heard the following narrative at a dinner party in a country-house about five miles from the place where the events referred to occurred, and it was related to me by the chief actress in it - a pretty, lady-like girl of twenty, the daughter of the rector of the parish in which Stapleford Grange is situated. I had sprained my ankle in the morning, and instead of going in to dinner with the rest of the party, was made to lie on a sofa in the drawing room; and it was after the ladies came in from the dining-room that pretty Cissy Miles, at her hostess's urgent request, related it to me. I give it, as nearly as I can remember, in her own words.
It was the Saturday afternoon before Christmas Day, nearly two years ago, when my six brothers, all younger than myself, and I were skating on our squire's fish-pond. We had been skating since dinner, and it was not until the wintry daylight was beginning to wane that the recollection rushed across me that I had entirely forgotten to do a commission my mother had given to me in the morning. This commission was to walk to the Grange, a big farm-house, and bespeak some geese for dinner on New Year's Day. My mother had said decidedly, "Those geese must be ordered to-day, Cissy," so I knew that I should have to go: although the Grange was a mile off, although it was very cold and darkness was coming on, and although I was terribly afraid of a big black dog which was chained up just in front of the Grange back door.
"Who'll go with me to the Grange?" I called out quickly, as this remembrance occurred to me, sitting down and beginning to unstrap my skates. "I've forgotten all about the geese, and mamma said I was to order them to-day."
No one answered. The next day was Sunday, and it might thaw before Monday. Everybody, big or little, seemed laudably desirous of making the most of present opportunities.
"I daren't go by myself," I called out in a pathetic tone; "it would be quite dark before I got home again."
"Tell the truth, Cis," called out Charlie a quick, good-natured boy of fifteen, "and say you're afraid of Jip. Never mind, I'll come with you, if you must go." And he joined me on the bank, and proceeded to take off his skates.
"What'll you bet, Jim," he called out, during this operation, "that we ain't at home by a quarter to five? It's exactly four now."
"A bob," was the answer, as Jim whirled by.
"Done; and remember you dub up. Now, Cis, come along, and I can tell you you'll have to run."
Thanks to all my brothers, I was a pretty good runner, and we sped across the squire's fields, and through the narrow lane towards the Grange, as fast as possible. When we got to the last field, which joined the farm-yard, we slackened pace a little, and when we got into the big court-yard itself, we were walking almost slowly.
"How dreadfully lonely it looks, Charlie," I said, almost with a shiver at the desolate aspect of the place, which had been a grand gentleman's house forty years ago, but had been suffered to fall almost into ruins. "I am glad I'm not Mrs Johnson, particularly as she has no children, nor anybody to keep her company when Mr Johnson is away."
"Well, don't you stop and prose to her for ever such a time, Cis, do you hear?" returned Charlie, good humouredly. "I want that bob of Jim's, and we've only five-and-twenty minutes to do the jaw, and get home in."
"All right," I said, and we went up to the back door.
I must try and describe a little of the geography of the Grange now.
The court-yard was a big square place, much bigger than farm-yards usually are, and it must have been an imposing entrance in the old gone by days. There were two entrances to it, the one we had come in by, leading to our village, the other exactly opposite on the other side of the court-yard, leading over a quarter of a mile of fields into the road to our market town of D. To the left hand of the court-yard was a long straight line of what had once been stables, but were now farm-buildings; and to the right, the north side - a long straight line also - of the house itself.
The front door, which was exactly in the middle of the straight line, and which was flanked on either side by several windows, was now never opened; but the back door, which was the entry to a little bit of building standing back from the line of house, and which looked almost as if it had been stuck on to the big square mansion as an after-thought, was on this Saturday afternoon standing a little ajar.
Jip did not greet us with his usual noisy welcome, and there was no sound of any sort about the place except the gabbling of some turkeys in the rear of the farm-buildings. I don't know that I felt any particular fear, but as we followed the path under the shadow of the old elm-trees to the half open door, a sort of oppressed feeling came over me, induced, I suppose, by the utter silence of the place, and I felt almost as if Jip's bark would have been a welcome sound. We went up and knocked at the door, and when I turned round, I observed that Jip's kennel, which stood exactly opposite in a line with the front of the house, was empty.
"Where can Jip be?" I said; "I thought they never let him loose;" and I walked forward a few steps, and became aware that the dog's chain and collar were lying beside the kennel. I stood for a moment or two wondering, whilst Charlie, getting impatient at Mrs Johnson's non-appearance, knocked again at the door. Suddenly, some marks on the flagged pathway in front of the kennel arrested my attention, and upon stooping down to look more closely, I saw that they were - drops and smears of blood.
I raised myself in sudden terror, and called Charlie, and when he came to my side and examined the pathway, we found that there was a bloody trail up to the door.
"What can it be, Charlie?" I said, in a whisper.
"I don't know," Charlie returned, thoughtfully; "poor Jip come to grief, perhaps. It's odd Mrs Johnson doesn't come; I think I'll go on a voyage of discovery; stay here till I come back;" and he pushed the door further open.
"No, let me go too," I said, hastily, half frightened. I am a coward at the sight of blood.
"Well! don't make a row then;" and we entered the little passage together.
On the left hand was the kitchen door, which was shut, and I observed that Charlie hesitated for a moment before he put out his hand to open it. Only for a moment though; then he unlatched the door, and the bright farm kitchen was before us.
There was a big blazing fire in the grate, which showed that on the table the tea-things were set for tea; the kettle was hissing away merrily, and some tea-cakes stood to keep warm on a low stand before the fire. Everything looked snug and cozy. Evidently Mrs Johnson had prepared everything ready for tea when the farmer should return from D. market; and was now gone up-stairs to "clean" herself.
I had time to make all these observations over Charlie's shoulder, before he gave a sudden start, and strode with a low exclamation to a bundle of clothes which lay at the further and darker side of the kitchen, on the smooth stone floor. A bundle of clothes it looked like, with Jip lying asleep beside it in a very strange attitude.
I shall never forget the horror of the next moment. Huddled up, evidently in the attitude in which she had fallen, lay Mrs Johnson, with a gaping wound across her throat, from which the blood was still trickling, and Jip, with a large pool of blood near his head, lay dead beside her.
I stood for a moment, too, paralysed with horror - such intense, thrilling horror, that only any one who has experienced such a feeling can understand it - and then, with a low scream, I sank on the floor, and put up my hand to try and hide the horrible sight.
"Hush!" whispered Charlie, sternly, taking hold of my hands, and forcibly dragging me on to my feet again; "you mustn't make a sound. Whoever has done this can't be far off; you must run home, Cissy, as hard as ever you can. Come!"
He dragged me to the door, and then I turned sick all over, and tumbled down again. I felt as if I could not stir another step.
"It's no use, Charlie, I can't stir," I said. "Leave me and go without me."
"Nonsense! Try again."
I tried again, but it was no use; my legs positively would not move, and precious time was being wasted.
"You fool!" Charlie said, bitterly and passionately. How was a boy of fifteen to understand a woman's weakness? "Then I must leave you. It's Johnson's money they no doubt want. They wouldn't murder if they could help it, and Johnson will be back directly."
"Yes, yes. Go," I said, understanding that he wanted to fetch help before the farmer came. "I will hide somewhere."
"In the kennel there," he said, looking round quickly; "and don't stir."
He pushed me into poor murdered Jip's kennel, and then he disappeared, and I was left alone in the gathering darkness with those two prostrate forms on the kitchen floor as my company, and perhaps the murderers close at hand.
I combated the faint feeling which Charlie could not understand by pinching my arms and sticking pins into them, and after a little judicious torture of this sort, the sick feeling went off, and I could think again. "I will take off my boots," I thought, after a moment. "They make such a noise, and I may have to move," for already a glimmering plan had rushed across my brain of how I might warn Johnson. So I rose a little from my crouching position, unlaced them, and slipped them off. I had barely done this, when I heard the sound of voices, and the sick trembling feeling came on so strongly, that the pin torture had to be again applied. In another minute three men came out of the back door, and I could distinctly hear every word of their conversation.
"He's late, I think," said one. "If he doesn't come soon, we must go; that girl'll be home soon. I heard the old woman tell her not to stop."
"What's it signify?" said another. "We can soon stop her mouth."
"It isn't worth so much blood, Dick," said the third. "We've only got fifty pound by this, and the farmer'll not have more."
"He ought to be coming by now," said the first, anxiously, coming a step or two nearer the kennel. "Hallo! What's that?"
The tone made me turn sick again. Had Charlie found help already? No. The three men were standing close to the kennel, and during the moment's silence that followed the man's exclamation, I remembered that I had dropped my muff. I tried to stop the hard quick thumping of my heart, which I felt certain they must hear, and then, as if fascinated, I raised my head from my knees - for till that moment I had been crouching at the furthest end of the kennel - and saw a hairy fierce-looking face glaring in at the entrance of my hiding-place. I tried hard not to scream, and I succeeded; but in another moment I should have fainted if the face had not been taken away. To my utter amazement, as the face disappeared, its owner said:
"I thought some one might be hiding. That's a lady's trumpery. What can it mean?"
Evidently I had not been seen, thanks to my dark dress and the gathering twilight. I breathed freely now; unless something very unforeseen occurred, I was safe.
Some one has been, and has dropped it," a voice said quickly. "That's all on account of your cursed foolery, Dick," it went on angrily. "Why couldn't you stop at the door, as I told you?"
"Well, let's do something now," the third said, anxiously, "or we shall be having some one here."
The three men then went back into the house again, and I could hear them speaking in low tones; presently the voices grew louder, and they were evidently quarrelling. In another minute they came out again, and from what I could hear, they began to search in the farm-buildings and outhouses for the owner of the muff.
"There's no one here," at last one called out. "They must have gone away again. Go to the gate, Bill, and see if anybody is coming that way."
After a moment, Bill returned to the other two, who were now standing talking in low whispers at the back of the kennel, and said:
"No, there's no one coming." And my heart sank as I thought how long it would be before succour could arrive.
"The fellow's late," one of the others said, after a minute or two; "but we had better be on the watch now. Mind, both of you, that he's down from the gig before he sees us."
They walked away along the line of house towards the other entrance by which Mr Johnson would come; and I, thinking they had gone to take up their hiding-places, put my head cautiously out of the mouth of the kennel, and looked round.
Surely I could reach the house without being seen, I thought, and if I could but reach the big ruinous drawing-room, which commanded a view of the fields, the farmer would cross, I might be able to warn him back from the fate which awaited him. I must warn him if I could; it was too horrible that another murder should be done.
I was out of the kennel and in the kitchen before I recollected that I should have to pass close to the murdered woman before I could gain the door leading into the hall, which I must cross to gain the drawing-room. I shuddered as I passed the table and drew near to the horrible scene; but, to my utter surprise and no little terror, Mrs Johnson had vanished! the dark gleaming pool of blood and the dead dog were still there, but the huddled up bundle of clothes was gone.
What had they done with it? In spite of the urgent necessity there was for immediate action, I stood motionless for a minute, hesitating to cross the dimly-lighted hall. Suppose it should be there. I had never seen death before, and the thought of again seeing the dead woman looking so ghastly and horrible with that great gaping wound across her throat was at that moment more terrible to me than the thought of her murderers' return.
Whilst I stood hesitating, a shadow passed across the first window, and, looking up quickly, to my horror I saw the three men in another moment pass the second window.
I had no time for thought. In another minute they would be in the kitchen. I turned and fled down the passage and across the hall, rushing into the first open door, which happened to be the drawing-room door, and instinctively half closed it behind me as I had found it. Then I glanced wildly round the bare empty room in search of shelter.
There was not a particle of furniture in the room, and it was quite empty except for some apples on the floor, and a few empty hampers and sacks at the farther end. How could I hide?
I heard the footsteps crossing the hall, and then, as they came nearer, with the feeling of desperation I sped noiselessly across the room, laid down flat behind the hampers, and, as the door opened, threw an empty sack over me. I felt I must be discovered, for my head was totally uncovered; and I watched them fascinated, breathless from intense terror. They walked to the window, saying, "We shall see better here," and looked out, presently all exclaiming together, "He's coming now; that black spot over there;" and, without glancing in my direction, they left the room again. I was safe, but what could I do to save the farmer? Surely Charlie must be coming with help now, but would he be in time? I must try and save him, was the conviction that impressed itself upon me in a lightning thought, and as it crossed my brain I sprang to the window. All thought of self vanished then with the urgency of what I had to do. I was only eager - nervously, frantically eager - to save the farmer's life.
They say that mad people can do things which seem impossible to sane ones, and I must have been quite mad with terror and fright for the next few minutes.
Seven feet below me, stretching down the slope of the hill, was the garden, now lying in long ploughed ridges, with the frozen snow on the top of each of them, and at the bottom of the garden was a stone wall four feet high. Beyond this, as far as the eye could reach, extended the snow-covered fields, and coming along the cart road to the left was Mr Johnson in his gig.
I threw open the window, making noise enough to alarm the men if they heard it, and sprang on to the window-ledge, and then, tearing off my jacket, threw it on the ground, and, shutting my eyes, jumped down. The high jump hurt my wrists and uncovered feet dreadfully, but I dare not stop a moment. I rushed down the garden, tumbling two or three times in my progress, and, when I came to the wall, scrambled over it head-foremost. The farmer was just opening the gate of the field I was in, and I made straight towards him, trying to call out. But I could not utter a word; so I flew across the snow, dashed through the brook, careless that the bridge was a few feet further down, and when I rushed up to Mr Johnson's side, I could only throw up my arms and shriek out "Murder!" just as a loud report rang out through the frosty air, and I fell forward on my face.
"And were you hurt?" I asked, as she paused.
"Yes, a little. Look, here is the scar;" and she raised the flowing fold of tarletane from her soft white arm, and pointed to a white oval-shaped scar. "I was ill for several weeks afterwards, but Dr B. said it was from fright, not from the shot. They told me subsequently, that just as I must have reached the farmer, the men Charlie had fetched entered the farm-yard at the other side, and took the murderers unawares; but one of them, who was behind a tree near the other gate, had just caught sight of me, and had fired in revenge, and they said that if I had not thrown my arms forward, I should perhaps have been killed."
"And Mrs Johnson?" I said.
The girl's face became very grave.
"She was quite dead. The men had put her under the dresser, which explains why I did not see her as I passed through the kitchen, and the poor husband went away directly afterwards. The whole house is uninhabited now. Nobody will live there, and of course it is said to be haunted. I have never been there since that day, and I think I shall never dare to go there again.
The girl stopped, for the gentlemen had just come in from the dining-room, and one, tall and black bearded, who had been pointed out to me by my hostess as the Squire of Stapleford, and Cicely Miles's betrothed, now came up to her, and laying his hand on her white shoulder with an air of possession, said tenderly,
"What makes you look so flushed, Cissy? Have you been transgressing again?"
"Yes, Robert. Mrs Saunders asked me to tell Mr Dacre," she answered.
"And you will be ill for a week in consequence. I shall ask Mr Dacre to write the story, to save another repetition of it. You know we wish you to forget all about it, dearest."
"It was too horrible for that," she said, simply. And then the squire turned to me and made the request, of which this tale is the fulfilment.