MoboReader> Literature > Told in a French Garden / August, 1914

   Chapter 1 THE YOUNGSTER'S STORY

Told in a French Garden / August, 1914 By Mildred Aldrich Characters: 15915

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


IT HAPPENED AT MIDNIGHT

The Tale of a Bride's New Home

The daytimes were not ever very bad. Short-handed in the pretty garden, every one did a little work. The Lawyer was passionately fond of flowers, and the Youngster did most of the errands. The Sculptor had found some clay, and loved to surprise us at night with a new centre piece for the table, and the Divorcée spent most of her time tending Angéle's baby, while the Doctor and the Nurse were eternally fussing over new kinds of bandages and if ever we got together, it was usually for a little reading aloud at tea-time, or a little music. The spirit of discussion seemed to keep as far away before the lights were up as did the spirit of war, and nothing could be farther than that appeared.

The next day we were unusually quiet.

Most of us kept in our rooms in the afternoon. There were those stories to think over, and that we all took it so seriously proved how very much we had been needing some real thing to do. We got through dinner very comfortably.

There was little news in the papers that day except enthusiastic accounts of the reception of the British troops by the French. It was lovely to see the two races that had met on so many battle fields-conquered, and been conquered by one another-embracing with enthusiasm. It was to the credit of all of us that we did not make the inevitable reflections, but only saw the humor and charm of the thing, and remembered the fears that had prevented the plans of tunnelling the channel, only to find them humorous.

The coffee had been placed on the table. The Trained Nurse, as usual, sat behind the tray, and we each went and took our cup, found a comfortable seat in the circle under the trees, where a few yellow lanterns swung in the soft air.

Then the Youngster pulled a white head-band with a huge "Number One" on it, out of his pocket, placed it on his head after the manner of the French Conscripts, struck an attitude in the middle of the circle, drew his chair deftly under him, and with the air of an experienced monologist began:

* * *

Not so very many years ago there was a pretty wedding at Trinity Church in Boston. It was quite the sort of marriage Bostonians believe in. The man was a rising lawyer, rather a sceptic on all sorts of questions, as most of us chaps pride ourselves on being, when we come out of college. They were married in church to please the Woman. What odds did it make?

Before they were married they had decided to live outside the city. She wanted a garden and an old house. He did not care where they lived so long as they lived together. Very proper of him, too. They spent the last year of their engaged life, the nicest year of some girls' lives, I have heard-in hunting the place. What they finally settled on was an old colonial house with a colonnaded front, and a round tower at each end, standing back from the road, and approached by a wide circular drive. It was large, substantial, with great possibilities, and plenty of ground. It had been unoccupied for many years, and the place had an evil report, and, at the time when they first saw it, appeared to deserve it.

He had looked it over. The situation was healthy. It was convenient to the city. He could make it in his car in less than forty-five minutes. They saw what could be done with the place, and did not concern themselves with why other people had not cared to live there. Architects, interior decorators, and landscape gardeners were put to work on it, and, even before the wedding, the place was well on toward its habitable stage.

Then they were married, and, quite correctly, went abroad to float in a gondola on the Grand Canal-together; to cross the Gemmi-together; to stroll about Pompeii and cross to Capri-together; and then ravage antiquity shops in Paris-together. They returned in the early days of a glorious September. The house was ready for its master and mistress to lay the touch of their personality on it, and put in place the trophies of their Wedding Journey.

The evil look the house once had was gone.

A few old trees had been cut down round it to let in the glorious autumn sun all over the house, and when, on their first morning, after a good sound, well-earned sleep, they took their coffee on the terrace off the breakfast room, under a yellow awning, they certainly did not think, if they ever had, of the mysterious rumors against the house which had been whispered about when they first bought it. To them it seemed that they had never seen a gayer place.

But on the second night, just as the Woman was putting her book aside, and had a hand stretched out to shut off the light, she stopped-a carriage was coming up the drive. She sat up, and listened for the bell. It did not ring. After a few moments-as there was absolutely no sound of the carriage passing-she got up, and gently pushed the shutter-her room was on the front-there was nothing there, so, attaching no importance to it, she went quietly to bed, put out her light, just noticing as she did so, that it was midnight, and went to sleep. In the morning, the incident made so little impression on her, that she forgot to even mention it.

The next night, by some queer trick of memory, just as she went to bed, the thing came back to her, and she was surprised to find that she had no sleep in her. Instead of that she kept looking at the clock, and just before twelve, cold chills began to go down her back, when she heard the rapid approach of a carriage-this time she was conscious that her hearing was so keen that she knew there were two horses. She listened intently-no doubt about it-the carriage had stopped at the door.

Then there was a silence.

She was just convincing herself that there must be some sort of echo which made it appear that a team passing in the road had come up the drive-when she was suddenly sure that she heard a hurried step in the corridor-it passed the door. Now she was naturally a very unimaginative person, and had never had occasion to know fear. So, after a bit, she put out her light, saying to herself that a belated servant was busy with some neglected work-nothing more likely-and she went to sleep.

Again the morning sunlight, the Man's gay companionship, the hundreds of delightful things to do, wiped out that bad quarter of an hour, and again it never occurred to her to mention it.

The next night the remembrance came back so vividly after the Man had gone to his room, that she regretted she had not at least asked him if he had heard a carriage pass in the night. Of course she was sure that he had not. He was such a sound sleeper. Besides, it was not important. If he had, he would not have been nervous about it. Still, she could not sleep, and, just before the dining room clock began to chime midnight-she had never heard it before, and that she heard it now was a proof of how her whole body was listening-again came the rapid tread of running horses. This time every hair stood up on her head, and before she could control herself, she called out toward the open door: "Dearest, are you awake?"

Almost before she had the words out he was standing smiling in the doorway. It was all right.

"Did you think you heard a carriage come up the driveway?" she asked.

"Why, yes," he replied, "but I didn't."

"Listen! Is there some one coming along the corridor?"

He crossed the room quietly, opened the door, and turned on the light. "No, dear. There is no one there."

"Hadn't you better ring for your man, and have him see if any of the servants are up?"

He sat down on the edge of the bed, and laughed heartily.

"See here, dear girl," he said, "you and I are a pair of healthy people. We have happened to hear a noise which we can't explain. Be sure that there is rational explanation. You're not afraid?"

"Well, no, I really am not," she declared, "but you cannot deny that it is strange. Did you hea

r it last night?"

"Go on, now, with your cross-examination," he said. "Let's go to sleep. At any rate the exhibition is over for to-night."

The fourth night they did not speak in the night any more than they had in the daytime. But the next day they had a long conversation, the gist of which was this: That they had bought the place, that except for fifteen minutes at midnight, the place was ideal. They were both level-headed, neither believed in anything super-natural. Were they to be driven out of such a place by so harmless a thing as an unexplained noise? They could get used to it. After a bit it would no more wake them up,-such was the force of habit-than the ticking of the clock. To all this they both agreed, and the matter was dropped.

For ten days they did not mention it, but in all those ten days a sort of crescendo of emotion was going on in her. At first she began to think of it as soon as bed-time approached; then she felt it intruding on her thoughts at the dinner table; then she was unable to sleep for an hour or two after the fifteen minutes had passed, and, finally, one night, she fled into his room to find him wide awake, just before dawn, and to confess that the shadow of midnight was stretched before and after until it was almost a black circle round the twenty-four hours.

She knew it was absurd. She had no intention of being driven out of such a lovely place-BUT-

"See here, dear," he said. "Let's break our rule. We neither of us want company, but let's, at least, have a big week ender, and perhaps we can prove to ourselves that our nerves are wrong. One thing is sure, if you are going to get pale over it, I'll burn the blooming house down before we'll live in it."

"But you mind it yourself?"

"Not a bit!"

"But you are awake."

"Of course I am, because I know that you are."

"Do you mean to say that if I slept you wouldn't notice it?"

"On my honor-I should not."

"You are a comfort," she ejaculated. "I shall go right to sleep." And off she went, and did go to sleep.

All the same, in the morning, he insisted on the house-party.

"Let me see our list," he said. "Let us have no students of occult; no men who dabble in laboratory spiritualism; just nice, live, healthy people who never heard of such things-if possible. You can find them."

"You see, dear," she explained, "it would not trouble me if I heard it and you did not-but-"

"Oh, fudge!" he laughed. "Just now I should be sure to hear anything you did, I suppose."

"You old darling," she replied, "then I don't care for it a bit."

"All the same we'll have the house-party."

So the following Saturday every room in the house was occupied.

At midnight they were all gathered in the long drawing room opening on the colonnade, and, when the hour sounded, some one was singing. The host and hostess heard the running horses, as usual, and they were conscious that one or two people turned a listening ear, but evidently no one saw anything strange in it, and no comment was made. It was after one when they all went up to their rooms, so that evening passed off all right.

But on Sunday night two of the younger guests had gone to sit on the front terrace, and the older people were walking, in the moonlight, in the garden at the back. The sweet little girl, who was having her hand held, got up properly when she heard the carriage coming, and went to the edge of the terrace to see who was arriving at midnight. She had a fit of nerves as the invisible vehicle and its running horses seemed about to ride over her. She ran in, trembling with fear, to tell the tale, and of course every one laughed at her, and the matter would have been dropped, if it had not happened that, just at that moment a very pale gentleman came stumbling out of the house with the statement that he wanted a conveyance "to take him back to town," that "he refused to sleep in a haunted house," that he "had encountered an invisible person running along the corridor to his room," in fact the footsteps had as he put it "passed right through him."

The host broke into laughter, but he took the bull by the horns-the facts, as he knew them, were safer than the tales which he knew would run over the city if he attempted to deny things.

"See here, my good people," he said, "there is a little mystery here that we can't explain. The truth is, there is a story about this house. It used to belong to the president of a well-known railroad. That was twenty-five years ago. They say that one night, when he was driving from a place he had up country, his team was run into at a railway crossing five miles from here-one of those grade crossings that never ought to have been-and he was killed and his horses came home at midnight. 'They say' that the people who lived here after that declared that the horses have come home every midnight since. Now, there's the story. They don't do any harm. It only takes them a few minutes. They don't even trample the driveway, so why not?"

"All the same, I want to go back to town," said the frightened guest.

"I would stay the night, if I were you," said the host. "They won't come again until to-morrow."

All the same, when morning came, every one skipped, and as the last of them drove away, the Woman put her hand through the Man's arm, and smiled as she said: "It's all over. I don't mind a bit. When I heard you saying last night, 'They don't even trample the driveway, so why not?' I said to myself, 'Why not?' indeed."

"Good girl," he replied. "I'll bet my top hat you grow to be proud of them."

I don't know that they ever did, but I do know that they still live there. I went to school with the son, and whenever any one bragged, he used to say, "Well, we've always had a ghost. You ain't got that!"

The Youngster threw his lighted cigarette into the air, ran under it, caught it between his lips, and made a bow, as the Doctor broke into a roar of laughter.

"I know that old house," he said. "Jamaica Pond. But see here, Youngster, your idea of ghosts is terribly illogical. It was the man who was killed, not the horses. The wrong part of the team walked."

"You are particular," replied the Youngster. "The man did not come back, and the horses did. I can't split hairs when it's a ghost story. I feel afraid that I have missed my vocation, and that flights in the imagination are more in my line than flights in the air. I don't know what you think. I think it's a mighty good story. I say, Journalist, do you think I could sell that story? I've never earned a dollar in my life."

"Well," laughed the Journalist, "a dollar is just about what you would get for it."

"If I had been doing that story," said the Critic, "I should have found a logical explanation for it."

"Of course you would," said the Youngster. "I know one of a haunted house on St. James Street which had an explanation."

But the Doctor cut him short with: "Come now, you've done your stunt. No more stories to-night. Off to bed. You and I are going to take a run to Paris to-morrow."

"What for?"

"Tell you to-morrow."

As every one began to move toward the house, the Violinist remarked, "I was thinking of running up to Paris myself to-morrow. Any one else want to go with me?" The Journalist said that he did, and the party broke up. As they strolled toward the house the Lawyer was heard asking the Youngster, "What were the steps in the corridor?"

"Well," replied the Youngster, "I suppose on the night that the team came home there must have been great excitement in the house-every one running to and fro and-"

But the Journalist's shout of laughter stopped him.

The Youngster eyed him with shocked surprise.

"By Jupiter!" cried the Journalist. "That is the darnedest ghost story I ever heard. Everything and everybody walked but the dead man-even the carriage."

"That isn't my fault," said the Youngster, indignantly.

* * *

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