfectly simple solution. Very likely one of the maids had supped rather more heavily than usual on cold pork, and in a paroxysm of indigestion walked in her sleep; someone saw her in her white nightgown, took her for a ghost, screamed, and got up a scare for it is always easier to cry out than to investigate. And there you have the whole history of a ghost story in a nutshell, my dear in a nutshell.’
The workmen were punctually out of Harbledon Hall on the day agreed upon, and as punctually received their pay and their Christmas supper, and the house was ready for the reception of the new tenant, with the good wishes of all who had helped to prepare it for him. Mr. Stackpoole arranged that they should arrive after dark at Harbledon Hall, that he might surprise his wife with the electric light in every room and passage, and introduce her to her new home under its most cheerful and attractive aspect.
As they approached the house both Mrs. Stackpoole and her daughter exclaimed with delight, and Ella said it was too pretty to be real, it was like something on the stage. From every window of the house, from the basement to the garret, streamed the pure radiance of the electric light, undimmed by curtain or blind, sending shafts of light far into the surrounding darkness. From the porch the white light illumined the drive like a cold sunshine, and showed every pebble on the ground and every twig on the bare boughs.
‘There, my dears,’ said Mr. Stackpoole triumphantly, as he led his wife and daughter into the brilliant hall; ‘this is how modern science drives away foolish fears of darkness by turning night into day. No one could be nervous or afraid of ghosts in a house lighted like this.’
‘No, indeed the thing would be impossible.’ replied Mrs. Stackpoole, her daughter, and son-in-law in confident chorus.
Christmas was kept with much festivity at Harbledon Hall, and it was impossible to say who was most delighted with the house the host or hostess, or the guests under its hospitable roof. Each was charmed with his own room, but Mrs. Stackpoole’s morning-room was the general favourite, and afternoon-tea was frequently taken there in preference to the more stately drawing room. The grandchildren played in the empty rooms upstairs on rainy days, and every evening watched the miracle of lighting the house with the electric light with breathless interest. They regarded Grandpapa as a light-producing wizard, so that something of awe was mingled with their wildest frolics, and they did not dare to open the door of his own particular room, which was respectfully called the study, though its principal use was to smoke in, or to take a quiet nap before dinner.
It was the end of January, and the Stackpooles were daily congratulating themselves on their good fortune in meeting with a house so perfectly suited to all their requirements, when they wound up their New Year’s festivities with a fancy ball. Several young people were staying in the house for the occasion who were to depart the day after the ball, leaving their host and hostess alone for the first time in their new house. Numbers of guests were coming from a distance, many of whom had accepted the invitation out of curiosity, as a dance afforded a good opportunity of spending a night under cheerful auspices in a house with the reputation of being haunted.
All their entertainments so far had been successful, but the last was to be the best, and the host and hostess threw their whole souls into the preparations to ensure its complete success. The room was charming, the floor perfect, the band that came from town the most renowned of the season. The costumes to be worn were of no special time or country, and the Stackpooles themselves set an example, of reckless catholicity in the matter, the hostess being dressed as Queen Elizabeth, and her husband as an Admiral of the Fleet of today, while Mrs. and Mr. Beaumont figured respectively as a Japanese lady and Spanish matador. By the time that the guests had arrived, clad in the garb of all ages and countries, the ball-room appeared to contain such a motley throng as the Day of Judgment alone could bring together. Here an ancient Greek danced with a Swedish peasant, and the Black Prince with a female captain of the Salvation Army, and there a clown and a nun waltzed gaily past Mahomet and a ballet-girl.
The electric light was a greater novelty then than it is now, and the guests were loud in their admiration of the fairy-palace appearance of the house as they approached, and of its brilliance within. Mr. Stackpoole was as delighted as a child with a new toy, and led his friends about showing them how by merely turning a button on the wall he could plunge a room in darkness or flood it with radiant light.
Dancing was kept up with great spirit till the small hours, and as the clock in the hall chimed a quarter-past three the old house resounded to the half sad and wholly romantic strains of a waltz by Waldteufel. The guests who came from a distance had begun to depart, and Mr. Beaumont stood in the porch, laughingly seeing Lady Jane Grey and Flora Macdonald into their carriage. Just then a maid gave a message to one of the footmen to Mrs. Beaumont, who sat fanning herself near the door of the ball-room. ‘If you please, ma’am, nurse says Master Harry is awake and crying with the music, and says he won’t go to sleep till he sees you, ma’am.’
‘Tell nurse I will come directly,’ and, excusing herself to the lady who sat next to her, she slipped out of the room. In the hall she met her father as he was entering his study.
‘I’m going to put this miserable encumbrance by,’ he said, smiling and nourishing the Admiral’s cocked hat, which he had gallantly carried the whole evening to his great inconvenience.
‘And I am on my way to the nursery to see little Harry,’ and Mrs. Beaumont ran upstairs, softly singing to the sweet music that floated from the ball-room. Mr. Stackpoole laid his hat on the table, and looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. ‘A quarter-past three! I’m tired, and the young people ought to be. Heigh-ho! I’d rather give ten dinners than one dance,’ and he yawned profoundly, sank into a low chair by the fire, stretched his legs out before him, and closed his eyes. Sleep fell upon him instantly, and for several minutes he was lost in its depths, light and sound had ceased to exist for him, his brain was steeped in silent darkness.
Mr. Beaumont still stood in the porch; the servants had returned to the house, and he was alone. It was a mild winter’s night. He flung a cloak over his matador’s costume and stepped into the open air. ‘I sha’n’t be missed for five minutes,’ he said to himself, ‘while I smoke a cigarette,’ and he walked briskly along a broad path some thirty yards from the house, from which he had a perfect view of the front of Harbledon Hall. And very pretty its cheerful brightness looked against the dark background of star-set sky. Brilliant rays of light shot from the undraped windows, and those that had the blinds drawn down showed the outline of objects in the room thrown upon them in shadow, as clearly as from a magic-lantern.
Involuntarily he raised his eyes to the window of Mrs. Stackpoole’s sitting-room, and stood rooted to the spot. Two figures as clearly defined as silhouettes were visible on the pure square of the blind the shadows of an old man and a young man struggling together. From the shape of the heads Greorge Beaumont saw that they wore tie wigs, and there was the clearly cut shadow of the ruffles at the wrists, and the younger and taller man wore a large Steinkirk with richly-laced ends round his neck. At first he thought that they were guests dressed in the costume of the early Georgian period, though how they had gone upstairs into that room, or why there was a deadly struggle between them, he did not know. But wonder and speculation was swallowed up in terrified interest as he watched the course of the brief conflict. The elder and shorter man, who stooped considerably, appeared to be unarmed, and seized the younger man by the throat, when he shook himself free, stepped quickly back, drew his sword, and, plunging forward on his right foot, ran his opponent through the body. He staggered backward and fell out of sight below the level of the window, and there remained only the shadow of the younger man in clear profile on the blind. He stood for a minute looking downward, and George Beaumont had time to observe the finely-cut features of a total stranger. Then he saw that he wiped the blade of his sword, turned and walked away, and his shadow passed out of
sight, leaving the window-blind a blank, luminous square.
Indoors at the same time Mr. Stackpoole had been waked from his short sleep by a sound in his wife’s sitting-room overhead, and he sprang to his feet with every faculty concentrated in listening. A noise as of chairs pushed back and upset on the polished floor, and a scuffling of feet as though two men were struggling together. Then a moment of silence, a loud stamp, and heavy fall that seemed to shake the ceiling, followed by deep groans. ‘Good Grod! What can be the matter?’ cried Mr. Stackpoole, and he rushed from the room into the hall. The front door stood open, though the inner glass doors were closed, and neither his son-in-law nor any servants were there. He stopped to call nobody, but ran upstairs to his wife’s room just as his daughter came quickly down from the storey above with a white and terrified face. ‘Oh, Papa, someone has just frightened me so, but whoever he is he is in there! I saw him go into Mamma’s room a few minutes ago, and I’m so glad you’ve come, for I dare not follow him!’ and without asking Ella of whom she was speaking, Mr. Stackpoole flung the door wide open and rushed into the room. No one was there. Not a chair or table displaced, and the electric light illuminating every corner of the room forbade the possibility of anyone being in hiding.
‘It is the most extraordinary thing!’ he exclaimed, wiping the perspiration of terror from his brow as he spoke ; ‘ I would not have your mother know of it for the world!’
‘Have you seen him too?’ said his daughter faintly.
‘Seen whom, child? Seen what? No, I’ve seen nothing, but I’ve heard enough to last me my lifetime. God forbid that I should hear it again!’ and he looked about the room and under the table, fairly stupefied with amazement.
‘He passed me on the stairs just as I came out of the night nursery,’ said Mrs. Beaumont anxious to tell her experience without waiting to hear her father’s. ‘A tall young man ran quickly by me dressed in a blue coat, with ruffles at the wrists and a great laced cravat, and a wig tied with a ribbon at the back. He carried a long thin sword in his hand. At first I thought it was Arthur Newton, who wore a powdered wig like his this evening, but I remembered his coat was black and he left early. When I saw his face it was a stranger’s, and he looked cruel and passionate. I followed him till I saw him go into this room and shut the door after him.’
‘Then where the devil is he now?’ said Mr. Stackpoole. ‘This is some miserable practical joke, but I’ll get to the bottom of it and be even with them yet I’ll get to the bottom of it!’ and as he spoke the door that he had taken the precaution to close burst open, and his son-in-law entered in his matador’s dress, pale and breathless, looking as if the bull had turned and given him chase.
‘Oh, George, have you seen him too?’ said his wife.
‘Did you hear anything?’ asked Mr. Stackpoole. ‘Sit down, man ; you are trembling like a leaf!’
‘There were two of them, an old man and a young man, in this room a minute ago! In God’s name, who were they, and why did not you stop them before murder was done?’ he said excitedly.
Mr. Stackpoole grew quiet and self-collected at the sight of his son-in-law’s agitation. ‘Pull yourself together, George, and tell me what you mean. There is something up to-night that needs explaining.’
‘But where are they? They were in this room, and if you were with them you must have witnessed what happened, or if you only came upstairs just now you must have met the young man leaving the room. The old man will never stir again,’ and he lifted the tablecloth and looked under the table.
‘How come you to speak confidently of who was in this room a few minutes ago, when you were downstairs all the while?’ asked Mr. Stackpoole.
‘I was smoking a cigarette in the garden after seeing the Westons off, walking on the broad path, when I looked up at Mamma’s sitting-room window and saw the shadow of two men on the blind, shown up by the electric light as clear and sharp as in a magic-lantern. I saw their profiles perfectly, but I did not know their faces. They wore wigs tied behind, and ruffles at their wrists, and the younger, taller man, as I saw by his shadow, wore a laced Steinkirk round his neck. They struggled together, and the old man grasped the young man by the throat, but he tore himself free, drew his sword, and ran him through the body. He fell below the level of the window out of my sight, and the younger man stood for a minute, wiped his sword, then moved away, and left the blind a blank sheet of white.’
‘Good God! and I heard it all in my room below the struggle and the fall, and deep groans!’ said Mr. Stackpoole.
‘And I met the young man if it was anything human and he passed me on the stairs!’ said his daughter, seizing her father by the arm. ‘Oh, Papa, Harbledon Hall is haunted; people were right about it! Do let us leave this dreadful place to-morrow!’ And the concluding notes of the sad Waldteufel waltz sighed through the house as she spoke.
Mr. Stackpoole shook his head. ‘I don’t see how that is to be done, for your mother must not be frightened. For heaven’s sake try to look as if nothing had happened. We shall be missed downstairs; I’ll go, and you two must manage to bid our guests good-night decently, and not to alarm those who remain till to-morrow. We must rouse no suspicions. George, fetch Ella a glass of champagne; it will do her good.’
‘Oh, don’t leave me alone!’ cried Mrs. Beaumont, like a frightened child.
‘Then I’ll send wine up for you both,’ said her father, ‘and mind you must follow me directly.’
Mr. Stackpoole rejoined his guests, who had not missed him, and were in the midst of the last dance with as much freshness and enjoyment as if it had been the first in the evening. At length all the guests had departed except those composing the house party, and the ladies soon retired, leaving the gentlemen to have a smoke in the billiard-room.
‘You don’t look very well, Beaumont,’ said a young man dressed as a Tyrolean peasant, as he lit a cigar and looked up at his friend’s pale face.
‘It’s nothing, only waltzing makes me giddy,’ and he mixed himself some brandy and soda.
One by one the guests bade good-night and left the room, till there only remained Mr. Stackpoole, his son-in-law, and Mr. Liston, a gentleman with very long legs, wearing tights to display them to advantage.
‘Did your father-in-law know when he took Harbledon Hall that it was supposed to be haunted?’ he said in a low voice to Mr. Beaumont. Mr. Stackpoole happened to hear the question, and replied to it himself.
‘We heard some foolish gossip on the subject, for of course no place stands empty so long without legends being invented to account for the fact. But I am not the man to listen to vulgar chatter. I took the house, and have been highly delighted with it.’ And Mr. Beaumont could only admire his father-in-law’s admirable self-possession.
‘Just so, and the electric light is the true cure for the supposed supernatural. Of course you know how suddenly Sir Roland Shawe left the place?’
‘Oh, yes, we’ve heard all about that,’ said Mr. Stackpoole, forcing a laugh.
‘Do you know I doubt whether you have ever heard all about it; at least, if you have, you must be a cheerful sort of person if you can laugh at it,’ said Mr. Liston.
‘Why, of course, the whole thing was a foolish practical joke. Something connected with a magic-lantern, if I remember rightly.’
‘Magic-lantern! I never even heard the word mentioned. No; if you care to hear the truth about it, I think I can tell it you. I’ve lived in the county all my life, and I know the story of Harbledon Hall by heart. I only wonder you don’t. I should not tell you now if I thought it would make you nervous; but since you’ve put in the electric light and done up the house in such cheerful modern style the whole place is changed and anyone might enjoy living here.’
‘Let us hear the story,’ said Mr. Stackpoole abruptly.
‘I see I’ve roused your curiosity. The story goes that some hundred and fifty years ago there lived in this house a certain father and son who hated one another like the devil, and it is needless to say that there was a woman in the case and a fortune at stake. The old man must have been an uncommonly bad lot, and he is said to have grossly insulted the young lady his son was about to marry, having in the first instance proposed to her himself and been refused. The two men had a deadly quarrel about it in this very house, and the upshot was that the son, mad with passion, ran his father through the heart and killed him on the spot. There, I sha’n’t say anything more about it if it is too much for you,’ said Mr. Liston, struck by the white faces before him.
‘Go on, go on,’ said Mr. Stackpoole.
‘Well, one winter’s night, now eight years ago, as Sir Roland Shawe was coming home late, walking across the garden, he looked up at the window of a room on the first floor where a light was burning, and he saw on the blind, in clear outline, the shadows of the old man and his son struggling together, and he saw the young man run his father through the body with his rapier.’
‘I cannot bear it ! I cannot bear it!’ said Greorge Beaumont, pale as death and looking ready to faint.
‘You could but say that if you had seen the grim shadows yourself. It certainly is a horrid story, and though I can’t say that I believe in ghosts myself, I can offer no explanations of the details I have given you. Sir Roland believed it, and he was a clear-headed, matter-of-fact sortof person. Other members of his family, too, saw and heard unaccountable things that night. One of his sons who was sitting up late for his father met the shadow of an evil-looking fellow dressed in a blue coat and wearing a powdered tie-wig, hurrying along an upper passage, carrying a naked rapier in his hand. And Lady Shawe was waked by a sound in the room next hers, which was the room where the shadows were seen on the blind a sound of struggling and upsetting of chairs, followed by a heavy fall and deep groans. Now, if only one person had thought that he had heard or seen unaccountable things, Sir Roland would have made the best of it and stayed on at Harbledon Hall; but, by Jove! when three rational beings are each an eye or ear witness it becomes intolerable! Whether you believe in ghosts or not, you can’t put up with a thing like that!’
‘By Heaven, you can’t, that’s true!’ said Mr. Stackpoole, wiping his moist brow. ‘And now, Liston, that you have told me this, I’ll tell you something in return. I and my family leave Harbledon Hall to-morrow for the precise reason that drove Sir Roland Shawe out of it eight years ago.’
‘As sure as I am alive we leave here to-morrow! I must find some reason for our sudden flight, but go we must, and I cannot have my wife alarmed.’
‘I would not spend another night in the house for the world!’ said Beaumont.
‘But, my dear Mr. Stackpoole, I hope that nothing that I have said leads you to make this extraordinary resolution. Your imagination is excited by what you have heard; there cannot possibly be any cause why you should leave this charming place that you have just fitted up to your own taste,’ said Mr. Listen soothingly.
‘The story you have told us has only helped to explain what we already know. I tell you that this very night, not a couple of hours ago, in the blaze of the electric light and with the house full of company, Beaumont, my daughter, and myself have seen and heard the sights and sounds that drove Sir Roland Shawe out of Harbledon Hall; and we leave to-morrow or rather to-day, for it is nearly six o’clock now never to spend another night under this accursed roof!’ and Mr. Stackpoole’s voice shook as he spoke. ‘I have only to request,’ he added, ‘that you will treat this communication as strictly confidential, for neither Beaumont nor I shall care to speak or to be spoken to about what has occurred to-night.’
Where was Mr. Stackpoole’s intelligent curiosity on the subject of ghosts, and what had become of his courage? The one had been satisfied and the other daunted, and he had not the slightest desire to remain and investigate the mystery.
At late breakfast Mrs. Stackpoole was shocked by the appearance of her family. It would have been difficult to say wldch was most pale and haggard her husband, her daughter, or her son-in-law. They made the poor excuse that late hours did not suit them and that dancing knocked them up, and she told them that they looked like very young children who had been to their first pantomime the night before. When the last guest was gone Mrs. Stackpoole saw that there was something seriously disturbing her husband, and was at a loss to account for his changed humour.
‘My dear, we will go up to town this afternoon with George and Ella,’ he said with quick decision.
‘Impossible,’ replied his wife, calmly. ‘You, of course, can go if you like, but I really cannot.’
‘Oh, do come with us, Mamma! You know how much Papa wishes it,’ said her daughter.
‘Yes, do come with us,’ urged her son-in-law with unwonted ardour; ‘it is so long since we met,’ forgetting that they had spent the last month together.
Mrs. Stackpoole laughed. ‘There is evidently some deep-laid plot among you three to hurry me off. Well, if you will be any the happier for my coming with you I’ll do so, though it is most inconvenient to leave home in this sudden way,’ said the good- tempered lady.
And they travelled up to London that day, never to return to Harbledon Hall. Mr. Stackpoole so managed that his wife did not know his real reason for giving up the most charming house they had ever lived in. He preferred that she should attribute it to his restlessness and caprice, anything rather than that her nerves should be shaken by hearing the truth.
He consulted a fashionable physician, first giving him a hint that he wished to be ordered off to the South of France immediately, and the hint being taken, he told his long-suffering wife that Dr. Blank had recommended him to go abroad at once, and in two days they were en route for Marseilles.
Mrs. Stackpoole was accustomed to her husband’s impulsive, angular movements, so that it did not greatly disturb her; but when a week later he said that he had decided to give up Harbledon Hall, and to look for a place somewhere in the eastern counties which were as yet untrodden ground to him, she shed tears of present disappointment and prospective fatigue. When the much-enduring lady had dried her eyes and her husband had enumerated to her in detail every reason but the real one for which he was leaving their beautiful home, she said, ‘My dear, if I did not know better, I should be forced to believe you too had seen the ghost that frightened Sir Roland Shawe out of
Harbledon Hall eight years ago!’
Louisa Baldwin (1845 — 1925)