It's that ghost wonderful time of the year when ghouls and goblins take center stage... and center ice. For this year's Skate Guard Hallowe'en Spoooktacular, we're going all the way back to 1868 with an unattributed piece that first appeared in the Christmas issue of "Chambers's Journal". Dim the lights, light a candle and prepare to be spooked by an eerie Victorian era skating thriller called "The Night-Summons".
"THE NIGHT-SUMMONS" (UNATTRIBUTED)
I could never quite make up my mind to like Captain Standril. He was only Lieutenant Standril when he first came to Buckholme, and let my sister Alice see how deeply he was in love with her. He was very good-looking and very accomplished; and in the eyes of Alice and mamma, he was simply perfection. Any opposition that I, a raw school-girl of fifteen, might have felt inclined to offer my sister's engagement would have been worse than useless; it would only have sown discord where love the most complete had heretofore reigned, and would not have influenced Alice's after-fate in the least. So the wedding-day came and went, and took our dear one with it. Mamma and I were left in the old house alone; and Buckholme had never seemed so desolate to either of us as it did now that Alice's pleasant laugh was no longer heard in its rooms.
About six months after Lieutenant Standril's marriage, his regiment was ordered to Ireland; and then Alice would have been lost to us entirely but for the letters that passed to and fro between Buckholme and the little town where she was in quarters with her husband.
My sister had been gone about a couple of years, when that terrible affair of the bank-failure took place. Mamma lost two-thirds of her entire fortune in the crash, and my little portion went the same way.
As a consequence of this calamity, we were obliged to quit Buckholme, the spot where Alice and I had been born and brought up, and close to which was the churchyard where our father lay buried. Mamma could no longer afford to keep up so large an establishment. We were even obliged to leave dear old Scotland; and, to my girlish fancy, crossing the border was like going into a foreign country. Mamma had a little house, her own property, in one of the northern counties of England, and that was to be our future home. After Buckholme, it was a mere cottage; and for several weeks after our arrival, we seemed to have scarcely breathing-room in it. But that feeling of narrowness and want of space quickly wore itself away, and we came to look upon the little house emphatically as home, and as such, we grew to love it. It was pleasantly situated on an upland sweep of rich pasture-land. From its windows, you looked across a wide expanse of undulating valley to the foremost spurs of a range of great hills that stretched northward - one giant pressing close on the shoulders of another almost to the Border itself - and formed no bad substitute for the more rugged grandeurs of my native land. Our tiny demesne was shut in on one side by the sluggish waters of a canal. This canal was a great eyesore to mamma, who always spoke of it as 'that ditch'; but for my part, I did not dislike it. The slow-trailing barges, laden with coal or merchandise, and the gay packet-boats that passed our windows twice a day - one up and one down - lent a touch of human interest to the landscape, and were of service to us in drawing our thoughts for a little while from ourselves and our immediate troubles.
Alice had been gone about three years. Of late, her letters had been very infrequent, and those that we did receive were confined to details of the meagrest kind. They breathed no syllable of complaint, yet there was always a troubled look in my mother's eyes for a day or two after she had received one of them. In the last letter sent us by Alice, there was no hint of what came to pass such a short time afterwards; consequently, our surprise was all the greater when, in the dusk of a certain summer evening, a fly stopped at our garden-wicket, and the next moment I clasped my sister to my heart.
It was only natural, after the first glad surprise of the meeting was over, that both mamma and I should want to know how it happened that Alice had come back so unexpectedly, and without a single word of announcement. But my sister stopped us at the outset.
"Captain Standril's regiment is ordered to Canada," she said, "and he will accompany it. I decline going to Canada; consequently, I am come back home. I have nothing further to tell you; and if you love me, you will not ask me a single question more."
And nothing further did she tell us. We were too happy to have her with us to question her against her will as to her reasons for returning.
During the six months that followed between the night of her return and the strange incident which I have now to record, Alice received but two letters from her husband. Whether the news they contained was good or bad, no one ever knew but herself. All she said was, that Captain Standril was quite well, and desired his regards to mamma and me; but she seemed even more melancholy after the receipt of them than she had been before, although not faintest murmur or complaint of any kind escaped her lips. Both mamma and I were anxious on the score of her health, which seemed to wane with the waning year; the listless, brooding sadness that was upon her deepened from month to month, and the doctor's visits grew more frequent as Christmas drew near. But Alice's illness was of the heart, and all the tonics in the world would have availed her but little.
That winter was the hardest that had been known south of the Border for years; but I had been used to hard winters all my life. The black frost, which set in about the middle of December, promised before long to afford me an opportunity of indulging in my favourite pastime of skating, which, on leaving Buckholme, I had given up as a lost pleasure - as a something which I could hope but rarely to enjoy again. Every morning when I awoke, my first glance was to the window of my room, to see whether a filigree of frost-work still obscured the panes; and morning after morning, the dainty tracery was there again, telling me that the frost had not yet been broken.
When the frost had lasted four days, I sent Simon, our solitary man-servant, who was coachman, butler and gardener in one, to make a secret reconnaissance, and report privately to me as to character and capabilities of the ice.
"It'll bear all right by tomorrow, Miss Theo, will t'ice," was Simon's report.
Next morning, I imparted my project mamma; but she would not listen to it till two days later, when my importunities induced her to yield a reluctant consent. I must go alone, or not at all, but I did not mind that. I had spent many a solitary hour skating on the great loch near Buckholme, with no company but my own thoughts. So Simon went down with me to the edge of the canal, and put on my skates for me, and then I started. I had a glorious three hours on the ice; and got back home all aglow, just as the sun was dipping into the gray mists of a dying afternoon.
A week passed, and still the frost held without the slightest sign of a break. Every day I went on to the ice for a longer or shorter time; and mamma was quite as anxious now - being well assured that the ice could not give way - that I should enjoy this healthful exercise while I had an opportunity of doing so, as I was to second her wishes in the matter. Dear mamma! She was afraid that Alice's melancholy would infect my spirits it I stayed too much indoors; that I should catch the trick of sadness, without having its warranty.
On the morning of Christmas-eve, there came a third letter from Canada, addressed to my sister. We were all sitting at breakfast when it was brought in, for, this morning, Alice seemed better than usual, and had come down quite unexpectedly. She opened the letter with hands that trembled slightly. As her eyes took in the contents, a deep angry flush mounted to her white face. Next minute she arose, looking beautifully indignant, and crossing the floor, thrust her husband's letter between the bars of the grate, and did not turn away her gaze till it was burned to ashes. She then crossed the room to leave it. She was going back to the solitude of her own little chamber upstairs.
"Is Robert quite well, dear?" asked mamma anxiously as Alice's hand was on the door.
"Captain Standril is quite well," she answered coldly, and next moment she was gone.
Later in the day, I went out on the ice as usual, but the edge of my enjoyment was taken off by my sister's evident trouble. If only she would have made a confidant of mamma, and have told her everything, I felt convinced that half the sting would have been taken out of her trouble. But she nursed it in solitude, brooding over it in lonely misery, and by her obstinate silence, making all three of us far more wretched than we need have been, had not her lips been sealed by mistaken pride.
I was met by mamma on entering the house. "Alice is much worse this afternoon," she said. "The letter she received this morning seems to have given a shock to her nervous system which has utterly prostrated her. I would send for Dr. Webb, but that she is so obstinately bent on not seeing him after his visit of yesterday; and when she sets her mind either for or against anything, you know how determined she can be."
"Has she said anything to you respecting the contents of the letter?"
"Not a word."
As the evening advanced, Alice seemed somewhat better, but still very silent and depressed; and altogether it was the most wretched Christmas-eve I had ever known. I was glad when bedtime came. After I had put out my light, I stood peering out of the window for a few moments. A slight snow-shower had fallen a few hours before, but the clouds had rolled themselves away by this time, and the wide landscape, white and solemn, lay bathed in clearest moonlight. What a pity it seemed, I thought, to waste in sleep hours that could claim so much beauty as their own.
I was fast enough asleep, however, when mamma came into my room, about two o'clock, and touched me on the shoulder. "I want you to get up, dear," she said. "Alice is much worse, and I am becoming very anxious about her."
Mamma's anxiety was at once shared by me when I entered my sister's room. That she was very dangerously ill was quite evident even to my inexperienced eyes. "Dr. Webb must be summoned at once," said mamma, "but whom can we send to fetch him?"
Dr. Webb lived at Dale-end, a little town five miles away. So solitary was the position of our house, that he was the nearest practitioner. Under ordinary circumstances, there would have been no difficulty in summoning him. Old Simon would have got out Ball the pony, and have driven over to Dale-end with the basket-carriage, and have brought the doctor back with him. But to-night it so happened that neither Simon nor the pony was available. The former had gone to spend Christmas with some friends several miles away; and Ball, a few days previously, had fallen lame, and was for the present utterly useless. Beside mamma and myself, there remained in the house only two maid-servants, who would rather have forfeited their situations than have walked five miles along a lonely country road at that uncanny hour.
"I will go and summon Dr. Webb," I said in answer to mamma's question.
"But, Theo, you can never walk five miles at this time of the night."
"I both can and will do it. Dr. Webb will bring me back in his gig."
"It will never do for you to go alone. Bessy the housemaid must accompany you."
"She would only be an encumbrance, and I am not at all afraid. I should get along twice as well without her. You know my walking powers of old."
"I must really insist, Theo, upon Bessy going with you. Otherwise I shall go to Dale-end myself."
I should probably have carried my point in the end, but just then a sudden thought struck me, which left me for the moment powerless to speak, and mamma at once went to call Bessy.
Five minutes later, Bessy and I were ready to start. Mamma let us out at the front-door, and bade us God-speed, and stood watching us till we shut the garden wicket behind us and were lost to view. Moon and stars were shining brightly, and all the country-side lay white before us. The snow was not thick enough to impede walking; it just served to deaden the noise of our footsteps on the hard ground. There was a keen frosty wind that smote us like a scourge when we got out of the sheltered lane, and turned our faces northward.
"Beg your pardon, Miss Theo, but you are taking the wrong turn," said Bessy. "We shall never get to Dale-end this way."
"Yes we shall, Bessy; or rather I shall. There will be no need for you to go."
"But Mrs. Saltoun said I was to go with you, Miss Theo; and anyhow, this is not the road."
"Let me enlighten you; I am going to skate there along the canal."
"Law! Miss, you will never be so foolish!" exclaimed Bessy, utterly aghast at the idea. "Whatever will your mamma say?"
"Mamma has had to forgive me so many worse things than that. I shall reach Dale-end in half the time it would take me to go by road, and Dr. Webb will be able to see my sister so much the sooner. I want you to go down to the canal with me, and assist me on with my skates. After that, you can go back home, and tell mamma what I have done."
Bessy grumbled, but was obliged to give way. I sat down on a large stone by the canal side, and she assisted me to fasten on my skates. My dress was well looped up, and so as not to impede my movements; my hands were protected by a tiny muff; last of all, Bessy tied a handkerchief over my hat; and under my chin. Then I started. Good-hearted Bessy stood on the bank, and waved me a tearful farewell, as though I were going on a voyage of a thousand miles.
The ice was in splendid condition. The keen wind that had sprung up since midnight had swept the powdered snow off its surface almost as well as a broom could have done. To find myself on the ice by night was to remind me of old happy hours in Scotland, when we used to go out, a great party of us, with torches and bagpipes, and skate on Buckholme Loch. I nerved myself to do the distance at racing speed. It was six miles, a mile further than by road. When the black span of the first bridge was touched and past, and Bessy left a quarter of a mile behind, the overpowering solitude of the scene began to weigh upon my heart. But the condition was of itself enough to make me feel sad and anxious. It could not surely be that we were going to lose her? And yet there was something in her appearance to-night that excited my worst fears. In my own mind, I could not help connecting my sister's increased illness with the letter from her husband which she had received that morning while at breakfast. If that hateful Captain Standril had never come back to Buckholme, Alice would not have left us, and all the after-misery of her life resulting from her marriage with that man would have been spared her.
Such was the precise nature of the thought in my mind, at the moment that a faint sound struck on my ear, and caused me to turn my head. I was quite disagreeably startled to find that I was quite so entirely alone on the ice as I had imagined myself to be. There was some one behind me: a man. "Some belated skater, no doubt," said I to myself, "who has been detained by good cheer and good company, and is now making the best of his way home."
Without feeling exactly frightened, I was yet rather anxious and timid, and at once put on my speed to the utmost, with the view of distancing the stranger behind me. But I quickly perceived that the attempt was a futile one. My pursuer - for such, although I had no reason whatever for so doing, I could not help calling him in my own mind - was rapidly lessening the distance between us. The ring of his skates was plain enough now to my ear, above the noise made by my own. Suddenly, I decided to slacken my speed, so as to let this troublesome individual shoot ahead of me, since that seemed the only way to get rid of him. It was not without a quickened beating of the heart that I put this plan into operation, and reduced my speed by one-third. The stranger now came up 'hand over hand'. "He will reach me at the bridge," said I to myself, calculating the distance with my eye. So it was. As we shot until the bridge, he was skating in my shadow; as we shot out on the other side, he and I were abreast. I kept my eyes fixed straight before me, and skated on, but still at a reduced speed. I was momently expecting to see the stranger glide on in front of me, leaving me to pursue my journey alone. But he did nothing of the kind. We had left the bridge three hundred yards behind, and he was still skating in an exact line with me. My indignation was rapidly overcoming my timidity. "A piece of warrantable impertinence, to intrude his company on me in this way!" I said to myself. With that I turned to fix him with a haughty stare; perhaps to question him, and saw - whom?
My first feeling was on of utter surprise at finding by my side a person whom I had at that moment believed to be some thousands of miles away. But this feeling quickly merged itself, and was lost in one that was far more unpleasant - in one of sheer horror. In the first moment of my surprise at seeing Captain Standril, I pronounced his name, and was about to add some simple question, but a second glace at him caused the words to die away in my throat. As well as I could make out, he was dressed entirely in furs. On his head, he wore a close-fitting cap, made of the skin of some animal, from which his pale sharp-cut features and shapely moustache stood out clear and distinct in the moonlight. Yes, his face was very pale. It was more than pale; it was white - a dull death-like green white in the light of the moon - the face of a corpse! My soul itself seemed to shudder with a dread ineffable, as the conviction forced itself upon my mind that I was in the company of a dead man. He was looking straight before him at the moment I pronounced his name, and he took no apparent notice of my ejaculation. We were still gliding swiftly forward on our shoes of steel - I almost mechanically; we were still in a line one with the other, with a space of five or six feet between us; we had progressed about half a mile from the spot were Captain Standril had come up with me, when he slowly turned his head, and bent his eyes upon mine - terrible eyes, with nothing of earthy speculation left in them, but in its place a nameless indescribable something, lighting them up with a strange inward light of their own, so that their expression was as clear to me as if I had seen them by the broad light of day. The horror that was upon me deepened till it was almost unbearable. Earth and sky, moonlight and starlight, and the shining icy floor which my feet were devouring so swiftly, all passed out of my cognizance as unconsciously as a dream fades out of the brain at the moment of waking. We seemed to be skating, my dread companion and I, over a sea of glass towards a precipice that could only be discerned dimly in the distance, and over which, having no power to stop ourselves, we must inevitably go headlong to destruction.
As in dreams we have no real knowledge of the duration of time, so, in the state in which I then was, I seemed to have passed hours in skating over the sea of glass, whereas it could only have been half a minute at the most before I came back to a recognition of time and place, and the real circumstances around me; and felt rather than saw, with a throb of unspeakable relief, that my companion's baleful eyes were no longer fixed upon me. In the mere fact of his presence, there was something sufficiently terrible; but had he kept his eyes on me much longer, I must either have died or gone mad.
There was something appalling in my companion's utter silence. I became possessed by an almost irresistible desire to challenge him, to question him, to do anything that would cause him to speak; and yet in my secret I was intensely thankful that he did not speak: it was a contradiction that I am unable to explain. Had he spoken to me, I should have never summoned up courage to answer again. Nothing, indeed, save the strong consciousness working within me that the errand on which I was bound must be accomplished at every risk, gave me the strength needful to accomplish my purpose. Had I been supported by a sense of any duty less stern and exacting, that support would have been in vain; I should infallibly have broken down; I should have shrieked aloud for help, though no one could have heard me; I should have turned and fled by the way I had come; or else I should have fallen senseless on the ice, and have been found next morning, frozen and dead. As it was, I drew my breath hard, and set my teeth, and murmured to myself: "Not twenty Captain Standrils, dead or alive, shall stop me from going where I want to go."
I increased my pace, and Captain Standril increased his. Onward we sped along a winding course that followed every bend and twist of the little valley, the white meadows, solitary and far-reaching, sweeping down on either side of our icy road without a sign of human life or habitation. The little town for which I was bound lay in a fold of the valley, and could not be seen from the canal till you were close upon it. My heart began to beat more freely at the thought that now the end of my journey was not far away. About a mile before you reach the town, the canal divides itself into two branches, which, after forming a loop (for purposes of trade), come together again in the large basin at the terminus. Each of these channels would have answered my purpose equally well, there being little or no difference in their length; but I had made up my own mind to take that which led to the right. When we were about a dozen yards from the point of division, the dark and speechless figure by my side shot suddenly ahead in the direction of the left hand channel. I now saw, what I had not noticed before, that my weird companion was shadowless! The noise made my his skates cutting the ice could be distinctly heard above that made by mine; in bulk and figure he seemed as other men; his person intercepted the light, and was apparently as palpable to the touch as my own: yet despite all this, as he shot forward in the brilliant moonlight, not the slightest shadow was cast by his figure on the ice. I saw, and thrilled from head to foot as I saw. At the entrance to the left-hand channel, my companion paused in his career, turned his head slowly, and beckoned me to follow him. As though impelled by some fatal fascination with the course I had determined on in my own mind, my feet, without any apparent volition of my own, turned off to the left, as if in obedience to my ghostly summons. Another instant, and I should have been close on his track, when suddenly I heard my sister's voice, as clear as distinct as ever I heard it in my life, say close to my ear: "Follow him not!" With a half-smothered shriek, I swept swiftly round, and next moment I was racing at a headlong speed down the channel to the right.
I thought I had got rid of my ghostly pursuer. My eyes went stealthily round, and could see no signs of him. But a couple of minutes later, as I emerged from the shadow of a bridge, he was by my side again. But every minute now my nerves were gaining in steadiness, for the end of my journey was night. Presently, we shot into the great basin of the canal, the roofs of Dale-end were before me, and my heart gave utterance to a brief silent thanksgiving for my safe arrival. I sat down on the wharf steps to take off my skates. My dread companion had vanished; I was alone.
As I hurried up the narrow tortuous streets of the little town, I seemed to be conscious of a vague shadowy presence haunting my footsteps; but whenever I turned my head there was nothing to be seen. This impalpable something followed me close up to the doctor's door, but was gone utterly the moment I laid my hand on the bell. The good doctor was quickly down in answer to my summons. "O Dr. Webb - my sister!" was all I could say, and then I fell insensible at his feet.
When I recovered my senses, I found Mrs. Webb at my side, whom her husband had fetched out of her bed to attend to her. There, too, was the doctor himself, ready prepared for the journey.
"You had better stay here for the rest of the night, my dear Miss Saltoun," said the doctor, "or else I may have two patients on my hands instead of one."
"I am quite well now; and I must get back home," I replied; nor could all the well-meant efforts of the kind-hearted couple persuade me to the contrary. Five minutes later, well wrapped up in some extra shawls and rugs, I was seated beside the doctor in his gig, on my way home. As we were going along, I narrated to Dr. Webb the details of my strange journey on the ice. He answered me, as I quite expected he would do - that my nervous system was out of order; that the delicate mechanism of the brain was slightly disarranged; that my mind had been dwelling too much on Captain Standril and the letter written by him; and that when the mental health was affected in a certain way, nothing was more simple than to mistake a spectral illusion for a creature of flesh and blood. Finally, it was Dr. Webb's opinion that what I wanted most was tone; and he would write me out a prescription in the morning which would put all ghostly fancies to flight for the future.
"What you say may be quite correct," I replied; "nevertheless, I am perfectly convinced that Captain Standril is dead, and that he died within a few hours of the present time, as I am that I am sitting here and speaking with you. All I ask of you, that you will put down the exact day and hour in your pocket-book, and leave the event to prove whether I am right or wrong."
"Agreed," he said. "There can be no harm in doing that. You will not, I presume, say a word either to Mrs. Saltoun or your sister respecting what you have just told me?"
"Certainly not. It will be time enough for them to know when the news shall come."
"The news will never come, my dear Miss Saltoun, take my word for it."
We found my sister no worse than when I had left home. Dr. Webb stayed with us till breakfast-time. Before taking his leave, he showed me the memorandum which he made in his pocket-book.
A fortnight later, came the news of Captain Standril's death. He had been out skating on Christmas-eve with a party of friends on one of the smaller of the Canadian lakes. After some time, he had left the ordinary track of the rest of the party for a solitary run up the lake; and when about a mile and a half away from any assistance, he had unwittingly skated into a large air-hole, which had been made by some Indians in the ice for fishing purposes. His body was recovered; but not till life was extinct. In the suddenness and terrible nature of this calamity, everything was forgiven and forgotten by his widow, except the one fact, that he had been her husband, and that once on a time he had loved her very devotedly. By one loving heart, Captain Standril was long and sincerely mourned.
After a time, and from other sources, some particulars of my sister's married life reached us. That it had been a very unhappy one, marked by gambling and dissipation on the one hand, and by patient endurance on the other, is all that need to be said here. But there are some things that a woman cannot forgive, and Captain Standril did that which would not allow of his wife accompanying him abroad. The letter received by Alice on the morning of Christmas-eve contained a request that she would try to persuade mamma - poor as the latter now was - to sell out five hundred pounds' worth of stock, and remit him the proceeds.
I have nothing further to add, except that I was afterwards informed that at the time of my journey to Dr. Webb's, the ice of the left-hand channel was broken under one of the bridges. Had I taken that channel, as summoned to do by my ghostly conductor, I should, in all human probability, have met a fate similar to that of Captain Standril.
Dr. Webb is, however, still skeptical, and always speaks of the affair as "a very remarkable case of spectral illusion."
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