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THE GHOST AT LABURNUM VILLA
THERE can be no doubt that Mr. Paul Withers is constitutionally nervous. Mrs. Withers says so; and as a man's wife ought to know something about his weak points, the fact may be considered indisputable. Not that Withers himself seeks to conceal or deny this peculiarity; on the contrary, he makes rather a parade of it; just as some people do with their cynicism, their bad temper, or any other feature which they think gives them distinctiveness of cha
Withers, being an author, is in the habit of declaring that he considers his nervousness an advantage; but when he tries to define this position, he gets too misty to follow very closely. Mrs. W., it need scarcely be said, takes the opposite view, and invariably clinches the discussion by declaring, that if Paul hadn't been so absurdly nervous he would never have seen the ghost at Laburnum Villa. As Paul believes devoutly in the one spectral experience of his life, he does not find the illustration convincing; but out of respect for his wife's strength of scepticism, changes the subject.
Was there a ghost at Laburnum Villa, or was it merely a creation of Withers' over-excited brain ? Our readers shall judge for themselves.
The 'neat detached villa-residence' in question was situated in a semi-rural suburb of London. The agent's advertisement, just quoted, farther described it as being elegantly furnished,' and ' within five minutes of a railway-station. If anything more antagonistic to the supernatural than this can be imagined, we shall be glad to hear of it. The advertisement attracted the attention of Mrs. Withers while seated at breakfast with her family in a remote Welsh watering-place; and in the evening of the same day, just as the heavy twilight of a dull September was changing into night, Withers stood at the gate of Laburnum Villa with a small travellingbag in his hand, and the key of that residence in his pocket.
It had been a miserable day. In the first place, his breakfast had been spoiled by the “impetuosity' of Mrs. Withers. That worthy lady had been for some time bringing a legitimate pressure to bear to secure a month or two's stay in London. When she saw the advertisement, she became immediately and completely possessed by the idea that the neighbourhood in question combined every advantage attainable in this necessarily imperfect state of existence. To resolve and act being with her one and the same impulse, she began at once to pack Withers' travelling-bag in spite of his almost SECOND SERIES, VOL. II. F.S. VOL. XII.
pathetic remonstrances. Finding pathos of no use he tried argument, and from that drifted into what he called · firmness' and Mrs. W. stupidity. At this point, when there was just ten minutes to catch the mail-train from Holyhead, Mrs. W. asked in a tone of assumed calmness, if he intended to go to London in his slippers. His only reply was to put on his boots with a gloomy frown, snatch up his bag, and depart without even a 'good-morning. That circumstance, however, did not in the least affect the appetite with which Mrs. Withers continued her interrupted breakfast. Withers meantime speeding Londonwards, and suffering as only nervous men can suffer from the irritating strain of an express journey, was brooding over a terrible scheme of vengeance. He would take the house -0 yes, he would take it at any risk; if it was steaming with damp, infested with the most formidable rats, overrun with specimens of natural history, with a leaky cistern and defective drains, broken-windowed, dilapidated, ay, even roofless! His great revenge had stomach for them all !' But he never for a moment contemplated the possibility of its being · haunted.'
Arrived in London, shattered in body and mind, but with his gloomy purpose strong upon him, he enlisted the obstructiveness of a maddening cabman to place as many difficulties as possible in the way of his finding the house-agent. After this slave of the rank had shut him in a rickety and strong-smelling box on wheels, he displayed an amount of obtuseness about the required address that nearly made Withers jump through the window with rage. Then, when he had acquired some dim notion of where his fare wanted to go, he proceeded with great deliberation in an entirely wrong direction. After two or three false starts of this sort, and the consequent dissipation of a good deal of valuable time, the right office was found at last; and the agent himself discovered in the act of closing his labours for the day, in order to retire to the bosom of his family.' This is never a good time to meet a man who hates doing things in a hurry. Therefore Withers had expended some energy against the impassible composure of Mr. Leese in vain, until he happened to mention the name of the house he wished to occupy. The words · Laburnum Villa' seemed to act like a spell; and in ten minutes more Withers found himself in possession of the key of that ' neat detached villa-residence. Confiding himself once more to the care of cabby, he soon forgot the temporary gleam of elation produced by this small success in gloomy reflections on the probability of his being obliged to spend the night wandering aimlessly about the suburbs in that strong-smelling cab. Then he remembered a newspaper controversy about conveying hospital-patients in public vehicles. Unpleasant impressions began to crowd upon him, and he was on the point of stopping the cab and jumping out, when it was pulled-up with a violent jerk, and he was informed that he was 'there.'
When he found himself alone in a front garden of tolera 'ize, he began to find the situation singular. Then a lurking susp on that it might prove disagreeable obtruded itself. He glanced up at the front of the house, which was of the usual commonplace bowwindowed pattern, and was struck by the fact that there was no appearance of occupation. To resolve this doubt at once he knocked at the door. The sound seemed to raise a dozen melancholy echoes in the neighbourhood; but after these had died away in a lowspirited style, there was no response from the interior of Laburnum Villa. At this point a servant, in full evening dress of light cotton print, fluttered across from one of the nearest villas for the purpose of informing him that, Please, sir, no one lives in that 'ouse.
No one! Is it left to take care of itself ?'
O no, sir. There's a person—leastways an old woman—comes in the daytime, but she don't live there regular. No one has lived there regular since Miss Steel died.'
After imparting these agreeable facts, the servant fluttered genteelly away again, leaving Withers standing on the door-step with an awkward consciousness that, from the drawing-room window of the nearest villa, eyes were bent upon him through the laths of the venetians. It would be absurd to retreat. He took the key from his pocket and entered.
Falling over a pail, happily empty, which had been carelessly left in the little hall, did not tend to put him in a good temper, or to decrease the nervousness that had been growing upon him all day. He sat down on the pail, rubbed his shins, and tried to realise the situation. Alone in a strange house, with nothing to eat, and with that faint sickness upon him which comes of the fatigue and semi-starvation of express travelling. Obviously the thing to do was to look for the kitchen. There might be something to eat: at any rate the chance was worth trying. Fortunately the kitchen was not far off, on the ground-floor, and he groped his way there without much difficulty. Here he was rejoiced by discovering the remains of a good fire, and received a momentary shock from a woman's dress, which was hanging from a hook in a way suggestive, in the dim light from the grate, of the person—leastways the old woman' -having made a violent end of herself. A box of matches was the next fortunate discovery made by Withers, who began to feel himself a sort of Crusoe ; but after burning two or three in a vain attempt to light the gas, he was forced to the unpleasant conclusion that it was either turned off at the meter, or 'cut off' by the gas company. Deferring farther experiments in this direction for the present, he began, with the aid of a candle, to search for provisions. The prosecution of this laudable object naturally took him into the pantry. He was standing here, holding the candle above his head, and peering anxiously about the shelves, when he heard
close to him, as it seemed, the shrill treble shout in which boyhood proclaims its eternal war with mankind. Yah! yah! the post!' the cry sounded like. What did they mean by 'post'? Withers opened the window a little way, and listened more intently. The juvenile destroyers of peace were some distance across the field by this time, so he couldn't be sure whether his ears deceived him or not; but he certainly thought he heard · Yah! yah! the ghost ! It was very absurd, of course ; but still Withers felt queer' as he closed the window again and continued his search. He was rewarded by a magnificent ‘find'-a half-consumed meat-pie in prime condition, doubtless the personal property of the person' before mentioned, It was evident that she, at least, was no ghost, which was so far satisfactory. With the help of the brandy in his travelling-flask, Withers made a hearty supper off the meat-pie ; and, strange to say, never bestowed a thought on the probability of its ' disagreeing' with him—a subject upon which, on ordinary occasions, he was wont to be discreetly but pathetically eloquent.
Now for the meter,' thought Withers, after finishing supper by the light of his solitary candle. He had always entertained rather a high opinion of himself, had Withers, in a modest selfcontained way; but now, under the combined influence of meatpie, brandy, and a pipe of cavendish, he began to think he had done himself scanty justice. Strange,' he mused over his pipe, ' how a novel situation, strange conditions, bring out what is self-reliant in a man. How soon a fellow with any stuff in him grasps and subdues unfamiliar surroundings! The curled and scented military darling of drawing-rooms becomes a hero in war and a Spartan in the camp. The refined son of metropolitan civilisation, the polished cynic of club smoking-rooms, goes to the diggings, and straightway becomes “hail fellow well met" with navvies, and a thoroughgoing advocate of Lynch law.' And then Withers began to think pleasantly of his own fertility of resource, though he had, after all, only gone into an unoccupied house, and consumed another person's provisions. Rousing himself from such meditations with a gentle melancholy upon him, as became a person never destined to be thoroughly appreciated, he went to look for the meter. He found the place where the meter had been, but that was all. This being an emergency to which his resources were by no means equal, he began to doubt the absolute sufficiency of self-reliance under all circumstances. At any rate, no tolerably efficient substitute for the missing meter suggested itself to him, so he determined to distinguish himself in another unfamiliar direction. Returning upstairs, he occupied an hour or so very pleasantly, blacking his face and hands to an impossible extent, in the attempt to light a fire in the dining-room. He had chosen the dining-room to pass the night in in preference to running the risk of damp beds, because it was compact, not to say diminutive, in its proportions, and therefore more easily warmed and lighted by a fire and a couple of candles. Here, then, after the completion of his arrangements, he will be left to continue the story in his own words.
I do not know what the general experience in such cases may be, but I never can feel on thoroughly good terms with other people's furniture; there is a sense of antagonism which I find it impossible to subdue. Even while lounging in the very comfortable easy-chair in the dining-room of Laburnum Villa, I felt as strongly as possible that I was being seated under protest. The companion easy-chair balancing mine on the opposite side of the fire-place had, to my sensitive mind, a distinctly disparaging expression in its arms, and a shrug, as of contempt, in its well-stuffed back. A fiercely-gilt warrior, who was careering at a terrible rate on the top of a clock (run down and silent) decorating the mantelpiece, seemed to point his weapon at me in an openly threatening manner, and challenge me to mortal combat. Even the engravings on the walls rejected me as an alien. • Shakespeare and his Contemporaries' were evidently engaged in discussing me in an unfavourable spirit; and Frith's · Merrymakers' ignored me so completely that I ought to have sunk terribly in my own esteem. There was a portrait in oil, too, of a gentleman, which it was impossible to escape, because it hung opposite the chimney-glass; so that whenever I raised my head, I caught it apparently looking at me over the mantelpiece with an unmistakable expression of indignant surprise. I could almost hear it saying in an injured tone, What the deuce is that fellow doing in my dining-room !'
This state of feeling was becoming intensified to a most disagreeable pitch, when a framed photograph 'caught my eye'—if I may
be permitted to use the phrase—and gave a new turn to my thoughts. It was a full-length of a young lady with one of the most singular faces I ever saw in my life; not a pleasant face by any means, but full of decided character, though the mouth and chin were weak without being feminine. I thought, with something like a shudder of repugnance, that Elsie Venner—that curious creature with the reptile taint in her blood-must have looked like this girl, who seemed to have nothing of girlhood about her but its physical weakness. The small colourless face, with its retreating chin, unsmiling mouth, and slightly prominent nose, its sloping narrow forehead and brilliant black eyes, had such a repellent unsympathetic character, that it created the most disagreeable impressions. I returned to my seat, from which I had risen to examine the portrait ; but I found it impossible to shake-off the feeling it had produced. It was as repugnant to me as if it had been some noxious thing endowed with a sluggish vitality which found expression in the glittering eyes alone : they seemed to hold me with a triumphant consciousness of their power,