Number Ninety by B. M. Croker
For a period extending over some years, a notice appeared
periodically in various daily papers. It read:
"To let furnished, for a term of years, at a very low rental, a
large old-fashioned family residence, comprising eleven bed-rooms,
four reception rooms, dressing-rooms, two staircases, complete
servants' offices, ample accommodation for a Gentleman's
establishment, including six-stall stable, coach-house, etc."
This advertisement referred to number ninety.
Occasionally you saw it running for a week or a fortnight at a
stretch, as if it were resolved to force itself into consideration by
sheer persistency. Sometimes for months I looked for it in vain.
Other folk might possibly fancy that the effort of the house agent
had been crowned at last with success-that it was let, and no longer
in the market.
I knew better. I knew that it would never, never find a tenant. I
knew that it was passed on as a hopeless case, from house-agent to
house-agent. I knew that it would never be occupied, save by
rats-and, more than this, I knew the reason why!
I will not say in what square, street, or road number ninety may
be found, nor will I divulge to human being its precise and exact
locality, but this I'm prepared to state, that it is positively in
existence, is in Charleston, and is still empty.
Twenty years ago, this very Christmas, I was down from New York
visiting my friend John Hollyoak, a civil engineer from Charleston.
We were guests at a little dinner party in the neighborhood of the
South Battery. Conversation became very brisk as the champagne
circulated, and many topics were started, discussed, and
We talked on an extraordinary variety of subjects.
I distinctly recollect a long argument on mushrooms--mushrooms,
murders, racing, cholera; from cholera we came to sudden death, from
sudden death to churchyards, and from churchyards, it was naturally
but a step to ghosts.
John Hollyoak, who was the most vehement, the most incredulous,
the most jocular, and the most derisive of the anti-ghost faction,
brought matters to a climax by declaring that nothing would give him
greater pleasure than to pass a night in a haunted house-and the
worse its character, the better he would be pleased!
His challenge was instantly taken up by our somewhat ruffled host,
who warmly assured him that his wishes could be easily satisfied, and
that he would be accommodated with a night's lodging in a haunted
house within twenty-four hours-in fact, in a house of such a
desperate reputation, that even the adjoining mansions stood
He then proceeded to give a brief outline of the history of number
ninety. It had once been the residence of a well-known county family,
but what evil events had happened therein tradition did not
On the death of the last owner-a diabolical-looking aged person,
much resembling the typical wizard-it had passed into the hands of a
kinsman, resident abroad, who had no wish to return to Charleston,
and who desired his agents to let it, if they could--a most
Year by year went by, and still this 'Highly desirable family
mansion' could find no tenant, although the rent was reduced, and
reduced, and again reduced, to almost zero!
The most ghastly whispers were afloat-the most terrible
experiences were actually proclaimed on the housetops!
No tenant would remain, even gratis; and for the last ten years,
this, 'handsome, desirable town family residence' had been the abode
of rats by day, and something else by night-so said the
Of course it was the very thing for John, and he snatched up the
gauntlet on the spot. He scoffed at its evil repute, and solemnly
promised to rehabilitate its character within a week.
I was charged by our host to serve as a witness--to verify that
John Hollyoak did indeed spend the night at number ninety. The next
night at ten o' clock, I found myself standing with John on the steps
of the notorious abode; but I was not going to remain; the carriage
that brought us was to take me back to my respectable chambers.
This ill-fated house was large, solemn-looking, and gloomy. A
heavy portico frowned down on neighboring barefaced hall-doors. The
elderly caretaker was prudently awaiting us outside with a key, which
said key he turned in the lock, and admitted us into a great echoing
hall, black as night, saying as he did so: "My missus has made the
bed, and stoked up a good fire in the first front, Sir. Your things
is all laid out, and I hope you'll have a comfortable night,
"No, Sir! Thank you, Sir! Excuse me, I'll not come in! Goodnight!"
and with the words still on his lips, he clattered down the steps
with most indecent haste, and vanished.
"And of course you will not come in either?" said John. "It is not
in the bond, and I prefer to face them alone!" and he laughed
contemptuously, a laugh that had a curious echo, it struck me at the
time. A laugh strangely repeated, with an unpleasant mocking
emphasis. 'Call for me, alive or dead, at eight o'clock to-morrow
morning!' he added, pushing me forcibly out into the porch, and
closing the door with a heavy, reverberating clang, that sounded
half-way down the street.
I did call for him the next morning as desired, with the
caretaker, who stared at John's commonplace, self-possessed
appearance, with an expression of respectful astonishment.
"So it was all humbug, of course," I said, as he took my arm, and
we set off for our club.
"You shall have the whole story whenever we have had something to
eat," he replied somewhat impatiently. "It will keep till after
I remarked that he looked unusually grave as we chatted over our
broiled fish and omelet, and that occasionally his attention seemed
wandering, to say the least. The moment he had brought out his cigar
case and lit up he turned to me and said:
"I see you are just quivering to know my experience, and I won't
keep you in suspense any longer. In four words--I have seen
I merely looked at him with widely parted mouth and staring
I believe I had best endeavor to give the narrative without
comment, and in John Hollyoak's own way. This is, as well as I can
recollect, his experience word for word:
"I proceeded upstairs, after I had shut you out, lighting my way
by a match, and found the front room easily, as the door was ajar,
and it was lit up by a roaring and most cheerful-looking fire, and
two wax candles. It was a comfortable apartment, furnished with
old-fashioned chairs and tables, and the traditional four-poster bed.
There were numerous doors, which proved to be cupboards; and when I
had executed a rigorous search in each of these closets and locked
them, and investigated the bed above and beneath, sounded the walls,
and bolted the door, I sat down before the fire, lit a cigar, opened
a book, and felt that I was going to be master of the situation, and
most thoroughly and comfortably 'at home.' My novel proved absorbing.
I read on greedily, chapter after chapter, and so interested was I,
and amused-for it was a lively book-that I positively lost sight of
my whereabouts, and fancied myself reading in my own chamber! There
was not a sound. The coals dropping from the grate occasionally broke
the silence, till a neighboring church-clock slowly boomed twelve!
'The hour!' I said to myself, with a laugh, as I gave the fire a
rousing poke, and commenced a new chapter; but ere I had read three
pages I had occasion to pause and listen. What was that distinct
sound now coming nearer and nearer? 'Rats, of course,' said
Common-sense-'it was just the house for vermin.' Then a longish
silence. Again a stir, sounds approaching, as if apparently caused by
many feet passing down the corridor--high-heeled shoes, the sweeping
switch of silken trains! Of course it was all imagination, I assured
myself-or rats! Rats were capable of making such curious improbable
"Then another silence. No sound but cinders and the ticking of my
watch, which I had laid upon the table."
"I resumed my book, rather ashamed, and a little indignant with
myself for having neglected it, and calmly dismissed my late
interruption as 'rats-nothing but rats.'"
"I had been reading and smoking for some time in a placid and
highly incredulous frame of mind, when I was somewhat rudely startled
by a loud single knock at my room door. I took no notice of it, but
merely laid down my novel and sat tight. Another knock more imperious
this time--After a moment's mental deliberation I arose, armed myself
with the poker, prepared to brain any number of rats, and threw the
door open with a violent swing that strained its very hinges, and
beheld, to my amazement, a tall powdered footman in a laced scarlet
uniform, who, making a formal inclination of his head, astonished me
still further by saying:
"'Dinner is ready!'"
"'I'm not coming!'" I replied, without a moment's hesitation, and
thereupon I slammed the door in his face, locked it, and resumed my
seat, also my book; but reading was a farce; my ears were aching for
the next sound.
"It came soon-rapid steps running up the stairs, and again a
single knock. I went over to the door, and once more discovered the
tall butler, who repeated, with a studied courtesy:
"'Dinner is ready, and the company are waiting.'"
"'I told you I was not coming. Be off, and be hanged!' I cried
again, shutting the door violently.
"This time I did not make even a pretence at reading. I merely sat
and waited for the next move.
"I had not long to sit. In ten minutes I heard a third loud
summons. I rose, went to the door, and tore it open. There, as I
expected, was the servant again, with his parrot speech:
"'Dinner is ready, the company are waiting, and the master says
you must come!'
"'All right, then, I'll come,' I replied, wearied by reason of his
importunity, and feeling suddenly fired with a desire to see the end
of the adventure.
"He accordingly led the way downstairs, and I followed him, noting
as I went the gold buttons on his coat, also that the hall and
passages were now brilliantly illuminated by glowing candles, and
hung with living green, the crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe and ivy
reflecting back the light. There were several uniformed servants
passing to and fro, and from the dining room, there issued a buzz of
tongues, loud volleys of laughter, many hilarious voices, and a
clatter of knives and forks. I was not left much time for
speculation, as in another second I found myself inside the door, and
my escort announced me in a loud voice as 'Mr. Hollyoak.'
"I could hardly credit my senses, as I looked round and saw about
two dozen people, dressed in a fashion of the 18th century, seated at
the table, set for a sumptuous Christmas dinner, and lighted up by a
blaze of wax candles in massive candelabra.
"A swarthy elderly gentleman, who presided at the head of the
board, rose deliberately as I entered. He was dressed in a crimson
coat, braided with silver. He wore a white wig, had the most piercing
black eyes I ever encountered, made me the finest bow I ever received
in all my life, and with a polite wave of his hand, indicated my
seat-a vacant chair between two powdered and embroided beauties, with
overflowing white shoulders and necks sparkling with diamonds.
"At first I was fully convinced that the whole affair was a
superbly matured practical joke. Everything looked so real, so truly
flesh and blood, so complete in every detail; but I gazed around in
vain for one familiar face.
"I saw young, old, and elderly, handsome and the reverse. On all
faces there was a similar expression--reckless, hardened defiance,
and something else that made me shudder, but that I could not
classify or define.
"Were they a secret community? Burglars or counterfeiters? But no;
in one rapid glance I noticed that they belonged exclusively to the
upper stratum of society-bygone society. The jabber of talking had
momentarily ceased, and the host, imperiously hammering the table
with a knife-handle, said in a singularly harsh grating voice:
"'Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to give you a toast! Our guest!'
looking straight at me with his glittering coal-black eyes.
"Every glass was immediately raised. Twenty faces were turned
towards mine, when, happily, a sudden impulse seized me. I sprang to
my feet and said:
"'Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to thank you for your kind
hospitality, but before I accept it, allow me to say grace!'
"I did not wait for permission, but hurriedly repeated a Latin
benediction. Ere the last syllable was uttered, in an instant there
was a violent crash, an uproar, a sound of running, Of screams,
groans and curses, and then utter darkness.
"I found myself standing alone by a big mahogany table which I
could just dimly discern by the aid of a street-lamp that threw its
meager rays into the great empty dining-room from two deep and narrow
"I must confess that I felt my nerves a little shaken by this
instantaneous change from light to darkness-from a crowd of gay and
noisy companions, to utter solitude and silence. I stood for a moment
trying to recover my mental balance. I rubbed my eyes hard to assure
myself that I was wide, awake, and then I placed this very cigar-case
in the middle of the table, as a sign and token that I had been
downstairs--which cigar-case I found exactly where I left it this
morning-and then went and groped my way into the hall and regained my
"I met with no obstacle en route. I saw no one, but as I closed
and double-locked my door I distinctly heard a low laugh outside the
keyhole-a sort of suppressed, malicious titter, that made me
"I opened the door at once. There was nothing to be seen. I waited
and listened-dead silence. I then undressed and went to bed, resolved
that a whole army of butlers would fail to allure me once more to
that Christmas feast. I was determined not to lose my night's
rest-ghosts or no ghosts.
"Just as I was dozing off I remember hearing the neighboring clock
chime two. It was the last sound I was aware of-, the house was now
as silent as a vault. My fire burnt away cheerfully. I was no longer
in the least degree inclined for reading, and I fell fast asleep and
slept soundly till I heard the cabs and milk-carts beginning their
"I then rose, dressed at my leisure, and found you, my good,
faithful friend, awaiting me, rather anxiously, on the hall-door
"I have not done with that house yet. I'm determined to find out
who these people are, and where they come from. I shall steep there
again tonight, along with my bulldog; and you will see that I shall
have news for you tomorrow morning-if I am still alive to tell the
tale," he added with a laugh.
In vain I would have dissuaded him. I protested, argued, and
implored. I declared that rashness was not courage; that he had seen
enough; that I, who had seen nothing, and only listened to his
experiences, was convinced that number ninety was a house to be
I might just as well have talked to my umbrella! So, once more, I
reluctantly accompanied him to his previous night's lodging. Once
more I saw him swallowed up inside the gloomy, forbidding-looking,
I then went home in an unusually anxious, semi-excited, nervous
state of mind. I lay wide awake, tumbling and tossing hour after
hour, a prey to the most foolish ideas--ideas I would have laughed to
scorn in daylight.
More than once I was certain that I heard John Hollyoak
distractedly calling me; and I sat up in bed and listened intently.
Of course it was fancy, for the instant I did so, there was no
At the first gleam of winter dawn, I rose, dressed, and swallowed
a cup of good strong coffee to clear my brain from the misty notions
it had harboured during the night. And then I invested myself in my
warmest topcoat, and set off for number ninety. Early as it was-it
was but half-past seven-I found the caretaker was before me, pacing
the pavement, his face drawn with a melancholy expression.
I was not disposed to wait for eight o'clock. I was too uneasy,
and too impatient for further particulars of the Christmas
dinner-party. So I rang with all my might, and knocked with all my
No sound within--no answer! But John was always a heavy steeper. I
was resolved to arouse him all the same, and knocked and rang, and
rang and knocked, incessantly for fully ten minutes.
I then stooped down and applied my eye to the keyhole; I looked
steadily into the aperture, till I became accustomed to the darkness,
and then it seemed to me that another eye--a very strange, fiery
eye--was glaring into mine from the other side of the door!
I removed my eye and applied my mouth instead, and shouted with
all the power of my lungs:
"John! John Hollyoak!"
How his name echoed and re-echoed up through that dark and empty
house! 'He must hear that,' I said to myself as I pressed my ear
closely against the lock, and listened with throbbing suspense.
The echo of "Hollyoak" had hardly died away when I swear that
distinctly heard a low, sniggering, mocking laugh-that was my only
answer-that; and a vast unresponsive silence.
I was now quite desperate. I shook the door frantically, with all
my strength. I broke the bell; in short, my behavior was such that it
excited the curiosity of a police officer, who crossed the road to
know, "What was up?"
"I want to get in!" I panted, breathless with my exertions.
"You'd better stay where you are!" said the police officer; "the
outside of this house is the best of it! There are terrible
"But there is a gentleman inside it!" I interrupted impatiently.
"He slept there last night, and I can't wake him. He has the
"Oh, you can't wake him!" returned the police officer gravely.
"Then we must get a locksmith!"
But already the thoughtful caretaker had procured one; and already
considerable and curious crowd surrounded the steps.
After five minutes of maddening delay, the great heavy door was
opened and swung slowly back, and I instantly rushed in, followed
less frantically by the police officer and the caretaker.
I had not far to seek John Hollyoak! He and his dog were lying at
the foot of the stairs, both stone dead!