One wintry evening, early in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundre_nd eighty, a keen north wind arose as it grew dark, and night came on wit_lack and dismal looks. A bitter storm of sleet, sharp, dense, and icy-cold, swept the wet streets, and rattled on the trembling windows. Signboards, shaken past endurance in their creaking frames, fell crashing on the pavement; old tottering chimneys reeled and staggered in the blast; and many a steepl_ocked again that night, as though the earth were troubled.
It was not a time for those who could by any means get light and warmth, t_rave the fury of the weather. In coffee-houses of the better sort, guest_rowded round the fire, forgot to be political, and told each other with _ecret gladness that the blast grew fiercer every minute. Each humble taver_y the water-side, had its group of uncouth figures round the hearth, wh_alked of vessels foundering at sea, and all hands lost; related many a disma_ale of shipwreck and drowned men, and hoped that some they knew were safe, and shook their heads in doubt. In private dwellings, children clustered nea_he blaze; listening with timid pleasure to tales of ghosts and goblins, an_all figures clad in white standing by bed-sides, and people who had gone t_leep in old churches and being overlooked had found themselves alone there a_he dead hour of the night: until they shuddered at the thought of the dar_ooms upstairs, yet loved to hear the wind moan too, and hoped it woul_ontinue bravely. From time to time these happy indoor people stopped t_isten, or one held up his finger and cried ‘Hark!’ and then, above th_umbling in the chimney, and the fast pattering on the glass, was heard _ailing, rushing sound, which shook the walls as though a giant’s hand were o_hem; then a hoarse roar as if the sea had risen; then such a whirl and tumul_hat the air seemed mad; and then, with a lengthened howl, the waves of win_wept on, and left a moment’s interval of rest.
Cheerily, though there were none abroad to see it, shone the Maypole ligh_hat evening. Blessings on the red—deep, ruby, glowing red—old curtain of th_indow; blending into one rich stream of brightness, fire and candle, meat, drink, and company, and gleaming like a jovial eye upon the bleak waste out o_oors! Within, what carpet like its crunching sand, what music merry as it_rackling logs, what perfume like its kitchen’s dainty breath, what weathe_enial as its hearty warmth! Blessings on the old house, how sturdily i_tood! How did the vexed wind chafe and roar about its stalwart roof; how di_t pant and strive with its wide chimneys, which still poured forth from thei_ospitable throats, great clouds of smoke, and puffed defiance in its face; how, above all, did it drive and rattle at the casement, emulous to extinguis_hat cheerful glow, which would not be put down and seemed the brighter fo_he conflict!
The profusion too, the rich and lavish bounty, of that goodly tavern! It wa_ot enough that one fire roared and sparkled on its spacious hearth; in th_iles which paved and compassed it, five hundred flickering fires burn_rightly also. It was not enough that one red curtain shut the wild night out, and shed its cheerful influence on the room. In every saucepan lid, an_andlestick, and vessel of copper, brass, or tin that hung upon the walls, were countless ruddy hangings, flashing and gleaming with every motion of th_laze, and offering, let the eye wander where it might, interminable vistas o_he same rich colour. The old oak wainscoting, the beams, the chairs, th_eats, reflected it in a deep, dull glimmer. There were fires and red curtain_n the very eyes of the drinkers, in their buttons, in their liquor, in th_ipes they smoked.
Mr Willet sat in what had been his accustomed place five years before, wit_is eyes on the eternal boiler; and had sat there since the clock struc_ight, giving no other signs of life than breathing with a loud and constan_nore (though he was wide awake), and from time to time putting his glass t_is lips, or knocking the ashes out of his pipe, and filling it anew. It wa_ow half-past ten. Mr Cobb and long Phil Parkes were his companions, as o_ld, and for two mortal hours and a half, none of the company had pronounce_ne word.
Whether people, by dint of sitting together in the same place and the sam_elative positions, and doing exactly the same things for a great many years, acquire a sixth sense, or some unknown power of influencing each other whic_erves them in its stead, is a question for philosophy to settle. But certai_t is that old John Willet, Mr Parkes, and Mr Cobb, were one and all firmly o_pinion that they were very jolly companions—rather choice spirits tha_therwise; that they looked at each other every now and then as if there wer_ perpetual interchange of ideas going on among them; that no man considere_imself or his neighbour by any means silent; and that each of them nodde_ccasionally when he caught the eye of another, as if he would say, ‘You hav_xpressed yourself extremely well, sir, in relation to that sentiment, and _uite agree with you.’
The room was so very warm, the tobacco so very good, and the fire so ver_oothing, that Mr Willet by degrees began to doze; but as he had perfectl_cquired, by dint of long habit, the art of smoking in his sleep, and as hi_reathing was pretty much the same, awake or asleep, saving that in the latte_ase he sometimes experienced a slight difficulty in respiration (such as _arpenter meets with when he is planing and comes to a knot), neither of hi_ompanions was aware of the circumstance, until he met with one of thes_mpediments and was obliged to try again.
‘Johnny’s dropped off,’ said Mr Parkes in a whisper.
‘Fast as a top,’ said Mr Cobb.
Neither of them said any more until Mr Willet came to another knot— one o_urpassing obduracy—which bade fair to throw him into convulsions, but whic_e got over at last without waking, by an effort quite superhuman.
‘He sleeps uncommon hard,’ said Mr Cobb.
Mr Parkes, who was possibly a hard-sleeper himself, replied with some disdain, ‘Not a bit on it;’ and directed his eyes towards a handbill pasted over th_himney-piece, which was decorated at the top with a woodcut representing _outh of tender years running away very fast, with a bundle over his shoulde_t the end of a stick, and—to carry out the idea—a finger-post and a mileston_eside him. Mr Cobb likewise turned his eyes in the same direction, an_urveyed the placard as if that were the first time he had ever beheld it.
Now, this was a document which Mr Willet had himself indited on th_isappearance of his son Joseph, acquainting the nobility and gentry and th_ublic in general with the circumstances of his having left his home; describing his dress and appearance; and offering a reward of five pounds t_ny person or persons who would pack him up and return him safely to th_aypole at Chigwell, or lodge him in any of his Majesty’s jails until suc_ime as his father should come and claim him. In this advertisement Mr Wille_ad obstinately persisted, despite the advice and entreaties of his friends, in describing his son as a ‘young boy;’ and furthermore as being from eightee_nches to a couple of feet shorter than he really was; two circumstances whic_erhaps accounted, in some degree, for its never having been productive of an_ther effect than the transmission to Chigwell at various times and at a vas_xpense, of some five-and-forty runaways varying from six years old to twelve.
Mr Cobb and Mr Parkes looked mysteriously at this composition, at each other, and at old John. From the time he had pasted it up with his own hands, M_illet had never by word or sign alluded to the subject, or encouraged any on_lse to do so. Nobody had the least notion what his thoughts or opinions were, connected with it; whether he remembered it or forgot it; whether he had an_dea that such an event had ever taken place. Therefore, even while he slept, no one ventured to refer to it in his presence; and for such sufficien_easons, these his chosen friends were silent now.
Mr Willet had got by this time into such a complication of knots, that it wa_erfectly clear he must wake or die. He chose the former alternative, an_pened his eyes.
‘If he don’t come in five minutes,’ said John, ‘I shall have supper withou_im.’
The antecedent of this pronoun had been mentioned for the last time at eigh_’clock. Messrs Parkes and Cobb being used to this style of conversation, replied without difficulty that to be sure Solomon was very late, and the_ondered what had happened to detain him.
‘He an’t blown away, I suppose,’ said Parkes. ‘It’s enough to carry a man o_is figure off his legs, and easy too. Do you hear it? It blows great guns, indeed. There’ll be many a crash in the Forest to-night, I reckon, and many _roken branch upon the ground to-morrow.’
‘It won’t break anything in the Maypole, I take it, sir,’ returned old John.
‘Let it try. I give it leave—what’s that?’
‘The wind,’ cried Parkes. ‘It’s howling like a Christian, and has been al_ight long.’
‘Did you ever, sir,’ asked John, after a minute’s contemplation, ‘hear th_ind say “Maypole”?’
‘Why, what man ever did?’ said Parkes.
‘Nor “ahoy,” perhaps?’ added John.
‘No. Nor that neither.’
‘Very good, sir,’ said Mr Willet, perfectly unmoved; ‘then if that was th_ind just now, and you’ll wait a little time without speaking, you’ll hear i_ay both words very plain.’
Mr Willet was right. After listening for a few moments, they could clearl_ear, above the roar and tumult out of doors, this shout repeated; and tha_ith a shrillness and energy, which denoted that it came from some person i_reat distress or terror. They looked at each other, turned pale, and hel_heir breath. No man stirred.
It was in this emergency that Mr Willet displayed something of that strengt_f mind and plenitude of mental resource, which rendered him the admiration o_ll his friends and neighbours. After looking at Messrs Parkes and Cobb fo_ome time in silence, he clapped his two hands to his cheeks, and sent forth _oar which made the glasses dance and rafters ring—a long-sustained, discordant bellow, that rolled onward with the wind, and startling every echo, made the night a hundred times more boisterous—a deep, loud, dismal bray, tha_ounded like a human gong. Then, with every vein in his head and face swolle_ith the great exertion, and his countenance suffused with a lively purple, h_rew a little nearer to the fire, and turning his back upon it, said wit_ignity:
‘If that’s any comfort to anybody, they’re welcome to it. If it an’t, I’_orry for ’em. If either of you two gentlemen likes to go out and see what’_he matter, you can. I’m not curious, myself.’
While he spoke the cry drew nearer and nearer, footsteps passed the window, the latch of the door was raised, it opened, was violently shut again, an_olomon Daisy, with a lighted lantern in his hand, and the rain streaming fro_is disordered dress, dashed into the room.
A more complete picture of terror than the little man presented, it would b_ifficult to imagine. The perspiration stood in beads upon his face, his knee_nocked together, his every limb trembled, the power of articulation was quit_one; and there he stood, panting for breath, gazing on them with such livi_shy looks, that they were infected with his fear, though ignorant of it_ccasion, and, reflecting his dismayed and horror-stricken visage, stared bac_gain without venturing to question him; until old John Willet, in a fit o_emporary insanity, made a dive at his cravat, and, seizing him by tha_ortion of his dress, shook him to and fro until his very teeth appeared t_attle in his head.
‘Tell us what’s the matter, sir,’ said John, ‘or I’ll kill you. Tell us what’_he matter, sir, or in another second I’ll have your head under the biler. Ho_are you look like that? Is anybody a- following of you? What do you mean? Sa_omething, or I’ll be the death of you, I will.’
Mr Willet, in his frenzy, was so near keeping his word to the very letter (Solomon Daisy’s eyes already beginning to roll in an alarming manner, an_ertain guttural sounds, as of a choking man, to issue from his throat), tha_he two bystanders, recovering in some degree, plucked him off his victim b_ain force, and placed the little clerk of Chigwell in a chair. Directing _earful gaze all round the room, he implored them in a faint voice to give hi_ome drink; and above all to lock the house-door and close and bar th_hutters of the room, without a moment’s loss of time. The latter request di_ot tend to reassure his hearers, or to fill them with the most comfortabl_ensations; they complied with it, however, with the greatest expedition; an_aving handed him a bumper of brandy-and-water, nearly boiling hot, waited t_ear what he might have to tell them.
‘Oh, Johnny,’ said Solomon, shaking him by the hand. ‘Oh, Parkes. Oh, Tomm_obb. Why did I leave this house to-night! On the nineteenth of March—of al_ights in the year, on the nineteenth of March!’
They all drew closer to the fire. Parkes, who was nearest to the door, starte_nd looked over his shoulder. Mr Willet, with great indignation, inquired wha_he devil he meant by that—and then said, ‘God forgive me,’ and glanced ove_is own shoulder, and came a little nearer.
‘When I left here to-night,’ said Solomon Daisy, ‘I little thought what day o_he month it was. I have never gone alone into the church after dark on thi_ay, for seven-and-twenty years. I have heard it said that as we keep ou_irthdays when we are alive, so the ghosts of dead people, who are not easy i_heir graves, keep the day they died upon.—How the wind roars!’
Nobody spoke. All eyes were fastened on Solomon.
‘I might have known,’ he said, ‘what night it was, by the foul weather.
There’s no such night in the whole year round as this is, always. I neve_leep quietly in my bed on the nineteenth of March.’
‘Go on,’ said Tom Cobb, in a low voice. ‘Nor I neither.’
Solomon Daisy raised his glass to his lips; put it down upon the floor wit_uch a trembling hand that the spoon tinkled in it like a little bell; an_ontinued thus:
‘Have I ever said that we are always brought back to this subject in som_trange way, when the nineteenth of this month comes round? Do you suppose i_as by accident, I forgot to wind up the church- clock? I never forgot it a_ny other time, though it’s such a clumsy thing that it has to be wound u_very day. Why should it escape my memory on this day of all others?
‘I made as much haste down there as I could when I went from here, but I ha_o go home first for the keys; and the wind and rain being dead against me al_he way, it was pretty well as much as I could do at times to keep my legs. _ot there at last, opened the church-door, and went in. I had not met a sou_ll the way, and you may judge whether it was dull or not. Neither of yo_ould bear me company. If you could have known what was to come, you’d hav_een in the right.
‘The wind was so strong, that it was as much as I could do to shut the church- door by putting my whole weight against it; and even as it was, it burst wid_pen twice, with such strength that any of you would have sworn, if you ha_een leaning against it, as I was, that somebody was pushing on the othe_ide. However, I got the key turned, went into the belfry, and wound up th_lock—which was very near run down, and would have stood stock-still in hal_n hour.
‘As I took up my lantern again to leave the church, it came upon me all a_nce that this was the nineteenth of March. It came upon me with a kind o_hock, as if a hand had struck the thought upon my forehead; at the very sam_oment, I heard a voice outside the tower—rising from among the graves.’
Here old John precipitately interrupted the speaker, and begged that if M_arkes (who was seated opposite to him and was staring directly over his head) saw anything, he would have the goodness to mention it. Mr Parkes apologised, and remarked that he was only listening; to which Mr Willet angrily retorted, that his listening with that kind of expression in his face was not agreeable, and that if he couldn’t look like other people, he had better put his pocket- handkerchief over his head. Mr Parkes with great submission pledged himself t_o so, if again required, and John Willet turning to Solomon desired him t_roceed. After waiting until a violent gust of wind and rain, which seemed t_hake even that sturdy house to its foundation, had passed away, the littl_an complied:
‘Never tell me that it was my fancy, or that it was any other sound which _istook for that I tell you of. I heard the wind whistle through the arches o_he church. I heard the steeple strain and creak. I heard the rain as it cam_riving against the walls. I felt the bells shake. I saw the ropes sway to an_ro. And I heard that voice.’
‘What did it say?’ asked Tom Cobb.
‘I don’t know what; I don’t know that it spoke. It gave a kind of cry, as an_ne of us might do, if something dreadful followed us in a dream, and cam_pon us unawares; and then it died off: seeming to pass quite round th_hurch.’
‘I don’t see much in that,’ said John, drawing a long breath, and lookin_ound him like a man who felt relieved.
‘Perhaps not,’ returned his friend, ‘but that’s not all.’
‘What more do you mean to say, sir, is to come?’ asked John, pausing in th_ct of wiping his face upon his apron. ‘What are you a-going to tell us o_ext?’
‘What I saw.’
‘Saw!’ echoed all three, bending forward.
‘When I opened the church-door to come out,’ said the little man, with a_xpression of face which bore ample testimony to the sincerity of hi_onviction, ‘when I opened the church-door to come out, which I did suddenly, for I wanted to get it shut again before another gust of wind came up, ther_rossed me—so close, that by stretching out my finger I could have touche_t—something in the likeness of a man. It was bare-headed to the storm. I_urned its face without stopping, and fixed its eyes on mine. It was a ghost— a spirit.’
‘Whose?’ they all three cried together.
In the excess of his emotion (for he fell back trembling in his chair, an_aved his hand as if entreating them to question him no further), his answe_as lost on all but old John Willet, who happened to be seated close besid_im.
‘Who!’ cried Parkes and Tom Cobb, looking eagerly by turns at Solomon Dais_nd at Mr Willet. ‘Who was it?’
‘Gentlemen,’ said Mr Willet after a long pause, ‘you needn’t ask. The likenes_f a murdered man. This is the nineteenth of March.’
A profound silence ensued.
‘If you’ll take my advice,’ said John, ‘we had better, one and all, keep thi_ secret. Such tales would not be liked at the Warren. Let us keep it t_urselves for the present time at all events, or we may get into trouble, an_olomon may lose his place. Whether it was really as he says, or whether i_asn’t, is no matter. Right or wrong, nobody would believe him. As to th_robabilities, I don’t myself think,’ said Mr Willet, eyeing the corners o_he room in a manner which showed that, like some other philosophers, he wa_ot quite easy in his theory, ‘that a ghost as had been a man of sense in hi_ifetime, would be out a-walking in such weather—I only know that I wouldn’t, if I was one.’
But this heretical doctrine was strongly opposed by the other three, wh_uoted a great many precedents to show that bad weather was the very time fo_uch appearances; and Mr Parkes (who had had a ghost in his family, by th_other’s side) argued the matter with so much ingenuity and force o_llustration, that John was only saved from having to retract his opinion b_he opportune appearance of supper, to which they applied themselves with _readful relish. Even Solomon Daisy himself, by dint of the elevatin_nfluences of fire, lights, brandy, and good company, so far recovered as t_andle his knife and fork in a highly creditable manner, and to display _apacity both of eating and drinking, such as banished all fear of his havin_ustained any lasting injury from his fright.
Supper done, they crowded round the fire again, and, as is common on suc_ccasions, propounded all manner of leading questions calculated to surroun_he story with new horrors and surprises. But Solomon Daisy, notwithstandin_hese temptations, adhered so steadily to his original account, and repeate_t so often, with such slight variations, and with such solemn asseveration_f its truth and reality, that his hearers were (with good reason) mor_stonished than at first. As he took John Willet’s view of the matter i_egard to the propriety of not bruiting the tale abroad, unless the spiri_hould appear to him again, in which case it would be necessary to tak_mmediate counsel with the clergyman, it was solemnly resolved that it shoul_e hushed up and kept quiet. And as most men like to have a secret to tel_hich may exalt their own importance, they arrived at this conclusion wit_erfect unanimity.
As it was by this time growing late, and was long past their usual hour o_eparating, the cronies parted for the night. Solomon Daisy, with a fres_andle in his lantern, repaired homewards under the escort of long Phil Parke_nd Mr Cobb, who were rather more nervous than himself. Mr Willet, afte_eeing them to the door, returned to collect his thoughts with the assistanc_f the boiler, and to listen to the storm of wind and rain, which had not ye_bated one jot of its fury.