The Derrington Ghost
by Elizabeth Robins
Printed in The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920).
Hypertext edition is copyrighted Joanne E. Gates and is based on the collected edition in The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920). Pages 51-91.
page 51 [A previous publication is in Harper's, August 1911.]
EVERYBODY was sorry when old Mr. Atherel had to give up Derrington. "Everybody" had known for years that he couldn't really afford to live there. But everybody was equally of opinion that for an Atherel to live anywhere else was an unthinkable proposition.
Why this was held to be so, and why people should recoil from seeing a hale and hearty person make the attempt, might have puzzled a stranger to that remote corner of Sussex.
For nobody pretended that John Atherel was, or even had been, a public benefactor, or even a moderately good neighbour. He was freely admitted to be a bad-tempered old gentleman with a supposed liking for books, and an undoubted liking for solitude and good wine.
Not even the faculty owning such genial associations--connoisseurship in the matter of vintages--not even that had mellowed the crudities of the old man's character. Nor, before becoming himself financially involved, had he been the man to go to if you were in a tight place. No, he cared nothing at all
about you or your perplexities. All he asked of you, demanded rather, was that you should let him alone. Generation after generation of his neighbours had done this--with the result that one of the most beautiful examples of fifteenth-century domestic architecture in all England was tumbling about the ears of a choleric recluse who drank port laid down in 1815 and dozed away such hours as were not rendered wakeful by cursing at chance callers.
In these days of real and feigned concern for the relics of antiquity, the least enlightened farm-hand who lounged at the bar of the "Goat and Compasses" could not escape knowing there was something about Derrington that made people come long distances and beg for a glimpse of it. The people of Sussex pride themselves on their astuteness. They smiled at the pretence that middle-aged men in their right minds had come there solely to look at a "Hiding Hole," a fireback, a staircase and hall. You couldn't take in Sussex folk by pretending anything was explained by saying that priests had made use of the Hiding Hold, that the fireback had been cast by Leonard Gale, that the oak in Derrington Hall was "good Elizabethan."
The circumstances of these features being so much more a matter of faith than of sight was due to the owner's passion of dislike to letting even the most highly accredited have a look at his house. To catch one of his own
neighbours so much as peeping at the outside across the overgrown shrubberies would send Mr. Atherel into a rage that found vent in certain full-bodied phrases of condemnation bearing the stamp of a sturdier age.
Wherein, then, the stranger might well ask--wherein lay the practical, least of all the ethical, ground for this desire on the part of the gentry, yeomen, and villagers alike to see Mr. Atherel left undisturbed at Derrington?
The enquiring stranger will be told: "That's Sussex." He may extract from the more articulate an explanation that, in this remote corner of old England, even the least historically minded are ready with a meed of indulgent affection, of sturdy loyalty, to those whose sole claim to consideration is their gift of continuance. Mere failure to pay interest upon a figment "mortgage"--that was less justification for turning out a man who had "always lived there" than was his failure to patch the crumbling walls. Yet those neighbours John Atherel had flouted and cursed would tell you roundly that "th' owd man was crumblin' too. Let 'en alone."
Beyond doubt Mr. Atherel would have been let alone longer but for the local parson's indiscretion. Some said, boldly, but for his most unchristian revenge. The villagers had not forgotten how, in his adventurous young days, the Rev. Mr. Lewknor--with as much daring as mistaken zeal--had gone to Derring-
ton to ask Mr. Atherel why he did not come to church. For he had gone to church, now and then, in the time of Mr. Lewknor's predecessor. Report, through the mouth of a servant, said that Mr. Atherel had fallen upon the parson with fury. Why did he not come to church? Because, the only time that Mr. Atherel had gone traveling abroad, the fools in charge of the affairs of Derrington Church had taken such base advantage of his absence that he was determined they should have it for good and all. Behind his back they had ruined the church. "Perhaps you say 'restored.' I say gutted! Call it a church? A bare hole, no whit better now than any damned Dissenters' chapel."
Mr. Lewknor protested that all that had unhappily occurred under his predecessor . . . but St. Giles's was still the house of God.
"House of newfangled idiots," stormed Mr. Atherel. "You come and ask me why I don't go there?--you haven't got a place for a gentleman to sit in!"
Mr. Lewknor answered him that, though the old high pews were, alas! done away with, there were nevertheless "places"--too many of them empty. It was therefore--Mr. Atherel's undoubted influence--
"I said a place for a gentleman!" roared Atherel. "If you want to see me there, go and find my pew--you'll know it by the brass
scutcheon with the Atherel arms, and the fireplace in the corner. You'll know it by its being too high for any Paul Pry to see over. When you can come and tell me the Atherel pew is back in its place, maybe an Atherel will come and sit in it--for there's the key to lock the door!" He had pointed to a piece of ancient warded iron, half as long as the poker, and fully as thick round.
And Mr. Lewknor was forced to realize that this parishioner would never sit in a pew into which he might not lock himself as his forebears had done--sitting out of sight, dozing and toasting their toes.
The villagers had no doubt but that Mr. Lweknor had nursed his discomfiture all those years. Out of sheer revenge he had written for the Sussex Archæological that silly interfering article about Derrington --setting in motion the silly interfering people who had come pestering to be shown thngs which were nobody's business but just John Atherel's. When the wrote letters asking permission to see the carved oak of the great hall, the owner simply put their requests in the fire. When persons, forgetting that an Englishman's house is his castle, ignorant in spite of archæological papers that Derrington was built not only for shelter, but for defence against intruders--when such folk drove up to the door and made assault upon the rusty bell, then it was that Massing, the
butler, would tremblingly take his stand between two fires. The besiegers would be met with: "Very sorry, sir: it is never allowed." "No, madam, on no account." More unnerving the fusillade from out the gloom of the famous hall, those dark mumblings and consignments to the devil. Thus directed, the visitors would take their departure.
Though he had sat so many years sipping wine, and turning pages, while his house fell to decay, John Atherel beyond question had always cared for Derrington. These repeated assaults upon his privacy made him yet more jealous in ownership. His few, and as time went on still fewer, servants saw him wandering about the house, hawk-nosed, his white locks lying on his collar, the bushy eyebrows bristling terribly at sight or sound of a stranger--pausing now and then, head on one side, hands crossed on stick, the dimming eye fixed on some detail of Sussex iron or upon that Elizabethan panelling he was so determined other folk should never see--so help him Heaven!
And Heaven did help him. Heaven, and an ally of pure British breed.
Mr. Atherel checkmated the hungry antiquarians, the swarms of artistic ladies. He installed a bulldog at Derrington.
That was ten years ago.
The bulldog was still there.
But so was the motor-car. The advent of this device had left no corner of England free from invasion. To the English intruder, learned or "artistic," was added now the casual tripper and the determined tourist. Worst of all, the ubiquitous American. A being incapable of understanding "no," denying proper respect even to bulldogs. Type and sign of the conspiracy against the Past, the American "commercial spirit" made merchandise of ancient sanctities. He bought historic association as he would buy prize bulls.
He paid for his audacity by becoming the object of Mr. Atherel's most vitriolic rage.
The fist appearance of bailiffs on the scene was made bearable, almost genial, to the owner of Derrington by reason of several recent encounters with Goths and Vandals from overseas. The bailiffs were got rid of. Derrington was erroneously supposed to be stuffed with portable treasures. The general belief was that some picture or piece of ancient plate was sold from time to time, to pay the interest due on the mortgage. Massing said no. He knew the bare old place from attics to cellars. Nothing had gone out of the house. Few things indeed made the master so unmanageable as a suggestion that he should part with one of the few Derrington heirlooms. A man may fall behind in the matter of a mortgage, but to go hawking odds and ends, like an old parish granny pledging her spoons for a pound
of tea--anybody who thought John Atherel would stoop to that sort of thing could never have heard of the experience of Mrs. Jennie Hathersage Dawkins, of Poughkeepsie, New York.
Derrington village rang all one autumn with the news of the American lady in the splendid Panhard car who had forced her way past Massing and bearded Mr. Atherel in the Hall. He told her what he thought of her. The amazing lady had smiled. "You do go with this dear, grim old place," she said. Mr. Atherel had thrown the punch-bowl at her. She dodged, picked it up, caught sight of the hall-mark, and only then it was she screamed. "I'll give you a thousand pounds for this!" Mr. Atherel had himself lent Massing a hand in turning the female vandal out. But Mr. Atherel had never been the same since.
Although those first bailiffs had somehow been got rid of, they had been birds of evil omen. After them the vulture agents. The estate dealers had had their eye on Derrington for years.
"Did they really think it was enough to get old Atherel out?" There wasn't man, woman or child in the parish who could not have told them that nobody who lacked the qualification of being an Atherel would ever be able to live at Derrington.
Why? To less difficult questions your
true Sussex man will decline to make direct answer.
If not an Atherel--then no one. The old house must stand empty. "That is to say, empty but for--"
"Well, just let 'en try it." The sly Sussex laughter--nearly noiseless, a grimmer thing than frowning--would deepen to a gravity you might try in vain to probe.
Even after the bailiffs were temporarily dislodged, those notorious fabulists the estate agents went on pretending that anybody who was well enough off to "do up" Derrington might live there in peace and happiness.
They even thought George Washington Oxenbridge might!
For those unpatriotic scamps of agents had not hesitated to put themselves in communication with foreigners. Derrington was just the place, they said, for an American with means and a taste for the antique. Photographs and copious extracts from Mr. Lewknor's article in the Sussex Archæological Series, being despatched across the Atlantic, clinched the business. In the brisk way of those poeple who know what they want and say so, instead of chaffering for months, the American client had cabled:--
"Buy instantly. Draw on Brown Shipley, Saling Celtonia to-morrow.
The creature expected to be put in possession on arrival! The Piccadilly agent spent a friutless day at Derrington trying to get speech of Mr. Atherel. By evening the entire parish had heard of the audacious Oxenbridge. Mr. Lewknor, shaking his head, had said it was inevitable that Derrington should soon pass into other hands. In that case, the postmaster thought it just as well that the brunt of the outrage should be borne by one of those purse-proud Americans. Mr. Woolgar, the grocer, thought it mightn't be bad for business. But Blakiston, the farrier, was doubtful. A motorful of persons of that dubious nationality had given Blakiston's little boy three farthings for opening a gate. The schoolmistress was especially severe. "They are always coming over here and buying up the stately homes of our old nobility!--if they can't get them given to their daughters along with the eldest sons. It was time something was done. Make an example of Oxenbridge!"
That gentleman, flying through London, alighted an instant at the agents'.
"Papers all in order?" he asked, taking out his "stylo."
The agents explained a little--a very little--of the situation.
"Well, why wait?"
"If you knew Mr. Atherel--"
Well, he had no objection to knowing Mr.
Atherel. He would run down and call on the old gentleman.
All that the parish knew of that visit was that George Washington Oxenbridge, a pleasant-seeming, rather good-looking young man about thirty, had bearded the lion in his den and reappeared, sobered, rueful, silent.
All the agents knew was that Mr. Oxenbridge paid them for their trouble (which wasn't customary), and withdrew from the negotiation.
No, he wouldn't explain. He guessed Derrington wasn't what he wanted.
So the agents had to begin all over again. And they did so, since--if there are creatures more abandoned than Americans prowling round to pounce upon the treasures of old England, if, I say, there are, in the nether Dantean circles, souls more surely damned--they are without doubt the dealers in real estate.
Mr. Atherel lived those last months in a state of siege. It would be a story by itself to tell the tragedy of the final sale and of John Atherel's last hours as master of Derrington.
His neighbours had hardly recovered from their rejoicing over the rout of George Washington Oxenbridge when the heard that Derrington had been disposed of to Mr. Joseph Benskin--a Liverpudlian of great
wealth. The Benskin, in fact, whose Pegasus motor-bicycles are in use from China to Peru.
And John Atherel! Where, how, was he going to live? Nobody coulnd find out. But everyone agreed that he would refuse to let the motor-bicycle man have any single object that could be removed from the house. Furniture, pictures, plate, bit by bit, out of some meaner dwelling they would later go to buy bread for the last of the Atherels.
To everyone's amazement the old gentleman, after a fit of maniacal fury, recovered himself sufficiently to instruct his solicitor to make the sale and the desired "early possession." contingent upon the motor magnate's taking over the contents of the house! Benskin must, moreover, agree in writing not to sell the movables unless he also sold the house. Though John Atherel had lost them, Derrington was to keep for a while its few old treasures. These formalities being arranged, Mr. Atherel, disdainful, silent, was ready to take his leave.
Would he come and stay a while at Scraes? asked Lord Peverel. No, he wouldn't. "Let me lend you Clunbury Manor for the winter," suggested Sir William Quin.
"Massing," was Mr. Atherel's rejoinder, "look up the London trains. I'll take the last on Monday night."
The last would get him there too late, Massing ventured. "It don't leave till nine-fifteen, sir."
That was the train for John Atherel. So he departed, wrapped in the kind of suffering rage that keeps the sympathetic, equally with the curious, at bay. The old butler, who had played up nobly by refusing to stay and take care of the motor-man--even he was told to put his master's valise down on the platform and "Go--go!"
The often-described parting had not been at Derrington Station. Everyone understood why the old master did not want to take his departure amid the pitying glances of porters and people he had known all their lives. He was leaving from the new station on the branch line. Massing told a hundred times how the last he saw of him on that stormy March night Mr. Atherel was standing alone in the driving rain on a platform deserted even by the station functionaries. It was twenty minutes before the train was due. Yet there he stood, doggedly waiting in the rain.
In the inn parlour, in cottage and hall, people talked as if the lateness of the hour, the very wind and the rain, were intensely to the discredit of Mr. Benskin. "Only wait!--"
Not long, as it turned out. Benskin, quite a friendly, inoffensive little man, came down with his family to spend Easter.
Just to camp, you know," he said to the Rev. Mr. Lewknor. "Of course there's a lot to be done before we could live there. But
just to camp-- You know. The Simple Life."
They brought eighteen servants and three motor-cars.
They had not been at Derrington twenty-four hours before the second footman and two maids left without warning or wages.
On the third day an agitatied French governess and two young children took tickets for Brighton.
"Do you require return, madam?" asked the stationmaster, in his grand manner.
"Non! non! P-pas de retour," stuttered the French lady.
In and out of Derrington during the Benskin residence swept a continuous double stream--domestics leaving, domestics arriving--only to depart with an unexplained alacrity.
The villagers would report: "Another lot off this marnin'!" and the slow smile would go round. With that pleasant Sussex guile the countryside would ask: "What d'ye think's makin' 'em so uneasy like?"
Mrs. Benskin said it was the horrible inconvenience of these old houses. "Servants nowadays--"
Mistresses, too, appeared to have grown restless. At the end of the first week Mrs. Benskin went to spend a day or two with her sister. Her two elder daughters accompanied her. None of them returned to Derrington. They had left the third girl, Angela, to keep
Mr. Benskin company. Not that he needed company. The cheerful little man, whose rotundity of figure ws so at variance with the sharpness of his nose and the energy of his movements, bustled about all day with architects and builders. He sat all evening over plans and specifications. He told Mr. Lewknor that the house was ridiculously planned. "Why, we make out there's a waste space eight feet wide between the dining-room and the hall. Room for a downstaris bath-room. Another in the powder-closet upstairs." Miss Angela remarked she had selected the muniment chamber for her boudoir. Mr. Benskin broke in upon the parson's anxious enquiry as to the fate of the muniment chests. He demanded jovially if the antiquarian fellas had ever found out where people in the old days had put their guests, or even their own servants. It beat Mr. Benskin to discover how anybody who was anybody had ever contrived to live in those old Elizabethan houses. He spoke as if such dwellings were as plentiful as rough-cast cottages. Mr. Lewknor urged desperately that Derrington had been held worthy to offer hospitality to kings in the old days.
"Yes, yes, I know. The standard of comfort has changed. It may have done for Charles II, but I'm blessed if it will do for me. We entertain a great deal. The house I built at Seccombe Park has thirty-seven
bedrooms." He showed poor Mr. Lewknor the plans for the new Derrington wing.
"And wh-what is this?" stammered the parson.
"Ah, that plan is going to make the biggest difference of all." Benskin told with gusto how the great draughty hall was to be turned into a fine modern kitchen and servants' offices.
"It--it isn't possible," gasped Lewknor. "You can't sacrifice that magnificent panelling."
"How could you think I would?" said Benskin. "My orders are, it is to receive every care."
"The 'care' of boot-boys and scullions!" groaned Mr. Lewknor.
"You misunderstand me." Mr. Benskin drew his pendulous chin back against his collar with an air of offended dignity. "I take too great interest in history, and all that style of thing, to leave panelling worth hundreds of pounds a foot to servants. There's enough here"-- he glanced round with narrowed, calculating eyes-- "enough for the greater part of the new wing."
Mr. Lewknor clutched the arms of his chair and swallowed rapidly. "It--it is twice the height of any modern room."
"That's better than if it was too short," said little Benskin, cheerily. "Easy to cut it down a bit."
"C-cut those carved pilasters--!" Lewknor raised his eyes toward the cornice as though in appeal for supernatural intervention. And not in vain. "You forget," he came back, with an inspiration," you did not realize--(the light is not very good)--"
"Quite right! Electric--"
"No, no, in Heaven's name! You have not observed, sir, there are inscriptions underneath the cornice."
"Oh, yes, we shall just take them round the new drawing-room as far as our space allows--"
"Chop up the inscriptions!"
"Chop them up? No, no, not 'chop.' Just divide them. Oh, we've calculated very carefully--I'll show you!--" Benskin hopped up on a chair and perched there like the plumpest of stumpy young starlings, very round in front, and sleek in the back, short in the leg, and thick in the neck, an enquiring beak lifted to the worm-pitted upper reaches of the oak. "Starting from the door, the new dining-room will take it in to here."
Mr. Lewknor rose. All the ancient authority of his holy office clothed the dignity of his protestant form. "You cannot 'take in' Flagrantior œquo non debet dolor without adding esse viri nec vulnere major."
"Just come and see, when it's all done, my dear sir!" little Bensking soothed and patronized.
Lewknor stumbled out of the presence, full of a dumb wretchedness that only before his daughter Persis broke forth into speech.
"If Mr. Atherel knew what I know, he would--I verily believe he would murder Joseph Benskin."
Nobody but Miss Lewknor ever knew how it happened that George Washington Oxenbridge got wind of what had taken place since he had obliged Mr. Atherel by not buying Derrington. In the midst of the gossip that retailed the doings of the motor magnate--how he had confessed to moments of fearing that all he could do to the old barrack might not suffice to make a fit abode for Benskins--down from the skies drops Mr. Oxenbridge, of Iowa.
He made instant friends with Miss Benskin.
"Ah," said Lewknor.
"No, father," returned little Miss Persis, gravely, "I don't think so."
But what could so young a girl know about it?
Behind closed doors the two men sat one on each side of a writing-table, in the small Gothic antechamber, which gave access to the Hall.
Nothing, said Mr. Benskin, absolutely no other consideration in the world, could have induced him to entertain Mr. Oxenbridge's proposal to take over Derrington--nothing
short of a concern for Mrs. Benskin's health.
She was not well here?
"Oh, pefectly," said Benskin, hurriedly--that is, she isn't very well anywhere. And she takes likes and dislikes. Women are like that."
Yes, it was the same in Iowa.
They were getting on.
Mr. Benskin crossed his stumpy lets and confessed that he was weak--little as Mr. Oxenbridge might think it, he was positively weak in his dealings with his womenfolk. The truth was, he said, Mrs. Benskin had never cared for Derrington. She liked things cosy. It was Mr. Benskin who had the large ideas--witness Seccombe Park with thirty-seven bedrooms. Beside Seccombe, Derrington was positively poky. He caught himself up. It was, of course, "a very fine specimen"-- he quoted glibly from the agent's advertisement. Mr. Benskin had a great feeling for history and all that style of thing. The rats didn't trouble him. Neither did-- He pulled himself up. He still liked Derrington. But better even than history, embodied in sixteenth-century architecture, Mr. Benskin liked pleasing his womenfolk. Out of mere good-natured indulgence he was ready to resell Derrington, lock, stock and barrel--at a handsome profit--to Mr. Oxenbridge.
He betrayed some haste in the matter of
final formalities. He wanted to motor Mr. Oxenbridge to London that very afternoon. Mr. Oxenbridge thought it a little late. Besides, he didn't mind spending a night in Derrington. Whereupon Mr. Benskin became queerly nervous, not to say jumpy. He stuttered excuses. With Mrs. Benskin away--he was afraid he could not offer hospitality. But Oxenbridge said that was all right, he would go to the "Goat and Compasses." Queer people, the Americans! Here was a rich man ready "to put up at a pub" just because, having asked Miss Lewknor what the goat wanted with compasses, she had explained that the name was a corruption of God encompasseth us.
Although he did actually stay the night at the inn, Mr. Oxenbridge dined luxuriously with the Benskins. The host talked wines. He complained that he had imagined in getting Derrington he was getting a cellar. Not a blessed bottle. Had the wine appeared in the inventory? Oxenbridge asked. "No, but I had heard about it. I took for granted it was still here."
Oxenbridge smiled. "Forgotten."
"Well, it hadn't been forgotten." Old Atherel had either drunk it all or got it sent off in secret. The fact that it belonged to the late owner seemed not, in Mr. Benskin's eyes, to excuse his having disposed of it. The party adjourned to the little antechamber
after dinner, the hall being, in Miss Angela's opinion, too cold and cheerless.
Neither epithet could with justice have been applied to the young lady. Her warmth and her vivacity seemed to indicate that the stranger had favourably impressed her. Indeed, she flirted with him rather more unreservedly even than was her custom with respect to well-off, good-looking young men, because she opined that a coming-on disposition was hat he--being an American--would be used to in young ladies.
Returning, as agreed, the next morning to meet Benskin and Benskin's solicitor, Oxenbridge found Miss Angela standing by the fire in the Gothic antechamber, dressed to go out. She started as the door opened. Oxenbridge had an odd feeling that the heavy-eyed young woman with the enormous hat, and the distrait manner, was not Miss Angela at all, but someone else.
"Oh," she said awkwardly, "I--I thought it was father."
"Why, then, had the scared look come into her face? Oxenbridge wondered if Benskin was as "weak" as he'd made out, in his relations with his womenkind.
"He won't be long," she said.
"You're not going out this pouring day," returned the visitor, holding a chilled hand over the fire.
Yes, she was going to Brighton as soon as her father got back with the only chauffeur. "I ought to have gone with mamma and the girls!" she said.
Oxenbridge protested that had she done so he would have been deprived of the pleasure--but all Miss Angela's facile familiarity had evaporated overnight. She fixed him almost sternly with her boiled-gooseberry eyes. "Have you bought this place?" she demanded.
"Could you get out of it now if you wanted to?"
"No, not even if I wanted to, which I don't."
"Are you sure it's quite settled?"
Without confessing that he had been hustled, Oxenbridge told her he considered the purchase made. But why did she ask that? Did she so regret leaving?
"No, no. I'm fed up with Derrington!" Then, glancing nervously about, she said in a burst: "How long father is! The train must be late."
"In such a hurry to leave Derrington--and me!" said Oxenbridge, laughing.
"Not you exactly!" (Heavens, she was trembling!) "But--I don't know if I ought to tell you."
Oxenbridge looked as if he didn't know either. The young woman was certainly being a little "queer."
She decided for herself. "No, I can't."
Oxenbridge reflected. "What's it about?"
Miss Angela, without turning away from the fire, flung one hand out backward. "This place," she said, comprehensively.
"Oh, if it's about Derrington, you've simply got to tell me." He came nearer. He smiled that beguiling smile of his.
"No, father wouldn't like it--"
"I shan't tell father--"
Poor Angela faltered. "Do you know why I'm here at all?"
"Because my lucky star is in the ascendant," the young man proclaimed, unblushingly.
"Listen!" She sunk her voice and came so close she could lay her hand on his arm. "I'm here because I'm the brave one." Oxenbridge stared. She gripped his sleeve. "But I wouldn't stay another night for ten thousand pounds."
"Because--" she looked round apprehensively. "Heavens!" Her voice sank. "That idiot footman has left the door open!"
It occurred to Oxenbridge to wonder if the indulgent Benskin could be lurking behind them there in the great hall.
"Go on," he urged, softly.
Speechelss, she shook the dangles on her
huge hat. Her eyes seemed unable to leave the open door.
"You were going to tell me. You must," and he caught the hand she was withdrawing from his arm.
"No, no. Father would kill me--" And then, to Oxenbridge's bewilderment, "Shut the door," she whispered. He hastened to obey. As he leaned across the threshold for the handle of the door he glanced into the hall, and gave a sudden cry.
Miss Benskin stifled a scream and put her hands over her eyes. "Shut it. Shut it quick."
But Oxenbridge stood rooted.
"He never told me he had begun to tear down the panelling."
"Oh, that," said Miss Angela, and raised her head. As Oxenbridge did not return to her, Miss Benskin, seeming unable to endure solitude, moved to the door and looked in. No wonder she shivered. The gloom and chill of the day had invaded the high dim spaces. She joined Oxenbridge, who stood staring at the detached panel. "It's easily put back," she said. Sudddenly her limp figure stiffened. Oxenbridge himself winced under the clutch she fastened on his arm. "Look there!" Her eyes were riveted on a silver punch-bown, the only object on a low black wine-cupboard.
"What of it?" demanded Oxenbridge.
"It's back again," she breathed.
She nodded. Then, clinging to Oxenbridge, she poured out: "I put it on my own little table again yesterday--full of roses. Each time I do it, he--somebody puts it back."
"Father? No, no, no--"
"One of the servants--"
"They wouldn't dream-- They notice, too. If they change the place of any mortal thing, they always find it put back when they come down in the morning. I told you I'm the brave one. Three times I've tride using that bowl for flowers. He won't have it."
Leading the way back to the little room, Oxenbridge tried to reassure her. She had no doubt meant to put the roses in the bowl, and had forgotten. Through the chill, grey spaces a shriek rang. Oxenbridge turned in a flash, to see his companion's face distorted, hideous with fear.
"What is it?" He seized her by the shoulder.
Her lips mammered, uttering no recognizable word, but one hand pointed at the floor. There in the shadow, behind a section of detached wainscot, was something bright. Spots of brilliant red. Oxenbridge stooped. "It isn't blood, only flowers," he said.
"'Only'!" echoed Miss Angela, clinging to him. "It's my hothouse roses flung away--bruised, trodden on."
The sound of a motor-car, driving up, seemed to help her to regain self-possession. "Good-bye," she said, hurriedly, at the ante-room door, in a voice loud enough for her father to hear. "We shall be at the Metropole for a week at least. Come over and tell us how you--" a little shiver ran through the thin body. "I think you'd like the Metropole."
Life, which for so long had gone unchanged at Derrington, had become kaleidoscopic. Mr. Benskin had vanished. The architectural advisers, the small army of brand-new servants, and imported workmen--they had melted away more completely than the Atherels, since they had at least left Derrington for a sign. This new horde left but a wreck behind. With a daring more apparent than real, Oxenbridge supervised local workmen in putting back the wainscot and removing the last vestiges of the brief reign of Benskin. A talk with Massing resulted in the old butler's consenting to return-- "as a tempery arrangement."
"You see, I want the old things in the old places," the new master had said. "You know how they used to be."
Oh yes. Massing knew.
Massing's granddaughter, also a "tempery accommodation," came to cook; and two of the Burtenshaws on the same terms
discharged the duties of parlour- and house-maids. While they tidied the house Mr. Oxenbridge would be in London for a few days.
The village had bee kept well informed of every phase of the Derrington fortunes. Public feeling had veered round. Mr. Oxenbridge was held to have certain qualities--yes, he was a free-handed young gentleman.
Chipperfield, the stationmaster, very dignified, not to say imposing, in his bemedalled uniform, stood on the platform with his peaked cap drawn over his clear blue eyes, and watched the new master of Derrington pace the platform waiting for the 5.20 train. Mr. Chipperfield, in spite of his military mustachios, snow-white and gleaming like spun glass--in spite of a martial manner and an imposing precision of speech, Chipperfiled was a sentimentalist. He had been visibly melted by Massing's account of the piety of Mr. Oxenbridge's attitude towards Derrington. The stationmaster stood contemplating the interloper with an air of benevolent pity. Oxenbridge glanced up in passing, caught the look, and paused.
He had talked with Chipperfield more than once and delighted in him. "Well, Mr. Stationmaster," said the American, in his boyish way, "I'm coming back for good next week."
"For good, sir?" said Chipperfield, doubtfully.
"You don't say that as if you were glad." The interloper was smiling in the most cheerful way in the world.
Chipperfield glanced up and down the deserted platform. "I don't know as I ought to be--not to say glad, sir."
"On your account. Thank you, sir." He took the cigar, and added in a confidential tone, "I hope you'll be comfortable, sir."
"You say that as if you were dead certain I wasn't going to be!" Oxenbridge's laugh had jarred on the stationmaster. He glanced about, but nobody was in sight. He stroked his white mustachios and said magnificently, "My brother and his wife will be pleased at any time to see you again at the 'Compasses.'"
Oxenbridge stared. "Oh, that's very good of them--"
"They express their intention of keeping the best room in readiness."
"What for?" said Oxenbridge, holding a match at the end of a fresh cigar. Thomas Chipperfield did not answer at once. "There's some mistake. I didn't order any room."
"No, sir. I know. But I may say they'll have a room ready in case--"
Oxenbridge stared. "They think the servants won't stay?"
"It's not the servants, sir, this time."
"You think I won't stay?"
"Well, sir," he spoke with extreme pre-
ciseness, "I could not--so to say--advise it."
Oxenbridge looked at him without speaking.
"You'd better tell me why."
Chipperfield glanced over his shoulder, ostensibly at the station clock. "I must attend to my duties," he said. But all the same he lingered to add, "You know, I presume, sir, that Mrs. Benskin was taken very bad after she got there."
"What was the matter?"
Chipperfield shook his head. His blue eyes darted about the empty platform and came back to Oxenbridge. "She tried one thing and another." Again the head-shake. "At last"-- he came nearer-- "at last, sir, she was obliged to retrench into her own compartments."
"Oh," said Oxenbridge, biting his lips. "Well, if I'm taken bad I'll retrench into my compartments."
"Nobody can stand it long, sir."
"Look here, Chipperfield. Stand what?"
"Lord, you don't say so!"
"They all get it at Derrington."
The signal dropped. Upon which, rightabout, quick march, Mr. Chipperfield beat a dignified retreat.
Massing brought in an excellent dinner on the night of the new master's return. But
Mr. Oxenbridge was too much pleased at finding himself installed, far too delighted and excited, to waste much time in eating. He disturbed Massing's sense of fitness by cutting the meal short in order to resume his wandering from room to room.
Beautiful with a strange new beauty the place looked, shining in the light of a forest of wax candles. The new master had a feeling of never having seen the real Derrington before. He laid the blame of this upon the Benskins, the workmen, and the general muddle. He had not fathomed yet the shyness, the jealously in a certain sort of beauty. You shall not see it all in any company. Come alone, come unencumbered, receptive, reverent, and then--perhaps. A house with a soul will not stand and deliver at command. It withholds its finer quality till the hour of its choice.
At ten o'clock he rang and told Massing to lock the doors and go to bed.
While the old man mended the fire Oxenbridge sat down near a little pile of books which he had brought from London that evening--faded second-hand volumes of the Sussex Archæological Collections.
Massing asked if Mr. Oxenbridge would require anything to eat before going to bed. He seemed scarce satisfied with "No." When he came in with the bedroom candle he re-
marked that he had put a few sandwiches on the sideboard.
Oxenbridge sat turning over leaves, coming on the name of Atherel with a sense of meeting friends and allies, getting the fine threads of relationship and collateral descent firmly in his hand, after the fashion of those with wits for the ramifications of genealogy. He looked up that far-back marriage between a Lweknor and Persis Atherel. Persis Atherel! She had opened her eyes upon the world under this roof. She had trod these very boards. Persis Atherel had sat here by the fire.
The sense of romance in the continuity of family history seized upon the stranger as though this race had been his own. He was glad of their good fourtune and sorry for the ill. He was proud for them--jealous for them. The blood of thse people deflected into female lines was flowing to this hour in half the great families of England. What a vitality in some of the old strains! What a power in one generation after another to make common cause, and to fight shoulder to shoulder against the common cause of others--to wander to the ends of the earth and to return unerringly to this quiet place to marry, breed and die! Well, Derrington had been a fitting frame for men like that. The stranger in their halls shut up the book of history and lit the bedroom candle. This
was a pleasant bit of old plate, but fashioned for a smaller taper than that which had been fitted into its campanula-shaped socket. The candle threatened to topple out. Oxenbridge worked it in more firmly. The shreds of wax curled up in fine translucent shavings above the lip of the socket. Beginning to extinguish the other lights, Oxenbridge bethought him to see what sort was the night. He drew back a curtain and the moon looked in through the black horizontal bars of a cedar. So eerie and fine it was that Oxenbridge left the curtain, and went on snuffing the candles, looking forth from time to time at the barred face of the moon. He carried an armful of the Sussex books upstairs, meaning to return for more, since you never could tell what volume you might want. But, when he reached his bedroom, he suddenly became conscious of hunger--not for knowledge, but for the food he had refused at dinner-time. Thirst was upon him, too, after all this stirring in the dust of the past. He would go down and make a raid on Massing's domain.
Near the bottom of the stairs the top-heavy candle tumbled out of the candlestick and rolled away into blackness. No matches nearer than the great fireplace. He could see the dull glow from where he stood. He could see the dull glow from where he stood. He could see, beyond a gulf of shadow cut sharply across by the shaft of white light from the window. He stood still. The house was
silent as a church. In the hush his sense of exhilaration, instead of waning, seemed to grow. His body was full of pulses, and the night was full of eyes. Painted eyes, first of all--mere painted eyes of Atherels in tarnished frames. But they did not stay in the frames. They winked in the corners and shone in the firelight. Off and on all the evening, behind the actual history of the dead who had been masters here, lurked and whispered the tales of the villagers and remembrance of the Benskin girl's stark dread. But Oxenbridge was too well disposed toward the Derrington ghost to have any hope of meeting him. None the less, as the young man stood there, staring across the banded dark with its zone of fireglow and its shaft of moonshine, he lent himself to the idea of a supernatural apparition--just as earlier he had lent himself to the veritable history of the ancient dwellers here. No sound, no faintest movement in all the place, and yet quite suddenly the sense came to the watcher that he was not alone. It was too interesting to be true. Yet it was true. He drew back noiselessly behind a tall, Gothic chair, and as he did so he felt, still, rather than saw, that a figure was creeping along the far end of the hall. Oxenbridge gripped the canopied top of the chair and looked out with straining eyes. It was too wonderful to be true--yet, beyond any possible doubt, a man was lurking there in the
shadow. No honest ghost making himself free of the place--a figure bent low, and hugging the wainscot, secret, furtive.
A burglar after the old silver? The shadow moved slowly on. Almost clear now. The spare, bent back, the white hair. What was the lean hand doing fumbling there at the oak, as though seeking to turn invisible handles? No, the fingers slid along the polished panels till they were stopped by the pilasters. The hand paused, and then those ghostly fingers went feeling the carved garland wrought round the fluted column--they touched the delicate leaves and tendrils as they might have touched the curls on the head of a well-loved child. They moved on to the next panel--that flanking the dining-room door. This section was one of those which Benskin had taken down and Oxenbridge put back. The ghostlly hand travelled over the surface and stopped. Distinctly Oxenbridge heard a sigh, and then saw the old head, dimly white, laid against the wainscot. And all the while it rested there the hand went back and forth over the arabesque, verifying the delicacy of the pattern and caressing the beauty of its execution. While Oxenbridge debated what he should do, the groping hand of the apparition had found the handle of the dining-room door, opened it, and vanished.
Oxenbridge made his way noiselessly up-
stairs, lit another candle set in a sturdy candlestick of brass. With none of his previous light-footed silence, he came a second time down the stair, striking his heels on the oaken treads and stirring echoes. He did not re-enter the hall, but went to the dining-room by way of the small Gothic chamber. The door that Massing had shut was open. Of the sandwiches he had placed on the sideboard, only an empty plate and a crumb or two.
The next night, in spite of having done justice to an excellent dinner, the new master gave orders for supper to be laid in the dining-room. He was even at the pains to order it in detail, with no small care. "Covers for how many, sir?" asked Massing, bewildered. "Oh--a--only for me," Oxenbridge had answered, with an embarrassed laugh. The respectable Massing looked grave.
As on the previous evening, his master sat late over Sussex records. But half the time he stared across the volume at the fire, or now right, now left, at reflections on the wall.
At half-past eleven he went to the dining-room and lit the candles in the branch candle-sticks. He smiled, seeing the board so generously spread, and proceeded to cut the wires on the champagne. But he did not draw the cork. He dressed a salad and carved the capon, but it was the merest pretence he made
at eating. And, when he had finished, he put his plate on the sideboard and a clean one on the table. His eyes were shining, his face as eager as a lover's. In his preoccupation he seemed to forget to put the candles out: and, when he went upstairs, to forget, once there, to go to bed.
He began to smoke a cigar at the open bedroom window, looking out upon the tower of Derrington church. Square and white the tower rose out of inky shadow--the shadow that rested on the graves of all the Atherels except the last. Oxenbridge threw away his cigar and began to pace the floor. He looked at his watch every few moments. At last he sat down, took off his shoes, and, holding them in his hand, he felt his way downstairs in the dark. The fire in the hall was low. The dining-room door, which he had left wide, was all but shut. A luminous crack showed that the candles within were still alight. Oxenbridge stopped, noiselessly set down his shoes and listened. Not a sound. He drew nearer on silent feet. He looked through the crack--and held his breath.
In the great oak chair at the head of the table sat John Atherel, with the candlelight on face and hair. Oxenbridge stood staring. Why was the figure so still? He opened the door an inch--the ancient hinges creaked, protesting, and the young man drew sharp breath. But the old man looked straight before him, paying no heed.
Was this the Derrington ghost? Or, if it were the old master come back, what stony reverie was this . . . what sleep with unshut eyes?
Oxenbridge, moving slowly, scarce an inch at a time, crossed the threshold and stood facing the figure in the chair.
And all the time John Atherel never stirred. Just sat there in the High Seat, looking straight before him with a strange still dignity--type and sign of the masters of Derrington.
Oxenbridge, at the foot of the board, saw only how piteously changed the old man was. No spark of hostility to fire the eyes. No quick blood, now, to flush the wax-white face.
Something swift, unexpected, filial, surged in the stranger's heart.
"Mr. Atherel, sir," he said, gently, and went to his side. He touched the old man's arm, and seeing the face was still unchanged, he opened the shabby cloak and put his hand over the quiet heart.
What to do? To leave him there till morning was to leave him bare to that gossip he so loathed. They would say he had crept back like a poor old dog to die at home. People's pity. Ah, no! This sudden desire to protect the old man's dignity showed how sorely it was menaced. The countryside, all the county, would ring with the story. Where had he been? How had he got in? Fifty questions crowded into Oxenbridge's
brain, every one an infringement of the dignity of the man at the head of the table.
After all, why shouldn't he have made a visit to Derrington? Why not have supped with Oxenbridge?
Massing was faithful, but even Massing would ask-- For the first time Oxenbridge's eye fell upon the glass at Atherel's right hand. It was half full, but not with the honey-coloured wine of Oxenbridge's bringing. The gilded cork had not been out of the champagne. And here was another bottle on the board. A mouldy and ancient vessel, showing as different beside that trim, bright champagne-bottle as Oxenbridge himself, well-kept and shining in his golden youth, beside the silver-pale old man with shoulders bowed under the dusty grey cloak. Just so the added vessel on the board. It was grey with eld and cloaked in cobweb. The bottle must have been cleaner had it been carried far. Where had it lain until to-night? For some moments Oxenbridge looked about, finding no clue to the mystery. He carried one of the branch candlesticks into the hall, bending low to follow what might be dusty footprints on the polished floor. A current of air, musty-smelling, chill, struck him across the neck. He stood erect, and saw in the far corner one of the panels standing out at right angles from the wall, like a door half-
open. Behind this gaping piece of wainscot a black square showed cavernous, a doorway opening into the dark. When he stood at the threshold, holding the chadlestick high, Oxenbridge could see a flight of stone steps leading down. He set the candlestick on the floor and thrust his feet in his shoes. Then, holding one side of his coat to shield the light, he made his way down, winding, winding till his head whirled and the darkness underneath seemed full of minute stars, and the air full of unfamiliar, half-pungent scents--mixture of mould and must and close decay. At last the bottom.
A crypt with vaulted ceiling supported on Norman pillars. To the right a stone table . . . no, an altar. Yes, that would be the east. The flaring light was set beside two other candlesticks, massive, splendid, The stone was littered with candle ends, and all one side was piled with ancient books. Upon a long stone lying on the ground, at right angles to the altar, was the open travelling-bag that had been brought on this strange journey. On the opposite side of the crypt a camp bed piled with blankets and furs. Oxenbridge stood thinking--and, with raised head, listening. Suddenly he shut the portmanteau and lifted it. He could see now that the long stone was a tomb. He set his candlestick on the grey-flagged floor making out
clearly the sculpted face and form of a knight in armour, lying with hand upon his sword. Clear, now, another stone as well, on the opposite side of the cript--the recumbent effigy of a woman wearing a curious head-dress. Across the stone cushion at the lady's feet six letters: PERSIS. . . . What else was in the crypt he did not stay to see, except that a recess had been used as a wine-cellar. Row on row, nearly to the ceiling, the unbroached bottles ran.
Again Oxenbridge listened, fearfully, for sounds from overhead: then, seizing portmanteau in one hand and candlestick in the other, he hurried up the stair. He shut the panel back into its place, hardly marvelling at the precision of its craftly adjustment, so great his haste to get back to that grim supper table, where the guest waited for his coming. . . .
The young man put his burdens down and, breathless, stared an instant at the unchanged face. Then he lifted up the dusty bottle and poured out a bumper of the famous Waterloo port.
"Your health, sir," he said, and bowed. When he had drunk, he set the glass on the table, and took the portmanteau out into the lobby. He unbolted the front door. Then he went back to the dining-room table and rang the bell. Peal on peal.
"Your master came to see how we were getting on, Massing. But the journey has been too much. Come, we'll lay him down in the hall."
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