Thursday 29 October 2015

The Dangerfield Ghost

IN the reign of George II., the head of the house, Sir Hugh Horsingham, married a young wife, and brought her home to Dangerfield, with the usual demonstrations and rejoicings peculiar to such an event. Sir Hugh was a dark, morose man, considerably older than his bride. Stern and forbidding in his manners, but possessing deep feelings under a reserved exterior, and a courage and determination not to be daunted or subdued. Such a man was capable of great things, for good or for evil; and each was the very nature on which a woman's influence might have produced the most beneficial results. But, unfortunately, young lady Horsingham had but one feeling for her lord, and that was intense terror of his anger. She never sought to win his confidence, and never entered into his political schemes, his deeper studies, or even his country amusements and pursuits; all she thought of was how to avoid offending Sir Hugh; and, ere long, this one idea grew to such a pitch, that she quite trembled in his presence, could scarcely answer distinctly when he spoke to her, and seemed hardly to draw breath in freedom save when out of his sight. Such a state of things could have but one ending — distrust and suspicion on one side, unqualified aversion on the other. A marriage, never of inclination — as, indeed, in those days amongst great families few marriages were — became an insupportable slavery ere the first year of wedded life had elapsed; and by the time an heir was born to the house of Horsingham, probably them was no unhappier couple within fifty niles of Dangerfield, than dark Sir Hugh, and his pretty, fair-haired, gentle wife. No! she ought never to have married him at all. It was but the night before her wedding that she walked in the garden of her father's old manor-house with a bright, open-hearted, handsome youth, whose brow wore that expression of acute agony which it is so pitiable to witness on a young countenances — that look almost of physical pain, which betokens how the iron has, indeed, "entered the sufferer's soul." "Ah! you may plead. 'Cousin Edward;' but we women are of a strange mixture, and the weakest of us may possess obstinacy such as no earthly consideration can overcome." "Lucy! Lucy! for the last time, think of it — for the love of Heaven, do out drive me mad — think of it once more — it is the last, last chance." — The speaker was white as a sheet, and his hollow voice came in hoarse, inarticulate whispers, as he looked almost fiercely into that dear face to read his doom. Too well he knew the set, filed expression of her delicate profile. She did not dare turn towards him; she could not have looked him in the face and persevered, but she kept her eyes fastened on the horizon, at though she saw her future in the fading sunset; and whilst her heart seemed turning to very stone, she kept her lips firmly closed; she repressed the tears that would have choked her, and so, for that time, she conquered.

Lucy had a great idea of duty; hers was no high-principled love of duty from the noblest motives, but a morbid dread of self-reproach. She had not character enough to do anything out of her own notions of the beaten track. She had promised her father she would marry Sir Hugh Horsingham — not that he had the slightest right to exact such a promise — and she felt bound to fulfil it. She never remembered the injury she was doing "Cousin Edward," the right which such devotion as his ought to have given him. She knew she loved him better than any one in the world; She knew she was about to commit an act of the greatest injustice towards Sir Hugh; but she had "promised papa;" and though she would have given worlds to avoid fulfilling her compact, she had not strength of mind to break the chain and be free.

Cousin Edward! Cousin Edward! you should have carried her off then and there; she would have been truly grateful for the rest of her life, but she would have died sooner than open her lips. He was hurt — reckless — almost savage. He thought her sullen. "Once more, Lucy," he said, and his eye glared fiercely in the waning light, "once more, will you give me one word, or never set eyes on me again?" Her lip never moved. "I give you till we pass that tree" — he looked dangerous now — "and than" — he swore a great oath — "I leave you for ever." Lucy thought the tree looked strange and ghastly in the rising moon; she even remarked a knot up in its smooth white stem, but she held out whilst one might have counted ten; and when she turned round, poor girl! Cousin Edward was gone.

At this period, there was set on foot one of those determined plots, which during the first two reigns of the House of Hanover, so constantly harassed that dynasty.
Sir Hugh, of course, was a prime mover of the conspiracy, and was much in London and elsewhere, gathering intelligence, raising funds, and making converts to his opinions. Ned Meredith, having, it is to be presumed, all his energies occupied in his own private intrigues, had somewhat withdrawn of late from the Jacobite party; and Sir Hugh heard, with his grim, unmoved smile, many a jest and innuendo levelled at the absentee.

One stormy winter's evening, the baronet, well armed, cloaked, and booted, left his own house for the metropolis, accompanied by one trusty servant. He was bearing papers of importance, and was hurrying on to lay them, with the greatest despatch, before his fellow conspirators. As night was drawing on, Sir Hugh's horse shied away from a wild figure, looming like some spectre in the fading light; and ere he had forced the animal back into the path, his bridle was caught by a half naked lad, whom the rider at once recognised as an emissary he had often before employed to be the bearer of secret intelligence, and who, under an affectation of being half-witted, concealed much shrewdness of observation, and unimpeachable fidelity to the cause.

"Whip and spur. Sir Hugh — whip and spur," said the lad, who seemed flustered and confused with drink; "you may burst your best horse betwixt this and London, and all to get there before you're wanted. A dollar to drink, Sir Hugh, like handsome Ned gave me this morning — a dollar to drink, and I'll save you a journey for the sake of the 'Bonny While Rose,' and the 'Bird with the Yellow Bill.'"

Sir Hugh scrutinised the lad with a piercing eye, flung him a crown from him purse, and bid him "out with what he had to say, for that he himself was hurried, and must push on to further the good cause." The lad was sobered in an instant.

"Look ye here, Sir Hugh," he said, eagerly; "Handsome Ned went down the road at a gallop this morning. There's something brewing in London, you may trust me, Sir Hugh, and I tried to stop him to learn his errand; but he tossed me a crown and galloped on. He took the hill-road, Sir Hugh, and you came up the vale; but he's bound for Dangerfield, I know, and mayhap he's got papers that will save your journey to London: no offence, Sir Hugh," added the lad, for the baronet's face was blank as midnight.

"None, my good boy," was the reply, in a hoarse, thick voice. "Hold, there's another crown for you — drink it every farthing, you villain! or I never give you a sixpence again;" and Sir Hugh rode on, as though bound for London, but stopped a mile farther forward, at a place where two roads met; and entrusting his papers to his servant, bade him hasten on with them, whilst he galloped back through the darkness in the direction of his home.

He can let himself in by the garden gate with his own pass key. Ere he is aware, he is tramping up the corridor in his heavy horsemen's boots — his hand is on the door — there ia a woman's shriek — and Sir Hugh's tall, dark figure fills the doorway of Lucy's sitting-room, where, alas! she is not alone, for the stern, angry husband is confronted by Ned Meredith!

Lucy cowers down in a corner of the room, with her face buried in her hands. Cousin Edward draws him-self up to his full height, and looks his antagonist steadily in the face, but with an expression of calm despair, that seems to say fate has now done her worst. Sir Hugh is cool, collected, and polite; nay, he can even smile, but he speaks strangely, almost in a whisper, and hisses through his set teeth. He has double-locked the door behind him, and turns to Cousin Edward with a grave, courteous bow.

"You have done me the honour of an unexpected visit, Mr. Meredith," he says; "I trust Lady Horsingham has entertained you hospitably! Pray do not stir, madam. Mr. Meredith, we are now quits; you saved my life when you encountered Colonel Bludyer; I forbore from taking yours, when I had proofs that it was in my right. We have now entered on a fresh account, but the game shall be fairly played. Mr. Meredith, you are a man of honour — yes, it shall be fairly played." Ned's lip quivered, but he bowed, and stood perfectly still. "Lady Horsingham," continued Sir Hugh, "be good enough to hand me those tables, they contain a dice-box. Nay, Mr. Meredith," seeing Ned about to assist the helpless frightened woman; "when present, at least, I expect my wife to obey me." Lucy was forced to rise, and trembling in every limb, to present the tables to her lord. Sir Hugh placed the dice-box on the table, laid his pistols beside it, and, taking a seat, motioned to Cousin Edward to do the same. "You are a man of honour, Mr. Meredith," he repeated; "we will throw three times, and the highest caster shall blow the other's brains out." Lucy shrieked, and rushed to the door: it was fast, and her husband forced her to sit down and watch the ghastly game.

"Good God, Sir Hugh!" exclaimed Cousin Edward, "this is too horrible — for your wife's sake — any reparation I can make, I will; but this is murder, deliberate murder."

"You are a man of honour, Mr. Meredith," reiterated Sir Hugh; "I ask for no reparation but this — the chances are equal if the stakes are high. You are my guest, or rather, I should say, Lady Horsingham's guest. Begin." Cousin Edward's face turned ghastly pale: he took the box, shook it, hesitated, but the immovable eye was fixed on him; the stern lips repeated once more — "You are a man of honour," and he threw — "Four." It was now Sir Hugh's turn. With a courteous bow he received the box, and threw — "Seven." Again the adversaries cast, the one a six, the other a three; and now they were even in the ghastly match. Once more Cousin Edward shook the box, and the leaping dice turned up — "Eleven." Lucy's white face stood out in the lamp-light, as she watched with stony eyes that seemed to have lost the very power of sight.

"For God's sake, forego this frightful determination, Sir Hugh," pleaded Cousin Edward; "take my life in a fair field. I will offer no resistance; but you can hardly expect to outdo my throw, and nothing shall induce me to take advantage of it: think better or it, Sir Hugh, I entreat you."

"You are a man of honour, Mr. Meredith, and so am I," was the only reply, as Sir Hugh brandished the box aloft, and thundered it down on the table — "Sixes!" "Good casting," he remarked, and at the same instant, cocking the pistol nearest to him, discharged it full into his antagonist's bosom. The bullet sped through a delicate lace handkerchief, which he always wore there, straight and true into Cousin Edward's heart. As he fell forward across the table, a dark stream flowed slowly, slowly along the carpet, till it dyed the border of Lucy's white dress with a crimson stain. She was on her knees, apparently insensible; but one small hand felt the cold, wet contact, and she looked at it, and saw that it was blood. Once more she uttered a shriek that rang through those vast buildings, and rushed again to the door to find it locked. In sheer despair she made for the window, threw open the casement, and ere Sir Hugh could sieze or stop her, flung herself headlong into the court below. When the horrified husband looked down into the darkness, a wisp of while garments, a bruised and lifeless body, was all that remained of Lady Horsingham.

That night one-half of Dangerfield Hall was consumed by fire. Its mistress was said to have perished in the flames. The good neighbours, the honest country people, pitied poor Sir Hugh galloping back from London, to find his home in ruins, and his wife a corpse. His gay companions missed "Ned Meredith" from his usual haunts; but it was generally supposed he had obtained a mission to the Court of St. Germains, and there was a rumour that he had perished in a duel with a French marquis. A certain half-witted lad, who had followed Sir Hugh back to Dangerfield on that fearful night, might have elucidated the mystery; but he had been kidnapped, and sent to the plantations. After many years he returned to England, and on his death-bed left a written statement, implicating Sir Hugh in the double crime of arson and murder. But long ere this the culprit had appeared before a tribunal which admits of no prevarication, and the pretty boy with the golden curls had become lord of Dangerfield Hall. The long corridor had been but partially destroyed. It was repaired and refurnished by successive generations; but guests and servants alike refused to sleep again in that dreary wing, after the first trial. Every night, so surely as the old clock tolled out the hour of twelve, a rush of feet was heard along the passage — a window looking into the court was thrown open — a piercing scream from a woman's voice rang through the building — and those who were bold enough to look out, averred that they beheld a white figure leap wildly into the air and disappear. Some even went so far as to affirm that drops of blood, freshly sprinkled, were found every morning on the pavement of the court. But no one ever doubted the Dangerfield ghost to be the nightly apparition of Lucy, Lady Horsingham. — "Kate Coventry."

From The Northern Whig, 7th September 1859.

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