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The Unbidden Guest by F. B. Forester

 

“No, sir,” the old keeper said reflectively. “I don't know no ghost stories; none as you'd care to hear, that is. But I could tell you of something that happened in these parts once, and it was as strange a thing as any ghost story I ever heard tell on.”

I had spent the morning on the moor, grouse shooting, and mid-day had brought me for an hour's welcome rest to the lonely cottage, where the old superannuated keeper, father to the stalwart velvet-jacketed Hercules who had acted as my guide throughout the forenoon, lived from year's end to year's end with his son and half-a-dozen dogs for company. The level beams of the glowing August sun bathed in a golden glow the miles of purple moorland lying round us; air and scenery were good to breathe and to look on; and now, as the three of us sat on a turf seat outside the cottage door enjoying the soft sleepy inaction of the afternoon, a question of mine concerning the folk-lore of the district, after which, hardened materialist though I called myself, I was conscious of a secret hankering, had drawn the foregoing remark from the patriarchal lips.

“Let's hear it, by all means,” said I, lighting my pipe and settling myself preparatory to listening. A slight grunt, resembling a stifled laugh, came from Ben the keeper.

“You'll have to mind, sir,” he put in, a twinkle in his eye. “Dad believes what he's agoing to tell you, every word of it. It's gospel truth to him.”

“Ay, that I do,” responded the old man warmly. “And why shouldn't I? Didn't I see it with my own eyes? And seein's believin', ain't it?”

“You arouse my curiosity,” I said. “Let us have the story by all means, and if it is a personal experience, so much the better.”

“Well, sir,” began the old man, evidently gratified by these signs of interest, and casting a triumphant glance at his son, “what I've got to tell you don't belong to this time of day, of course. When I says I was a little chap of six years old or thereabouts, and that I'll be eighty-five come Michaelmas, you'll understand that it must have been a tidy sight of years ago.

“Father, he was keeper on these moors here, same as his son's been after him, and as his son”—with a glance of fatherly pride at the stalwart young fellow beside him—“is now, and will be for many years to come, please God. Him and mother and me, the three of us, lived together in just such another cottage as this one, across t'other side of the moor, out Farnington way. The railway runs past there now, over the very place the cottage stood on, I believe; but no one so much as dreamt o' railways, time I talk on. Not a road was near, and all around there was nothin' but the moors stretching away for miles, all purple ling and heather, with not a living soul nearer than Wharton, and that was a good twelve miles away. It was pretty lonely for mother, o' course, during the day; but she was a brave woman, and when dad come home at night, never a word would she let on to tell him how right down scared she got at times and how mortally sick she felt of hearing the sound of her own voice.

“'Been pretty quiet for you, Polly?' dad would say at night sometimes, when the three of us would be sitting round the fire, with the flame dancing and shining on the wall and making black shadows in all the corners.

“'Ye-es, so, so,' mother would answer, kind of grudging like, and then she'd start telling him what she'd been about all day, or something as I'd said or done, so as to turn his attention, you see, sir. And as a woman can gen'rally lead a man off on whatever trail she likes to get his nose on dad would never think no more about it; and as for mother and me being that lonely, when he and the dogs were all away, why, I don't suppose the thought of it ever entered his head. So, what with her never complaining, and that, dad grew easier in his mind, and once or twice, when he'd be away at the Castle late in the afternoon, he'd even stay there overnight.

“Well, sir, one day when dad comes home to get his dinner he tells mother as how there's a lot of gentlemen come down from London for the shooting, and as he'd got orders to be on hand bright and early next morning,—the meaning of that being that he'd have to spend the night at the Castle. Mother didn't say much; 'twasn't her way to carry on when she knew a thing couldn't be helped, and dad went on talking.

“'To-morrow's quarter-day, Polly, and you've got our rent all right for the agent when he comes. Put this along wi' it, lass, it's Tom Regan's, and he's asked me to hand it over for him and save the miles of walking.'

“I don't know what come to mother, whether something warned her, or what, but she give a sort of jump as dad spoke.

“'Oh, Jim,' says she, all in a twitter, 'you're never going to leave all that money here, and you away, and the child and me all alone. Can't you—can't you leave one of the dogs?'

“Dad stared at her. 'No,' he says, 'I can't, more's the pity. They're all wanted to-morrow, and I've sent them on to the Castle. Why, Polly, lass, what's come to you? I've never known you take on like this before.'

“Then mother, seeing how troubled and uneasy he looked, plucked up heart and told him, trying to laugh, never to mind her—she had only been feeling a bit low, and it made her timid like. But dad didn't laugh in answer, only said very grave that if he'd ha' known she felt that way, he'd have took good care she wasn't ever left alone overnight. This should be the last time, he'd see to that, and anyhow he'd take the rent money with him and wouldn't leave it to trouble her. Then he kissed her, and kissed me, and went off, striding away over the moors towards Farnington—the sunset way I called it, 'cause the sun set over there; and I can see him big and tall like Ben here, moving away among the heather till we lost him at the dip of the moor. And I mind how, just before we saw no more of him, he pulled up and looked back, as if mother's words stuck to him, somehow, and he couldn't get them out of his mind.

“Mother seemed queer and anxious all that afternoon. Long before dusk she called me in from playing in the bit of garden in front of the door, and shut and barred it closely, not so much as letting me stand outside to watch the sunset, as I always liked to do. It was getting dark already, the shadows had begun to fall black and gloomy all round the cottage, and the fire was sending queer dancing gleams flickering up the wall, when I hears a queer, scratching, whining noise at the door.

“Mother was putting out the tea-cups, and she didn't hear it at first. But I, sitting in front of the fire, heard it well enough, and I tumbled off my stool and ran to the door to get it open, for I thought I knew what it was. But mother had pulled the bar across at the top and I couldn't stir it.

“'There's something at the door that wants to come in,' I says, pulling at it.

“'There ain't nothing of the sort,' says mother shortly, and goes on putting out the tea. 'Let the door alone.'

“'Yes, there is,' I says. 'It's a dog. It's Nip, or Juno,' meaning the brace of pointers that dad had usually in the kennels outside.

“Then mother, thinking that perhaps dad had found that one of the dogs could be spared after all, and had told it to go home, went to the door and opened it. I had been right and wrong too, for on the doorstep there was a large black dog.

“My word! but he was a beautiful creature, sir, the finest dog I ever set eyes on. Like a setter in the make of him, but no setter that ever I saw could match him for size or looks. His coat was jet-black, as glossy as the skin of a thoroughbred, with just one streak of white showing down the breast, and his eyes—well, they were the very humanest, sir, that ever I see looking out of a dog's face.

“Now mother, although she had expected to find a dog outside, hadn't dreamt of anything except one of ourn, and she made like to shut the door on him. But the creature was too quick for her. He had pushed his head through before she knew it, and she scarcely saw how, or even felt the door press against her when he had slipped past and was in the room.

“Mother was used to dogs, and hadn't no fear of them, but she didn't altogether like strange ones, you see, sir, me being such a child and all; and her first thought was to put the creature out. So she pulled the door wide open and pointed to it, stamping her foot and saying, 'Be off! Go-home.'

“It was all very well to say that, but the dog wouldn't go. Not a step would he budge, but only stood there, wagging his tail and looking at her with them beautiful eyes of his, as were the biggest and beautifullest and softest I ever see in dog before or since. She took up a stick then, but his eyes were that imploring that she hadn't the heart to use it; and at last, for the odd kind of uneasiness that had hung about her ever since dad had gone was on her still, and the dog was a dog and meant protection whatever else it might be, she shut the door, barred it across, and said to me that we would let it stop.

“I was delighted, of course, and wanted to make friends at once; but the queer thing was that the dog wouldn't let me touch him. He ran round under the table and lay down in a corner of the room, looking at me with his big soft eyes and wagging his tail, but never coming no nearer. Mother put down some water, and he lapped a little, but he only sniffed at a bone she threw him and didn't touch it.

“It was quite dark by this time, and mother lit a candle and set it on the table to see to have tea by. Afterwards she took her knitting and sat down by the fire, and I leaned against her, nodding and half asleep. The dog lay in the corner farthest from us, between the fireplace and the wall; and I'd forgotten altogether about him, when mother looks up sudden. 'Bless me,' says she, 'how bright the fire do catch the wall to-night. I haven't dropped a spark over there, surely!' And up she gets and crosses over to t'other side to where the firelight was dancing and flickering on the cottage wall.

“Now, sir, whether it was no more than just the light catching them, mind you, I can't say. I only know that as mother come to the corner where that dog was a-lying, and he lifted his head and looked at her, his eyes were a-shining with a queer lamping sort of light, that seemed to make the place bright all round him. But it wasn't till afterwards that she thought of it, for at that moment there came a sudden sharp knock at the door.

“My eye! how mother jumped; and I see her face turn white. For in that lonely out-of-the-way place we never looked for visitors after dark, nor in the day time, many of 'em; and the sound of this knock now give her quite a turn. Presently there come a faint voice from outside, asking for a crust of bread.

“Mother didn't stir for a moment, for the notion of unbarring the door went against her. The knock come a second time.

“'For pity's sake—for the sake of the child,' the voice said again, pleading like.

“Now, mother was terrible soft-hearted, sir, wherever children were concerned, and the mention of a child went straight home to her heart. I see her glance at me, and I knowed the thought passing through her mind, as after a moment's pause she got up, stepped across the room and unbarred the door. On the step outside stood a woman with a baby in her arms.

“Her voice had sounded faint-like, but there was nothing in the fainting line about her when she had got inside, for she come inside quick enough the moment mother had unbarred the door. She looked like a gipsy, for her face was dark and swarthy, and the shawl round her head hid a'most all but the wild gleam of her eyes; and all the time she kep' on rock, rocking that child in her arms until I reckon she must have rocked all the crying out of it, for never a word come from its lips. She sat down where mother pointed, and took the food she was given, but she offered nothing to the child. It was asleep, she said, when mother wanted to look at it.

“Yes, she was a gipsy, and on the tramp across the moor she had missed her way in the fog; for there was a heavy fog coming up. 'How far was it to Farnington? Twelve miles? She'd be thankful to sit and rest by the fire a bit, then, if mother would let her.' And without waiting for yes or no, she turned round and put the child out of her arms down on the settle at her back. Then she swung round again and sat staring with her black eyes at the fire. I was sat on my stool opposite, and, child-like, I never so much as took my eyes off her, wondering at her gaunt make, the big feet in the clumsy men's boots that showed beneath her skirts, and the lean powerful hands lying in her lap. Seems she didn't altogether like me watching her, for after a bit she turns on me and asks:

“'What are you staring at, you brat?'

“'Nothin',' says I.

“'Then if you wants to look at nothin',' says she with a short laugh, 'you can go and stare at the kiddy there, not at me.' And she jerked her head towards the settle, where the baby was a-lying.

“'Ah, poor little thing,' says mother, getting up, 'it don't seem natural for it to lie there that quiet. I'll bring it to the fire and warm it a drop o' milk.'

“She bent down over the baby and was just about to take it in her arms, when she give a scream that startled me off my stool, and stood up, her face as white as death. For it was nothing but a shawl or two rolled round something stiff and heavy as was lying on the settle, and no child at all.

“I was a-looking at mother, and I had no eyes for the woman until I see mother's face change and an awful look of fear come over it. And when I turned to see what she was staring at with them wild eyes, the woman had flung off her shawl and the wrap she wore round her head, and was stood up with a horrid, mocking smile on his face. For it was no woman, sir, as you'll have guessed, but a man.

“'Well, mistress,' he says, coming forward a pace or two, 'I didn't mean to let the cat out of the bag so soon; but what's done's done. There's a little trifle of rent-money put by for the agent, as I've taken a fancy to; and that's what's brought me here. If you hand it over quietly, so much the better for you; if not.... I'm not one to stick at trifles; I've come for that money, and have it I will.'

“'I have not got it,' mother said, plucking up what heart she could, and speaking through her white and trembling lips.

“'That don't go down with me,' said the fellow with an oath. 'I didn't sleep under the lee of Tom Regan's hayrick for nothin' last night, and I heard every word that was spoken between him and your Jim. You'd better tell me where you've got it stowed, or you'll be sorry for it. You're a woman, mind you, and alone.'

“Mother's lips went whiter than ever, but she said never a word. I had begun to cry.

“'Hold your row, you snivelling brat,' the fellow said with a curse. 'Come, mistress, you'd best not try my patience too long.'

“Now, mother was a brave woman, as I've said, and I don't believe, if the money had been left in her charge, as she'd have given it up tamely and without so much as a word. But of course, as things were, she could do no more than say, over and over again, as she hadn't got it. Then the brute began to threaten her, with threats that made her blood run cold; for she was only a woman, sir, and alone, except for me, a child as could do nothing in the way of help. With a last horrid threat on his lips the fellow turned towards the settle—there was a pistol hid in the clothes of the sham baby we found out afterwards—when he was stopped by something as come soft and noiseless out of the corner beyond and got right in his way. I see what it was after a minute. Between him and the settle where the pistol was lying there was standing that dog.

“The creature had showed neither sight nor sound of itself since the woman had come in, and we'd forgotten about it altogether, mother and me. There it stood now, though, still as a stone, but all on the watch, the lips drawn back from the sharp white teeth, and its eyes fixed, with a savage gleam in them, on the fellow's face. I was nothing but a child, and no thought of anything beyond had come to me then; but I tell you, sir, child as I was, I couldn't help feeling that the grin on the creature's face had something more than dog-like in it; and for nights to come I couldn't get the thought of it out of my head.

“Our visitor looked a bit took aback when he saw the creature, for most of his sort are terrible feared of a dog. But 'twas only for a moment, and then he laughed right out.

“'He's an ugly customer, but he won't help you much, mistress,' he said with a sneer. 'I've something here as'll settle him fast enough.' With that he stretched out his hand towards the bundle on the settle.

“The hand never reached it, sir. You know the choking, worrying snarl a dog gives before he springs to grip his enemy by the throat, the growl that means a movement—and death! That sound stopped the scoundrel, and kept him, unable to stir hand or foot, with the dog in front of him, never moving, never uttering a sound beyond that low threatening growl, but watching, only watching. He might have been armed with a dozen weapons, and it would have been all the same. Those sharp, bared fangs would have met in his throat before he could have gripped the pistol within a foot of his hand; and he knew it, and the knowledge kept him there still as a stone, with the dog never taking its watching, burning eyes from his face.

“'I'm done,' he owned at last, when minutes that seemed like hours had gone by. 'I'm done this time, mistress, thanks to the dog-fiend you've got here. I tell you I'd not have stopped at murder when I come in; but that kid of yours could best me now. Make the devil brute take his eyes off me, and let me go.'

“All trembling like a leaf, mother got to the door and drew back the bar. The fellow crossed the kitchen and slunk out, and the dog went with him. It followed him with its nose close at his knee as he crossed the threshold, and the two of them went like that, out into the fog and over the lonely moorland into the night. We never saw nor heard of the dog again.

“There were gipsies in the neighbourhood, crossing the moor out Wharton way, and when the story got about folk told us as 'twas known they had some strange-looking dogs with them, and said that this one must have belonged to the lot. But mother, she never believed in nothin' of the sort, and to the day of her death she would have it as the creature had been sent to guard her and me from the danger that was to come to us that night. She held that it was something more than a dog, sir; and you see there was one thing about it uncommon strange. When dad come back that next morning, our two pointers, Nip and Juno, followed him into the cottage. But the moment they got inside a sort of turn came over them, and they rushed out all queer and scared; while as for the water mother had set down for the black dog to drink, there was no getting them to put their lips to it. Not thirsty, sir? Well, sir, seeing as there warn't no water within six mile or so, and they'd come ten miles that morning over the moor, you'll excuse me saying you don't know much about dogs if you reckon they warn't thirsty!

“Coincidence you say, sir? Well, I dunno the meaning of that—maybe it's a word you gentles gives to the things you can't explain. But I've told you the story just as it happened, and I'd swear it's true, anyhow. If a gentleman like you can't see daylight in it, t'ain't for the likes of me to try; but I sticks to it that, say what folks will, the thing was uncommon strange.... Not tried the west side, haven't you, sir? Bless your heart, Ben, what be you a-thinking of? The birds are as thick as blackberries down by the Grey Rock and Deadman's Hollow.”

“That's a gruesome name,” I said, rising and lifting my gun, while Ben coupled up the brace of dogs. I noticed a glance exchanged between father and son as the younger man lifted his head.

“Yes, sir,” responded the former quietly; “the morning after that night I've been telling you of, the body of a man was found down there, and that's how the hollow got its name. Mother, she knew him again the moment she set eyes on the dead face, for all he'd got quit of the woman's clothes; and there warn't no mark nor wound on him, to show how he'd come by his death. Oh, yes, sir; I ain't saying as the fog warn't thick that night, nor as how it wouldn't have been easy enough for him to ha' missed his footing in the dark; though to be sure there were folks as would have it 'twarn't that as killed him.... Good-day to you, sir, and thank you kindly. Ben here'll see to your having good sport.”

       * * * * *

It was vexing to find so much gross superstition still extant in this last decade of the nineteenth century, certainly. Yet for all that, and though the notion of a spook dog was something too much for the materialistic mind to swallow, there is no use denying that, as I stood an hour later in Deadman's Hollow, with the recollection of the weird story I had just heard fresh in my memory, I was conscious of a cold shiver, which all the strength of the August sunshine, bathing the moorland in a glow of gold, was quite unable to lessen or to drive away.

 
 
 

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