"The Solmes' Ghost"
”The Solmes Ghost”
“THAT’S all, sir. But I, I’ll never forget the way in which you’ve heard my story, father,” his rough voice a little unsteady.
“No, Dick. Come now, let’s drink Miss Nelly;s health. You want to be off, I know.”
I thought the young dog never looked as handsome as he did that moment, pulling his brown beard, blushing and stammering like a girl.
“You will come over and spend Christmas week with them, father?” as I uncorked the wine.
“Yes, Dick. Here’s to Nelly’s blue eyes, and luck to yourself, boy. I’ll write a note to Solmes to-morrow, and come over on Tuesday.”
Dick left me with my wine and cigars a few moments later. I got up and sauntered to the window to watch him mount and gallop out of the yard.
It was snowing heavily, a think gray sky promising a very long continuance of falling weather; a cold, crisp air blowing; just the right weather for the time; for a sloppy, warm Christmas wrongs me personally, somehow, always.
I was glad Dick had made up his mind to marry, though it moved me more than the young scoundrel knew: he had been my sole companion so long. But he needed a woman’s influence in his life now. I had done what I could since he was three years old; I had taken the place of both father and mother to him; I had tried to be watchful, gentle, with the boy; to catch glimpses of the woman’s side of his nature, as she would have done who was gone. The effort had kept me young, whatever other effect it may have had; given a different position, to both, than that usually held by father and son; made me more of his friend than his mentor. It may have lessened his respect for me, perhaps; I do not know. Well, I was glad Dick was going to marry. I had amassed a tolerably heavy surplus at my banker’s during the later years of my practice: enough for us all to have a solid foothold. Then the farm needed attention. I was no practical agriculturalist; Dick was. If he married, he would settle down in earnest to the consideration of Alderney calves and Lawton blackberries, and give Jim Tiernes and the club-house the go-by. Then I glanced about the room, with its handsome, ill-kept furniture, satin hangings over dirty windows, Dick’s muddy boots on the sofa, and pictured the change which neat little Nelly Solmes would make in a day or two, with her bright keen eyes and arbitrary ways. I liked my son’s choice. If Nelly’s pretty head was set with a dogmatic turn on her shoulders, she had a kind, honest heart, and sound common sense beneath all.
So for the third time, I said I was glad Dick had fallen in love with the little girl, and hoped with all my heart he might succeed in his wooing.
Her father, Cyrus Solmes, had been a college chum of mine; belonged to the county, in fact. The old Solmes House had been in that family for a hundred years. While I, however, had turned in to hard work as a country doctor, Solmes had gone South, opened a broker’s shop in New Orleans, made a snug little fortune, married late in life, and came back to the old homestead, about a year before my story commences, with his wife and their only child, Nelly.
I had no fears about Dick’s success. The girl liked him; Solmes and I had a real, cordial friendship and trust in each other; and, as for outside matters, the properties would dovetail well together, and the families ranked alike in the county. One thinks of such matters in country settlements; caste means more, and indicates larger differences there, than in large cities.
On the following Tuesday, with my carpet-sack under the sleigh-seat, I started out for the Solmes’. The snow had fallen steadily and lay nearly two feet deep, with a glittering crust upon it, on the broad stretch of hills which the road skirted, and piled in feathery wreaths on the black branches of the forests of oak and cedar. A pale winter sun made a feeble bluish light, foreboding heavier storms. Just the sort of day for a blazing fire, cheerful faces, and dinner such as I knew awaited me. I looked forward to a week of thorough, hearty enjoyment. The Solmes knew how to keep Christmas in the old-fashioned way, and this affair of Dick’s and Nelly’s would give a meaning to the time it never had before. “If Mrs. Solmes only kept clear of her fits!” I thought, whipping up Jenny impatiently. For the old lady was subject to odd attacks, epileptic in nature, but singular in a person of her healthy physique and sanguine temperament.
They were superinduced by some violent mental excitement—of that, as a physician, I had no doubt. Yet what trouble ever came into her life?
At this juncture of my musings, the little lady’s flushed, jolly face appeared at the upper window of the house, which I had now reached. She nodded, laughed, waved her handkerchief, and disappeared, to turn back and nod again.
She had three realities in her life: her husband, Nelly, and the pantry, out of which there came comfort and warmth enough to lighten the whole world to her. But she had these curious attacks notwithstanding, and they puzzled me more than I liked to say.
The old Solmes homestead was a roughly-built, large dwelling of stone, covering an irregular space of ground, in the middle of apple and plum orchards, one wing after another having been added as necessity might require, without much consideration for order or effect. The oldest part of the building, a hewn log block-house, used in the Indian times as a store-house, had fallen, under Mrs. Solmes’ orderly rule, into a receptacle for winter provisions, flour, meats, etc., into which no one but herself ever penetrated. It was from one of the dormer-windows of this wing she looked now. The whole establishment looked like its mistress, I fancied—low, large, squat, and glowing with hospitality. The very open door, the great fires blazing inside, the solid barns in the background, and the fat-sided cows in their paddocks knew it was Christmas time, and were glad of it.
Solmes was out on the steps, rubbing his hands, waiting to help me alight, his face, between the wind and excitement, in a red heat to the very tip of his hook-nose. Solmes had worked all the flesh off his bones in the first part of his life; but I think he meant to collect and enjoy to the uttermost, in the few years left to him, all the fun and comfort he had lost, and I never knew a man with a broader or heartier capacity for enjoyment; there was not a twinkle of his gray eye which did not betray it. Dick and Nelly were in the background, watching the arrival. So, matters were going on smoothly in that direction, I concluded. However, I had no chance to ascertain from Dick what progress he had made, until I had gone to my own room for the night, when he tapped at my door and came in. Solmes himself had just left me; had brought in a jug of excellent punch, “in case I felt thirsty during the night.” The old fellow seemed to rejoice so like a boy, at having his old chum under his roof, that his hospitality knew not how to express itself.
“We’ll have no other guests this Christmas,” he said, “so that we can take our time in going over the old stories.”
So we sat long over our wine, and longer over coffee, until poor Mrs. Solmes nodded and slept outright, telling old jokes and tracing up the fate of “the boys,” gray-headed as ourselves now, or dead.
Solmes heard Dick coming along the hall. “There’s your boy, Caldwell,” he said. “He’s a thorough chip of the old block. My heart warms to that fellow as if he were a son of my own.”
“A pity you never had a boy, Cyrus,” I said, drawing off my boots. “Nelly is the best of daughters, I know; but a son—“
I looked up when I had gone so far, and then stopped short. Solmes’ was flushed, nay, almost menacing.
“What have I said, Solmes?” I asked, involuntarily.
“Nothing. We will not talk of—of Nelly. Good-night.”
He held out his hand and then bustled about the room, the cordial look coming back before he left me for the night.
“Well, Dick?” I asked, stretching myself out in the luxury of dressing-gown and slippers. “What success have you found?”
Dick’s face, as he stood leaning against the mantle-shelf, was graver than I ever had known it. I began, from that moment, to understand how the boy had taken this matter to heart, and no one can know how deeply it touched me that, in this crisis of his life, he came to me with his confidence. “What is it, boy?” I demanded, impatiently. “She did not refuse you?”
“Nelly loves me, father, but she says she never can marry. Some obstacle, with which her father and you have something to do. The poor little thing sobbed so that I could make nothing out of it. She hinted something about family honor—our family—“
“Eh? What? This is a matter for Solmes and me, boy. The Caldwells never were rich, but they’ve something else to be proud of than the dirty dollar.”
“You are angry without cause, father.”
“It may be that you mistook maidenly shyness for something deeper, that—“
“No,” decisively. “I’ve flirted with too many women not to understand them. Nelly is free from any such tricks or turns. She is downright and earnest in her least word. There is some actual impediment in the way. She would only wring her hands and say she dared not speak, that she could never marry.”
“I’ll talk to Solmes in the morning, Dick. ‘Family honor’ is his business and mine, if it has come to that.”
“It might be as well, sir.”
The young fellow was pacing the floor, with his head down. I waited awhile.
“What is it, Dick? Is there anything more to trouble you?”
“No. That is—pah! I’m a fool, I think!”
“Perhaps. In what way, for example?”
“Is is nonsense, I know, father,” stopping before me, his face very red. “I’ve enough of real vexation to bear without going to the next world to find it, but—well, upon my word, sir, I’m afraid to go to bed.”
I laughed. “What is it? Out with the whole story, Dick!”
“There’s no story to tell,” almost gruffly, buttoning his coat. “I’m sorry I spoke of it. I’ve been annoyed, every night since I came, by a dream—we’ll call it a dream, for want of a better name, but it is as horrible a reality as I ever wish to meet.”
“The same every night, Dick?” taking his wrist, and laying my fingers on his pulse. “Cool enough. Stomach all right? It is the result of the day’s excitement, then.”
“Perhaps,” dubiously. “Well, I’ll go take a walk in the snow before I go to my room. Don’t laugh at me. You know I am not usually addicted to fancies like that.”
“No, Richard. It is easily accounted for. What shape does your visitor assume, by the way?”
“That of a face—the long, lantern-jawed face of a young man, with blue eyes and thin, gray hair.”
“Gray—but the face is young, as I said, with a cold, malignant leer on it. The dream, if it be one, comes just as I waken: the face appearing sometimes in a dark corner, sometimes gibbering between the curtains, once close over my head. I could swear that I felt its clammy breath on my mouth.”
I said nothing. Some curious old remembrances were coming to my mind.
“Had you ever heard, Dick,” I said, just as he was going, “that this house was haunted? There is such a story.”
He laughed. “I never heard of it. However, there is scarcely a farm-house in the country, sir, which is not haunted, according to popular report.”
“Indeed? Well, good-night!”
Dick’s story left an odd impression on me. It was curious that he should have seen that face. It was, indeed, an exact description of the countenance of a man dead fifty years ago: a Solmes, too, and one who died by his own hand, in this house. “A strange coincidence!” I thought, tumbling into bed. I had seen the portrait of this Rivers Solmes. It hung in an upper room, and, though usually covered, Dick might have seen it too, and hence his dream. I had heard the story. How that, through grief at the loss of a young wife, whom he dearly loved, his hair turned gray, and his reason slowly forsook him, until the end came. There was something else in the story, hushed up, covered over; I knew not what. I was not a superstitious man; yet, on the contrary, was too much accustomed to the discoveries of unsolved mysteries in physiology to condemn any vulgar beliefs because they were vulgar. If Rivers Solmes chose to appear as a ghost, why should he not? What law of matter was there to say him nay? So, feebly wandering from Dick’s dream to his affair with Nelly, I fell asleep, thinking, however, what an unlikely field this house, with its present inmates, was for a ghost to choose to operate in. No darker shadows were about it than those cast on the snow by the bare-limbed fruit-trees and currant-bushes, and no weightier mysteries were hidden inside, I believed, than Solmes’ speculations on the rise of Chartier’s valley stock, or his wife’s plans for dinner next day.
The room in which I slept was assuredly unfitted for any spiritual presence; it contained neither the ancient hangings, nor portrait with unfathomable eyes en regal in ghost appearances. It was a square, newly furnished chamber, with French bedstead, wardrobe, etc., shining with fresh varnish; a glowing fire burned in the grate, lit up the brass fender, the crimson carpet, the grayish walls, to a point outside of all mystery. There wasn’t a shadow large enough for a ghost to hang its hat on. So, drawing my nose quite under the blankets, I slept soundly.
I do not know how long: long enough, however, for the fire to burn down into red embers, giving a sickly flush, now and then, but failing to warm the cold air in the room, leaving it to be lighted, too, by the chilly pallor of the winter moonlight which came in through unshuttered windows. I woke with a start, feeling as if a cold hand had been laid on my face; it may have been the air, though, for the night was freezing. I sat up, feeling an oppression on my chest, and looked about the room with that vague swerving of the brain of which one is conscious on being roughly wakened. The window was square, and its patch of bluish white lay in the center of the room; outside of that was darkness, in which I could dimly trace the outlined furniture. Beyond the window I could see only the opaque-blue winter’s sky, with Orion’s belt full in view. I gathered up the quilt over my shoulders preparatory to another nap, when something—to this day I don’t know what—made me pause with a sudden intangible dread: shook me, as I might say, thoroughly awake. It might have been a singular flicker in the moonlight, or a stir in the air as of some one breathing, but it gave me a vague consciousness that I was not alone. I sat up, bracing myself straighter as men do when they are frightened, and then, ashamed, beat up the pillow. Bah! I was nervous: Dick’s story had infected me; but I peered about the room sharply, from the ceiling to the shadows of the bed-post on the carpet. There were triangular, greenish figures on the carpet, I remember, and I counted them to prove that I was entirely awake. Nothing was in the room, however, that should not be there, and I was about composing myself again to sleep, when there was a sort of shudder, if I may so express myself, in the darkness of one corner, where a protruding closet and a wardrobe made a heavy shadow: an uncertain, undefined motion at first. I leaned forward with a cold shiver, I confess it, in my blood. That story of Dick’s, and the waiting now, half-asleep, had completely unnerved me. For a moment there was a breathless silence; then, out of this darkness in the corner, there came slowly a head, the face of a young man, with long, sunken jaws and peaked features, with watery blue eyes, and gray hair falling thing and straight down to the shoulders. It was the very face of the portrait, but older and more pinched and wan. However, the picture was taken in life, and this—. I drew my breath sharply and tried to rise; the eyes of the thing had been laid on mine from the first, a cold weight; they rested there immovable while the whole figure slowly emerged into the pallid moonlight, a tall, bony man’s frame, dressed apparently in a loosely hanging garb of black. Hands like claws, and bloodless as the face, projected from the sleeves, and were thrust out toward me as if in supplication, or warning. The night air blowing suddenly through the window lifted the gray hair: this was life-like, real. I sprang forward with a cry, stumbled over the bed-clothes, and fell headlong on the floor, catching, as I fell, at the place where the figure had stood. I caught only air. It was gone: nothing between me and the window but the moonlight on the floor. If I had been asleep, before, I was completely awake by this time; my courage came oozing back somehow, also. I got up with a whistle, rubbing my leg that had been skinned by the fall, and went about discovering the truth of the appearance, with every sense keenly alive. I found nothing: the chamber was empty; the window, back of the spot where the figure had stood, opened at a height of forty feet from the ground; my door was locked as I had left it.
I went shivering to bed, concluding that it had been only a vivid dream, caused by Dick’s story, and primarily by Solmes’ heavy supper. But I slept no more that night.
I recollect rising, once or twice, to examine the room and the hall without, my search always proving useless.
Out-of-doors, the thin blue air grayed and thickened toward morning, and the snow began to fall. The house and grounds lay wrapped in sleep, without a sign of life, except a lamp burning in a window of the old part of the house of which I have spoken, and which attracted my notice, as I knew that wing was only used for storing purposes. The light disappeared about an hour before dawn, and, shortly after, I fell into an uneasy slumber.
The day was cloudy and stormy, shutting us close in-doors. I said nothing of my dream, if it were a dream: in fact, I forgot it in the genial glow of the cheerful breakfast-room. The fire blazed and crackled, the table was filled with Mrs. Solmes’ pet dishes, and her face and her husband’s were honest, and hearty, and happy enough to dispel a regiment of ghosts. Dick had his usual comfortable, merry smile back in his eyes; the ghost had not troubled him, last night, I supposed, and his heart was brave enough to make him confident of winning the fair lady, dissecting a mutton chop beside him. But though Nelly was busy, apparently, with her mutton chop, she was ill at ease. Her face was pale, and her eyelids swollen and red. I noticed, too, the anxious, perturbed look of both father and mother when they glanced toward her. Whatever pain or mystery there might be in the house, it touched the girl, evidently, the closest. One odd little incident occurred during the breakfast. We were talking of the Wrays, a neighboring family, and of the hereditary tendency to dissipation that corrupted every branch of the race.
“A single drop of the blood,” I remarked, “is enough, it would seem, to convey the taint. How strongly visible it is, Solmes, that inflexible law of Nature, which visits the crime of one generation upon all that succeed it!”
Solmes was silent, and, to my surprise, the young girl was the only one who replied, a hot flush of pain and indignation in her face,
“That is not unjust, for, if the blood is tainted, it is right vice should find its punishment. But, for the guilty to escape and leave the burden for the innocent to carry—is that right? Is that easy to bear?”
“Nelly!” Her mother’s fat hands began to work nervously together: her father looked at her sternly.
She put her cup to her mouth and swallowed hastily, choking down a burst of tears, I fancied. The next moment she looked up with a repentant smile, tried to speak, but could not. As we left the table, however, I saw her steal her arm about her mother’s shoulder and ask her to forgive her. “Poor Nell! poor little Nell!” she said, striking her hair softly.
Left alone with Solmes in the library, I found the solution of the mystery—or as much as they chose to offer me. I approached the subject of Dick’s marriage with Nelly cautiously; but I might have spared my strategy; the old man was ready, waiting with his answer.
“I know all you are going to say, Caldwell,” rising and standing before the fire, fingering the mantle-ornaments uneasily—“I know all there is of it. But it can’t be. Never. We had better not enter upon the subject at all. It will be of no use,” adding something, in an undertone, about its being ill-work stirring up slimy waters.
For a moment I was rebuffed; for the gruff manner and even voice were totally unlike my old friend. But soon I rallied. I said that if the matter concerned my own interest, I would let it drop, having gone so far. But I could not willingly see my boy’s happiness so unreasonably shattered. That I did believe his happiness was involved in this thing. The attachment on his part was deep and sincere.
“I know that. He is a good boy—Dick,” Solmes muttered, huskily. “There is no one whom I would rather call my son, Caldwell, than your boy.”
“What, in God’s name, is the trouble, then? If you’ve no fault to find with Dick—“
“None. None at all. He’s a little too high-spirited, but he’ll mend of that.”
“Nelly does not care for him enough, then?”
“Too much. It’s that, that pains me. The girl’s heart is his to it’s last thought. It has made her forget natural affection. You saw her at breakfast?”
“I did not understand—“
“Well, no matter. She loves the boy. I know that. But it can never be.”
There was a long silence. I, perplexed and baffled; Solmes, leaning his head on his hand, grinding his boots into the hearth-rug, his thin, old face heating and growing pale with some heavy, unspoken trouble.
“My son,” I said, at length, “alluded to some question of family honor as being the cause of your refusal. You know the Caldwell family, Mr. Solmes—you know whether any objection could justly be founded on such ground.” I felt my tone betraying anger and stopped short for Dick’s sake. I had no mind to quarrel with the old man.
He trembled visibly, showing an agitation that I could not account for from any words that had been spoken.
“It is Nelly who has spoken of this,” he said, almost fiercely; “women are leaky vessels always. But she shall not wring my secret out for the world to gaze at. She—“
He stopped, shut his lips close, and after awhile looked at me more calmly, saying, “You are right, Caldwell. I’ll not be unreasonable; I will tell you all I can.”
I waited patiently. He paced the room once or twice, then stopped before me, putting one hand on my arm.
“I ask your forbearance, my old friend. I will tell you what I can, but you will ask no questions? It will not be a pleasant thing to see me humbled—“
“No. Say no more, Solmes, if it pains you in this manner. I was testy, unreasonable, perhaps. But any slur upon our name—“
“There was none. The question was one of a taint on family honor, but it was on our side, not yours.”
What it cost the old man to say this I saw now by his face, the foam coming to his clenched teeth. I laid my hand on his shoulder, but he went on hurriedly. “My daughter can never marry an honorable man. Part of our history is known to no one, and never can be. It’s an old crime, done long ago, but its shadow rests on us.”
“Rivers Solmes—“ broke from me almost unconsciously, remembering the vision of the night before, and connecting the story of the suicide dead, so long ago, with this mystery of to-day.
He started, looking at me keenly. “You saw him, then?” in a low whisper.
“Last night. Yes.”
He beat time on the shelf with his fingers, still watching me, with some curious speculation in his eye, not speaking for a long time.
“Let us drop this subject, Caldwell,” he said, at last. “I am not a hard father: Nelly knows that. She agrees in the necessity of this course of conduct when she allows her cooler judgment to act. Nor have I any mind to make a mystery out of a horrible, but every-day tragedy. I have been plain with you as I dared to be. There is a certain shame resting on us with which the dream you had last night has much to do, and while it does rest upon us my child shall never enter an honorable family. This is all. Except this, Caldwell,” holding out his hand, “I have dealt honestly with you. I want you, in return to keep my secret. Not to mention, even to your son, the sight that troubled you last night.”
“I will not,” I promised heartily. I pitied Solmes from my soul. His composure was forced, I saw. It had cost him no little pain to cross his child’s fate in this way; cost him more, perhaps, in that he was not a morbid or sensitive man, but essentially practical, domestic in his instincts, fond of a jolly, comfortable easy-going life. This mystery or crime was totally outside and foreign to his nature. I could understand how he loathed it with every atom of his healthy body and power of mind. He was precisely the man to delight and fuss about Nelly’s betrothal, to begin buying immediately dresses for her trousseau, and ducks and turkeys for the wedding supper, to poke rough jokes at the young people, and to take an earnest, hearty pleasure in their life afterward. So I knew what this ghost business cost him.
I confess, I did not give up hope. I, therefore, evaded Dick’s questions that day, determined to talk over the matter again with the old man before owning myself defeated.
Nothing worthy of note occurred during that day. It was late before I retired for the night. I acknowledged to an irritating sense of uneasiness as I locked and bolted the door, and examined wardrobe, closet, every corner, in fact, where a shadow could hide itself. I was anxious and nervous, and ashamed of my anxiety. Stirring up the fire and opening the windows to admit a free draught of air, I sat down and began slowly to prepare for bed, drawing off my boots and opening my watch to wind it up, when a surprise, not supernatural made my lower jaw fall more aghast, I fancy, than Solmes’ ghost had done. I had been robbed. Attached to my watch-chain, I wore a small Maltese cross, set with pearls at the edge, and the center formed of five diamonds, the only piece of jewelry I possessed, and even that, so great is my dislike for such display, I usually concealed under the flap of my waistcoat. It was gone now; the thick gold clasp which had secured it to the chain had been wrenched sharply in two, so as to leave the jagged edges yet sticking to the links.
Now, the watch I had put on when I rose this morning, and, of course, the robbery had not been committed during the day when I was broad awake. I knew that the cross had been there the night before, for I recollected, when I had laid the watch on the red cloth cushion of the toilet-table, that I had noticed the glitter of the jewels in the firelight. Last night then—the ghost. Bah! That was a dream—besides, dead men had not itching fingers. Never was a man’s brain bothered with such contradictory notions as mine, just at that point of time, between the question of dream, ghost, thieving servant, Dick’s disappointment, Solmes’ secret. One fact was clear, the cross was gone, and, putting association out of the question, it was a loss of more value than I chose quietly to put up with. To-night, however, nothing was to be done. I would see Solmes early in the morning and put the matter in his hands, for I gave most credence to the surmise that some servant had chosen to enact the ghost for the sake of plunder. But, on the other hand, Solmes was evidently prepared to hear of the apparition: it was no hoax in his view. Thoroughly annoyed, baffled, angry, look what way I would. I thrust the watch under my pillow and hurried to bed and to sleep, throwing all troubles, love, theft, and spirits over to the next day to take care of. I had slept about three hours, when I was awakened as on the night before: this time, however, without any preparatory dread or uncertainty. The theft of the cross, somehow, had dispelled the supernatural terror of my nocturnal visitor; the moment that I opened my eyes, I was completely awake and alert, ready to seize the ghost by the throat, if need were, and force him to disgorge his ill-gotten goods.
I lay perfectly motionless, drawing slow, heavy breaths, as if still wrapped in sleep, and watching the corner where the moonlight could not penetrate with my half-shut eyes. By George! There it was again! The lank, white face; the staring, silly eyes; the gray hair hanging ragged and thin down to the shoulders. Shall I confess it? For a moment my energy was paralyzed, the thing before me was so inhuman, unlike anything my eyes had rested on before, except the picture; and even here the resemblance was imperfect. As the figure projected its head into the clear light, I could see it more distinctly than on the preceding night, and I noted that the face was older than that of the portrait; it wanted, too, the cynical leer of River Solmes; instead, this face was marked by a vacuity bordering on idiocy; the eyes glared and watery, and the lower jaw hanging in a slobbering, senseless fashion.
For the space of five minutes I remained motionless; then the figure moved, thrusting out its bony hand like a blind man groping; in an instant I had leaped from the bed and clutched at the outstretched arm. It was gone, the whole man vanished as before into dim air. But I had touched him, grasped the sleeve of the coat, which was coarse and woolen. There was no dream or ghost in this. But where had he gone? I stood looking at my empty hands, and then at the blank wall. The village clock, I remember, at the moment struck three, and as the resonant hum was dying away another sound broke the silence, a grating, sliding noise very near, and then a sharp, terrified cry—a cry more of horror than of pain. It came from without, I fancied. I threw up the window and thrust out my head and body as far as I could reach; but saw nothing. The moonlight was so clear that I could even see that the snow beneath my window was untrodden, lay in great rounded drifts, from the house-foundation, through orchards, garden, out into the low hills that hemmed in the farm. The shadow of the house and trees lay sharply defined on the surface. The cry had startled the whole farm. I could hear the horses stamping in the stable, and a fluttering in the poultry roosts; old Tongo, the watch-dog, gave a long, melancholy howl, that renewed itself again in a miserable echo; but after that all was silence. I hesitated; but the air was bitingly cold, my teeth chattering, and my knees knocking together, half-frozen. So, I shame to say, after a moment’s pause, I jumped into bed and cuddled snugly under the blankets.
Ten minutes after, there came a low tap at my door. I had not slept. I rose, therefore, and, hastily dressing myself, opened it and found Solmes without, holding a flaring candle in one hand, which he sheltered with the other.
“What is this, Solmes?”
“Come, I want you. Thank God you’re here, Caldwell.” The words were wrenched out of him, somehow. I never saw a man so paralyzed by abject fear or pain, I could not determine which.
I followed him silently along the narrow entry. At the end of it he turned and asked me if I had my instruments.
“I never travel without them.”
“Go back for them, then.”
When I returned with them, Solmes was muttering to himself words which I was surprised to find were a succession of oaths of the most curious sort. He uttered them without emphasis or meaning, just as unconsciously as he would have spilt water on the ground. I could judge from this how utterly the shock had benumbed his mind, for, assuredly, he was in no mood to swear. The oaths were those he had heard on the wharves at New Orleans. They dribbled away, if I may use the expression, into silence, as he walked faster through the larger halls and stairs of the house, coming at last to the door leading into the part of the building occupied as store-rooms, and to which Mrs. Solmes alone had access. The floors were bare, and cracked under our footsteps. Stopping at a door slightly ajar, he turned to me to motion me before him; his face was ghastly and wet with sweat.
“It is the end, come,” he said, nodding his head to the inside.
The end? But I stopped, to ask no questions.
It was a comfortably furnished chamber, I saw at a glance, dimly lighted by a stable-lantern set on a table. In the center of the room a settee, with a figure stretched out on it—dead I thought—Mrs. Solmes, on her knees, tying some bandage about its body, her hands and dress dribbled with blood; but she neither trembled nor wept. I would not have believed there was such strength of endurance in her pursy, fat little body. All this, as I said, I comprehended with a look; but it was no time for speculation. I saw my own business here, and hurried to the prostrate figure, opening my instrument-case as I went. It was my ghostly visitor, or the dead River Solmes—I knew not which. The body was much mangled, the black serge clothes torn and wet with blotches of snow and blood. One leg hung, broken just above the knee-joint; but there was a curious pallor in the face that hinted at an injury more remote and fatal than this.
Solmes had set down his candle and lifted the man’s head in his arms. As I stooped to tear off the clothes, his wife drew away and sank back on the floor, her hands clasped about her knees, looking up at me with a vacant face singularly like that of this wreck of a man in its almost idiotic expression. Mrs. Solmes’ mind was never strong, and the shock to-night had completely stunned her. She muttered something about Nelly, half-rising. Her husband shook his head. “Let her alone,” he said; “she has suffered enough without this sight.”
I had completed my examination by this time. The man’s breath came without effort, but only at long intervals. Color was coming back to his cheeks and lips.
“He is better?” whispered the old man, looking at me.
“Put his head back on the pillow; it will be easier. Would it not be better to remove Mrs. Solmes?” in a lower voice. “She is in danger of one of her attacks. I will not answer for its results, after an excitement like this.”
The old man looked at her doubtfully. “I dare not send her away; he may die, and—he is our son, Caldwell.” God only knows the years of shame and misery compressed into those words!
Let me pass briefly over that night. As I had expected, the man died about daybreak. I made no effort to reset the broken leg, only endeavored to lessen the pains of the final struggle. They were not severe—death ensuing from an internal injury whose very nature dulled sensation. Busied with the sufferer, I was blind, or tried to be blind, to all else that passed around me. I knew how beyond sympathy was the grief this man and woman had to bear, grief, not only for death, but for the end of a life of mystery and crime. Only one other person was admitted—John Combs, the old gray-headed ostler. Whatever the secret was, I perceived that he alone of the household shared it. I fancied though, that, while he was tender enough in his touch of the wounded man, there was very little sorrow at the accident in his face. “It’s an ill life, sir, well ended,” he whispered to me.
Well, at daybreak he died, as I said; and, after assisting Mrs. Solmes to her chamber and leaving her in the care of her husband, I returned to the room to render what aid I could to John Combs. He had already dressed and straightened the body. ”It’s lucky that Mr. Dick has gone over to the village for the day,” he said; “for this thing must be kept quiet, doctor. I’ll have the coffin here to-night, and we’ll bury him before morning. Dead’s dead; we’ll take care of the good name of the living.”
We did bury him that night. It was not hard to elude the drowsy eyes of one or two farm-servants. The grave was ready, dug by Combs in the family burying-ground among the hills. It was a stormy night. The old man, Combs, and Dick (for Solmes asked that he should go,) with myself, were all that were needed to carry the light coffin through the hill-path. The grave yawned black in the white waste of snow; the body we lowered into it was that of a man whose life might have been fair and beautiful, but had gone out in irretrievable shame. I know no more than this; yet, looking back, that solitary grave in the cold snow seems to me one of the saddest sights my life had ever known.
I never entirely understood the secret of this man’s life. When Solmes would have told it to me, a few days later, I checked him. I would not have the old, long-suffering man tear open the wound; it would have tormented his old age just as it had a chance of healing. This much I learned: that the boy, since his earliest childhood, had been one of those singular beings whose natural proclivity to theft might be—and often is—classed as insanity; that, in consequence of some crime committed in Louisiana, he was in peril of the severest punishment of the law; and that, from a perhaps mistaken tenderness on the part of his parents, they had removed him secretly to their own home, and there contrived to conceal him for several months. “I doubt,” said John Combs to me, “that he was but little more than an idiot in these last years. Rum did it, an other things, fearin’ the law, night an day, most of all. He never had much grit like a man in him, an latterly his bones seemed nothing but soft chalk, his hair turned white, (though that belongs to the Solmes,) he got limp like a rag, an could wind himself in an out of any crack. It was so as he got out at nights, unbeknownst to us, through a slit of a sky-light in his room, an so along the roof, into your room, sir, easy enough, through the window of a closet—after plunder, I reckon; but had sense enough to play the ghost when there. That last night, something scared him, or he missed his footing on the eaves, and came crashing down, t’other side of the angle of the wing from you, on the hard brick. An that was the end. God forgive me if I’m not sorry. By the way, did you find a bit of package on your dressing-table, this morning?”
I nodded. It was the stolen cross.
You can easily guess the remainder of my story, which, after all, has been but a scratched outline.
A fortnight afterward, Dick formally renewed his proposal for Nelly’s hand to her father. The old man was much broken by the suffering he had borne in the last month; he trembled like a feeble woman as Dick talked to him.
“You know the obstacle now that lies between you,” he said.
“It is gone; and it never, at any time,” Dick added, hotly, “should have separated us, if I had known what it was. Nelly and I are sure of each other, sir,” putting his hand affectionately on his arm, “and family honor is a very shadowy trifle to us.”
“As you will, Richard, as you will,” in a more cheery tone than he had used for many days, and looking proudly into the young reprobate’s face. Dick always had a way of winning people over to him; and I believe the poor old man felt as if God had sent him as a sort of recompense for the disappointment his own boy had given him.
My story is ended. I would like to tell you what a cosy, bright, comfortable home ours is under Nelly’s supervision, (for she and Dick have been married nearly two years,) but she warns me I have but little time to dress for dinner. It is a state dinner. Solmes and his wife are coming to spend a week or two with us. I can hear the rumble of their old carriage coming up the lane, and see Mrs. Solmes’ red, motherly face, quite aglow with the cold, as she leans forward to talk to her husband. They are both laughing, and there is a quiet content in their faces, as if a sure trust in some loving power in the lives had at last laid the memory of the ghost.
University of Connecticut